Chiles con Queso

By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by John Pozdro

Growing up in the West Texas town of El Paso, I’d never heard of chicken-fried steak smothered in gravy, or eaten plump Gulf shrimp or lip-smackin’ pit barbecue doused in a tangy sauce. But I’ll bet my boots that many other Texans have never tasted chiles rellenos (stuffed green chiles) like the ones we devoured in the fall when the long, bright green chiles (commonly known around here as Hatch chiles, or also as Anaheim or California chiles) came fresh from the fields of the neighboring New Mexico valleys.



These chiles rellenos puff up like golden clouds when dipped in a delicate egg and flour batter and quickly fried, and seem to bailar en el sarten (dance in the pan), as our family cook, Hermila Contreras, used to say. First though, the chiles must be flame roasted to remove their tough outer skin—adding a pleasing charred flavor. Then they’re stuffed with creamy Mexican white Chihuahua or asadero cheese, though sometimes Hermila used the more accessible Longhorn Colby cheese. Upon the first bite of the chile relleno, the melted cheese revealed the unmistakably earthy, vegetal and piquant flavor of roasted chiles. We never could eat just one!

My brother, Stuart Hutson, a Mesilla, New Mexico, chile farmer, has a version that’s easier to make and healthier to eat. He calls them rellenos flojos (lazy man’s rellenos)—no batter, no frying, no fuss! He makes a slit in the roasted chiles (stem left intact) and stuffs them with grated cheese and chopped green onions (a pinch of salt and minced garlic, optional) and puts them under the broiler or on a hot comal for just a few minutes—just until the cheese melts. Enfolded in a warm corn or flour tortilla, they make simple and scrumptious party fare. For added flair, add a spoonful of refried beans (or any of the optional additions from the queso recipe included here) before adding the cheese.

Another favorite dish in our El Paso household was chile con queso, thickened more with rajas (strips of roasted green chiles) and sautéed onions than with cheese—a far cry from the soupy, orange Velveeta versions. We’d scoop it up with homemade corn tostada chips, mound it on grilled steaks, burgers or sautéed squash or stuff it into baked potatoes.

A Note About New Mexico Chiles

 “Hatch chile” is not actually a variety of pepper (Hatch is a chile-producing town), but rather a term used to describe chiles of several different varieties grown in the southern valleys of New Mexico. Actual variety names can include Big Jim (large, meaty and great for rellenos), 6-4, Joe E. Parker, Sandia, Barker and others, many of which were developed at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces near my brother’s chile farm in Mesilla.

Chile pepper varieties are grown in Texas and Mexico, too, and I have even heard they are now grown in the South in fields that once bore tobacco plants. However, I understand it’s that glorious diurnal temperature swing—hot days and cooler nights—that gives New Mexico chiles their flavor and mystique.

Hatch chiles descend into Austin on the roadside, at farmers markets and at supermarkets, and Central Market hosts an annual Hatch Chile Festival in late August where customers can stock up on roasted chiles. Or roast them at home and freeze them in their charred skins in airtight freezer bags. Simply thaw and slip off the skins, to use in queso recipes, green enchilada sauces, salsas verdes, chiles rellenos or as flavorful rajas to flavor or accompany many dishes.

As fall settles in New Mexico, those fortunate enough to travel there will see that the green chiles have ripened to red on the vine, and are now known as chiles colorados (red chiles). The air is filled with their unmistakable (and sometimes eye-burning!) pungency—the reminder of another harvest fulfilled. Locals pick them and string them into long, heavy strands called ristras to toast in the sun. They’re used decoratively—hanging in doorways to welcome guests—but the red chiles are also preserved as they dry. The dried chiles can then be rehydrated and pureed into rich, red salsa colorada (for making red enchiladas), carne adobada, pozole and other stews.

 

Hermila’s Chile Con Queso del Paso Norte
Serves approximately 10 and can be halved

3 T. butter
1 T. vegetable oil
1½ medium onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 or more jalapeños or serranos, minced (optional)
12 roasted, peeled green chiles cut into rajas (see note)
Salt, to taste
2 heaping c. grated cheese (use one or combine several such as locally 
   made aged raw-milk cheeses, Colby, Jack, Muenster or Mexican
        creamy white cheeses)

Optional additions: mushrooms, squash, chopped tomatoes, roasted corn, crumbled fried chorizo, cilantro.

Heat the butter and oil in a pan. Add the onion, garlic, jalapeños, rajas and salt and cook for about 5 minutes—tossing well. (This may be made in advance and reheated.) Lower the heat, add the cheese and any optional ingredients and stir gently until melted. Serve immediately in a warmed bowl.

Note: To roast chiles, use fresh New Mexico or Anaheim chiles, or the darker green, thicker-skinned poblano peppers (often more readily available). Poke whole chiles with a fork to keep them from bursting. Place on a baking sheet and roast 4 to 6 inches from the flame of a preheated broiler, or char directly over the open flame of a grill or on a hot comal, turning occasionally for even blistering and light charring.
 
Place the charred chiles in a brown paper bag to steam for 10 minutes, then peel away the charred skin. Don’t rinse the chiles under running water or you’ll lose flavor! Make a slit in one side of each chile, leaving the stem intact. Remove some of the seeds and the chiles are ready for stuffing.

Chile Rajas (Green Chile Strips)

Remove the seeds and stems from the roasted chiles and cut into 3-by-3/8-inch strips. Use in chile con queso and other recipes.

Suggested Local Cheeses and Chips

• Dos Lunas Artisan Cheese (aged raw-milk cheeses from free-roaming cows in Schulenburg), is crafted by charismatic cheesemaker Joaquin Avellan. I love to combine his Classico and Seco in my chile-cheese recipes, or try one of his flavored cheeses instead. The Classico is a whole-milk cheese, rich, creamy and complex, with balanced acidity and the apparent herbaceous essence that comes from grassfed cows. The Seco (aged for 60 days) is earthy and robust with a rich Parmesan-like intensity that especially complements chiles.

• Full Quiver Farms homestead cheese is made by Mike and Debbie Sams and family in Kemp. Their Colby is a pale-yellow, semi-hard aged cheese that’s nutty and creamy with a lovely bite—a grand departure and so much more flavorful than the mild, artificially colored orange and white Colby of days past. Melts beautifully! Try their aged pepper jack and Monterey jack in queso dishes, too.

• Blanco Valley Chips. Tracy Sanders fries corn tostada chips in coconut oil for flavor and health benefits, and also sells handmade corn tortillas made from non-GMO corn masa from New Mexico, as well as flour tortillas.