Thursday, January 31, 2013

In Which I Create Green Chile Sauce

Normally I'm going to write about writing, probably, but I love food. So sometimes I will write about food. Today, I decided to try my hand at making green chile sauce — a project I thought I'd share with the world, since it's a little unusual.

First, for non New Mexicans: Green chile sauce is to green chile what pasta sauce is to tomatoes: it's a culinary creation, not a raw ingredient saucified. Why green chile? Because I am a New Mexican. Green chile is a pretty big deal here in our state, sort of what cheese is to Wisconsin. Most everything you order at a New Mexican restaurant (not to be confused with a Mexican restaurant), from huevos rancheros to chile rellenos to enchiladas, is slathered in a thick, savory, garlicky green chile sauce. Unless you order red. Which would make you evil and wrong, because red chile sauce tastes like dirt.

Our family eats a lot of green chile, typically in sauce form. I add it to almost everything, from soups to stews to casseroles. Lately I've been making a giant breakfast casserole on Sundays that we eat weekday mornings. (Sausage, black beans, green chile sauce, and cheese.) And I was buying the sauce. We have quite a variety of options, even in our most basic grocery stores, but here's a good one:

As good as El Pinto's sauce is, however, we were going through four jars a week at like $5 a jar, and it suddenly occurred to me: I am a pretty good cook. Why am I buying something I could make? I looked at the El Pinto label: pretty much tomatoes, onions, garlic, and green chile. I didn't look up a recipe, I just went with that, and decided I'd fiddle with it till I had it right.

Frozen is nice if you can find it; canned works OK, too
It turns out you need roughly equal portions of green chiles and tomatoes. The acid of the tomatoes adds a necessary flavor dimension to the green chile. Second, you can't overdo the garlic. Well, I can't overdo it, anyway. (No vampires at our house.) I used one onion, an entire head of garlic, a 14-oz can of diced, fire-roasted tomatoes, and 16 oz frozen green chile (half that bag). I added Mexican oregano, garlic powder, and crushed red pepper to taste. No salt; it doesn't need it.

Some people are no doubt scoffing at the "mild." I like hot foods, but green chile actually has a lovely flavor that's lost when it's too hot. So for the sauce (which is about flavor, not merely heat), I deliberately selected a mild variety.

I sauteed the onions and garlic until they were fragrant, added the tomatoes, added the green chile, and let it sozzle. It's been sitting there for about a half-hour and it tastes great already, but it's going to need a bit more time to break down. I've been adding chicken broth to make up for the evaporation from cooking: vegetarians can use veg broth or water.

Mine's on the left, El Pinto's is on the right

The taste test: you can see that my 50-50 sauce is green chillier than El Pinto's. So El Pinto's "green chile sauce" must be more like "tomato sauce with some green chile."(Indeed, tomatoes are the first ingredient on their label.) I prefer the tangy flavor of the 50-50 version. My intention was really to recreate El Pinto's, because I like theirs, but in the end, I truly do prefer my version.

A more serious test: I asked my kids to do a blind taste test. My son liked my version better, hands-down. My daughter looked skeptical, because "green chile is not my favorite thing." But she was game. Result: she also preferred my version. Also, she actually ate the entire bowl. Of sauce! Just gobbled it up with a spoon, by itself. She made several appreciative noises and then said, "That was surprisingly yummy."

Success. :)


  1. I had no idea you had such a strong aversion to red. :)

    1. Evil. EEEvil. Though not as evil as cumin, the spice of the devil. (DevEEEL.)

      So it's obviously subjective, but: red chile sauce is made from a powder, and green chile sauce from the fresh (or frozen) fruit. A sauce from a powder is likely to be dense and ooblecky. Fruits that go from green to red get sweeter. There's some combination of texture and sweet in red that really turns me off. Uneappeals.

    2. I mean, *Unappeals. It's not a word, and yet I must spell it correctly. And Google will not let you edit comments. Grrrr.

    3. Sooooo, when do I get to come over for lunch? :) :)

    4. We must make a date! I'll text you. Or google-invite you. :)

  2. Also, I read your response to my question about who's posting next to the Sisterhood blog and I wanted to let you know that I read over what I had written during the week on Friday. I was alarmed by what I can only call the mediocrity of my dialogue. It seems I *still* have to winnow out '80s sitcom rhythms from the initial rush of scene-building. What was alarming was that I had been working with manuscripts that had already seen so many revisions for so long, like MT, that doing something completely new, I thought it would be somehow better at first effort. Wrong. Some of it was so bad, I knew immediately it was unusable and took a machete to it. Some of it held promise. Some of it I felt needed to stay because it was going to help me later, though it might not make the final edit.

    Anyway, I ramble on like this to communicate two things: a first draft should be created in a protected space because a) it's fragile and b) so are our egos. And I don't mean egos as in overblown conceptions of ourselves. I mean the naked ego, the part that needs some bolstering to be able to keep going. The part that sometimes needs shelter without apology.

    1. I have a hard time believing your dialogue was mediocre, as you are exceptionally good at that. But it's kind of heartening to hear someone else say they notice first efforts can look dismayingly amateur: sometimes when I reread a recent first draft, I feel like I'm looking at something I wrote in high school, and I think, argh! Have I learned nothing?

      I agree so much about that protected space and egos. In fact, I kept reading your word "ego" as "egg," I think because of its proximity to "fragile." Egos and eggs. Hrmm.

  3. I was excited to see this article in the Huffington Post:

    "You probably already know how much we love green chile. We've already gone on our chile vs. chili rant, as well as reminding everyone that just because a chile is green, that does not automatically make it a green chile (get away from us, poblanos!). New Mexicans mean serious business when it comes to these spicy pods, and it's not just local pride -- New Mexicans are crazy about green chile because green chile is crazy delicious."


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