SANTA FE, N.M. - The fragrance of roasting peppers was as effective as a trail of bread crumbs as I looked for the farmers market on Guadalupe Street. The closer I got to the railroad station, where the vendor stalls began, the more pungent the peppers' aroma.
By the time I reached Reynaldo Romero and his wire roaster on the outskirts of the plaza, the chile oils in the air were making me cough and my eyes burn.
Romero seemed unaffected by the volatile oils or intense heat. His safari hat and long sleeves protected him from the sun and roaster as he quietly and constantly turned the wheel to rotate the chiles. Each batch took about five minutes to blister, at which time the chile skins could be easily removed and the peppers were ready to eat, freeze or cook.
It's chile harvest season in New Mexico, a glorious time when 40-pound burlap bags of chiles are sold in markets and from the backs of trucks. Some chiles are hung and dried in the colorful strings of peppers called ristras. But many are sold in quantities to be roasted en masse.
My cabdriver pointed out the bags of chiles for sale in vacant corners of parking lots as we zipped through the city. It was a good year for chiles, and he and his wife expected to spend a weekend roasting and canning peppers to carry them through a year's worth of recipes -- an annual fall event in kitchens throughout the region.
Not surprising in a state where a U.S. senator entered the official spelling of "chile" -- not chili or chilie -- into the Congressional Record. Or where state legislators voted on an official "question" as a symbol.
"Red or green?" is asked at any New Mexican restaurant, signifying "red or green sauce." For those who can't make up their minds -- or who simply like the taste of both -- there's another possibility: "Christmas," meaning both red and green sauces.
The New Mexican chiles -- green in the summer and red in the fall as they ripen -- offer two very different choices, depending on their color, the green being more, well "green" and vegetative in flavor, and the red a much deeper, darker and more complex taste.
Green chiles are standard fare in New Mexico, added to everything from tuna to pizza, says Cheryl Alters Jamison. She and her husband, Bill, are prolific cookbook authors who live in the area. The red, most often used dried, is either ground or cooked whole in sauces.
The chiles grow well in the bright sun, low humidity and high altitude of New Mexico (Santa Fe's elevation is 7,000 feet), with specific varieties grown in different regions -- think wine and terroir. Chiles are no different, with the Hatch chile coming from Hatch, N.M., and the Chimayo from the region of the same name. Outside New Mexico, the green chiles are often called Anaheim.
Their skins are tough because of the weather, which is why they are roasted first to make the skins slip off easily.
To do this at home, put the peppers in a single layer under a broiler and, turning them occasionally, let the skins blister and blacken, which will take about five minutes. Remove the peppers from the oven and put them on a clean towel and fold over the top (or put in a paper bag and close it); let the peppers rest for a few minutes. The skins then can be pulled off with your fingers with or without running water (don't worry about removing all of the black bits). If they are to be frozen, the skins can be left on and removed when defrosted.
Both red and green chiles are used extensively at Rancho de Chimayo, a 45-year-old restaurant nestled in the rural hills 30 miles outside of Santa Fe. The restaurant was one of the first to offer a menu that reflected the way New Mexicans ate at home -- a novelty at the time -- with its mix of chiles, posole and beans in a variety of dishes. The recipes can be found in "The Rancho de Chimayo Cookbook," by the Jamisons.
If you pay attention to terroir -- and Anaheim simply won't do -- you can order the real pepper fresh (in season), frozen, dried or ground from the Santa Fe School of Cooking, 116 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe, NM 87501, 1-505-983-4511, santafeschoolofcooking.com.
As for me, I plan to cook my way through "The Rancho de Chimayo Cookbook," one chile pepper at a time.
Lee Svitak Dean • 612-673-1749