Last fall, my husband and I packed up all the moving parts of our 15-year life in Chicago and uprooted in southern New Mexico. A panic attack, two broken lamps, three Airbnbs and a pair of glasses never found later, we moved to a ranch on a shrubby desert hill.
Moving is a disorienting business; we are, after all, creatures of habit. So I was completely unsurprised that I craved my creature food, pasta, above all else as I worriedly navigated my new surroundings in an eternally dusty green van.
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Whether you’ve been to New Mexico or not, you probably know it’s home to the most delicious chili peppers you’ll find anywhere – due to the hot, dry days; cool nights; and iron-rich red earth. The state’s most famous green chiles come from Hatch, a tiny farming community in a fertile valley bordering the Rio Grande, just 40 miles from my home. Every Labor Day weekend, the air is filled with the smoky, pungent aroma of roasted peppers as approximately 110 tons of peppers from Hatch are clammed into place in big hissing drums at the Hatch Chile Festival.
Hatch Chilli Burger (Maggie Hennessy)
Bloom-grown green chili peppers are special; sweet, tangy and a bit salty with a fresh, grassy flavor and a sly heat. And they’re positively ubiquitous on menus in my new home state: rolled up in enchiladas with pulled chicken and wrapped in tamales with cheese. Incorporated in hominy polka dot posole and heirloom pinto beans. Stacked on New Mexican beef burgers with melted cheese. Mixed into lemonade and even milkshakes, or powdered to sprinkle on popcorn. This single ingredient and the representative local dishes it infuses seem to sum up this place – its complicated history; sustainable pre-colonial ingredients; and rugged, beautiful landscapes under vast cerulean skies – like wine to the terroir.
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Naturally, I figured the best way to start my studies when I arrived was to buy one of the 10-pound bags of frozen roasted Hatch peppers sold at all the local markets in town. Homesickness gnawed at me as I stared at the terrific bag of oranges and green peppers thawing in my fridge, so I let my mind retreat into the cocoon of what you might call my “home” cooking. “.
My basic recipe is the simplest basic pasta sauce, for which I always have the ingredients on hand. You could even call it an extension of the self I’ve cultivated over nearly 40 years – which grew professionally and personally as a food writer and for whom cooking is a grounded, self-fulfilling practice. Fry an anchovy or two in a generous drizzle of olive oil, add minced garlic, lemon zest and juice, and black pepper or red pepper flakes. From there, go wherever you please: through dark green ribbons and fried breadcrumbs, cherry tomatoes and a few pats of butter, canned fish and a shower of fresh dill, ground lamb and wine. dry red.
Mesilla (Maggie Hennessy)
The thing is, I’m safe here; I know my way. So I let the peppers lead.
The peppers are bright and a bit pungent; add more lemon juice. There’s also a savory depth to the roast; enhance the umami with a parmesan crust. They are earthy, grassy even. What makes me think of grass? Sheep! Sheep live here too. Let’s finish with salty and funky pecorino.
When all is said and done, I sit down at the first thing I made that belongs to me and honors where I now live. Suddenly, everything seems a little more within reach. I can do it. One day—one meal—at a time.
This kind of non-recipe is meant to be prepared in the time it takes for a pot of salted water to come to a boil and cook half a pound of spaghetti or bucatini.
If you can’t find green Hatch peppers, I suggest you substitute two anaheims or one cubanelle pepper. Roast them directly on the gas burner (or under the broiler if your stove is electric), turning them often, until black on all sides. Zip them in a bag for 15 or 20 minutes, then peel off most of the skin with a cloth or paper towel, seed them, and dice them.
Recipe: Roasted Hatch Chili, Garlic and Lemon Pasta
2-3 large garlic cloves
Olive oil (be generous now)
1/4 cup (approx.) diced roasted sweet Hatch peppers (less than 2 anaheims or 1 cubanelle, blistered, peeled, seeded and diced)
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 parmesan crust
1/2 can spaghetti or bucatini (some might say this feeds two; I say different)
A mound of freshly grated pecorino
- While bringing a pot of generously salted water to a boil, finely chop the garlic; Zest the whole lemon and cut it in half.
- Heat a skillet over medium heat and pour a generous amount of olive oil. (Don’t stop until you hear the bottle make a clucking sound at least three times, please.)
- Add the anchovy, minced garlic, lemon zest, a pinch of salt and a few peppercorns. Cook for 30 seconds, then add the peppers, half the lemon juice, a little water from your drinking glass and the parmesan zest. Bring to a bubbling, then lower the heat to medium and allow the flavors to meld as the pasta cooks. (Is it now? It should be.) This is also when I like to place my bowl of pasta on the back burner of the stove – behind the pot of pasta, off fire – and turn it on every few minutes the whole time I’m cooking.
- Use a measuring cup to scoop about ⅔ cup of the starchy, salty liquid from the pasta jar. When the pasta is just al dente, add it directly to the pan and remove the parmesan crust. Squeeze the juice from the other half of the lemon and add another drizzle of olive oil, tossing with tongs to combine everything. Taste and adjust once here. Sprinkle with pasta water if necessary.
- Kill the heat, add most of the pecorino, saving a small heap to dazzle the bowl. Serve a large heap in the warmed bowl, garnish with a few peppercorns, another drizzle of shiny oil and a sprinkle of pecorino snow.
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