There are few things that get foodies in my hometown of Seattle as riled up as the yearly arrival of the first Copper River salmon from Alaska. It's big news when, sometime in May, Alaska Airlines' Salmon-Thirty-Salmon touches down at Sea-Tac Airport loaded with 18,000 pounds of the rich, red-fleshed fish that signifies the arrival of spring.
It's with the same joy that people here in New Mexico react to the arrival of the season's first appearance of Hatch chile. We still have a few months to go until that time rolls around again, but locals are already romanticizing that day when the air fills with the sweet smoke of roasting green. Being that the weather has been a little unpredictable lately, I got to thinking about how that chile is faring down south. Are there golf balls of ice falling from the skies there as well? If so, are the plants faring better than my own sad, formerly leafed greenery?
I reached out to a handful of growers in Hatch, as well as to the New Mexico Chile Association, to see if I could get a little hint of how the 2019 Hatch chile crop is shaping up, and here's what I found out: Nothing.
My hope is that the chile farmers of Hatch are just too dang busy nursing a bumper crop to return phone calls. I mean, who wants to waste time talking about growing chile when you've got chile to grow? Totally understandable. Let's hope this is the case and run with the following assumptions, then:
This year is looking good for chile (please don't let me be wrong) and everyone else is as excited for chile time as we are.
My, and your, enthusiasm for chile made we wonder about the excitement for the crop outside of our beautiful state, though. Do people in other regions feel the need for fresh-roasted chile the way we do in the Southwest? I reached out to someone in the know, and here's what I found out: They do!
For Nate Cotanch, a Southern Colorado native whose mom hails from a large family (17 kids!) in Española, chile means happy childhood memories.
"I grew up having Hatch chile on everything, and every harvest time we'd spend the weekend roasting our whole year's batch, splitting it up so each person had a dedicated chile stash until next year's harvest," Cotanch recalls. "When our family moved east when I was in high school, it really hit us hard to realize that there was no green chile. People didn't know what it was, it was so region-specific."
Years later, after college and a stint in the New York City finance world, Cotanch found that chile was still very much on his mind.
"Family members would ship it out to us," he says with a laugh, "frozen on dry ice—no matter the cost—just for four little freezer bags."
Working with a friend who had a successful food stand at Brooklyn's
Smorgasburg market, the largest weekly open-air food market in America, Contanch thought, why not roast some chile?
"The idea almost immediately came to me," he explains. "Hatch chile couldn't be found anywhere in NYC, so I decided to get some and share this wonderful thing I grew up with."
On a really good day, Smorgasburg can attract 30,000 to 40,000 people, and it was a really good day when Cotanch first fired up his roaster. People followed their noses and, before he knew it, he had a long line of very excited Southwestern expats.
"About two years later, in 2014, I launched Zia Green Chile Company at that market, cooking New Mexican dishes with chile on the side, and right away got written up in the New York press," Cotanch tells SFR. "From that point on, there were people from New Mexico and the Southwest, or cult followers of Hatch chile, bombarding us at the stand. Everyone was so excited to be able to taste authentic flavors of home again."
Zia Green Chile Company now provides both fresh and roasted pre-packed Hatch chile to chefs and retailers across the US.
"During harvest we roast chile all over the nation. It's the best smell in the world; even if you don't know what's going on you can't help but be mesmerized by it, and we've converted a ton of New Yorkers and East coasters that way," says Cotanch. "People are already asking when this year's first roast is going to be and trying to ration what they still have from last year."
Cotanch now travels the US, he says, "spreading the good word of Hatch chile."
"It's so cool to see how many chefs [like famous Charleston, South Carolina, pitmaster John Lewis and Portland, Oregon's James Beard-nominated chef Jenn Louis] utilize it in unique ways," he says. "It's such a special crop, and more people are learning about and getting excited about it. This is a time in the food world where people are genuinely excited to try ingredients with really special stories behind them that are also super delicious."