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Just a taste, if you please

Sic transit gloria chile verde.

I have just finished judging the second of two chile contests on the year … and I am alive to tell about it.

The first contest was at our county fair. I judged that contest with my pals James and Ron — both well versed in the ins and outs of red and green chile.

It was nice to have amiable company. Misery loves amiable company.

The lesson learned: people will put darned near anything together and call it “chile.” Or, as folks who came to the peppers late in life (or from somewhere like Texas or Ohio) call it, “chili.”

The second contest was this past weekend: a green chile contest.

Ah, the mere fact the name was spelled correctly inspired hope!

Hope soon to be dashed on the rocks of culinary mayhem. Order is unbound, chaos is loosed. Nothing lethal, but chaos nonetheless.

This time, I am in the company of five other judges: Ron, Lisa, Marsha, Matt and Andy. A seasoned crew, each more than familiar with green chile — both the pepper and the traditional dish loved by those of us who grew up in The Republic of Green Chile.

Citizens of The Republic of Green Chile (New Mexico and parts of Colorado) know the difference between our chile verde, green chile stew, green chile salsas and dips, and the Mexican chile verde (a variation that features tomatillo). Each has its place, but the green chile of The Republic of Green Chile is a regional specialty, with a consistency between a thick soup and a sauce.

The problem with these contests: the fuzzy boundaries defined by the title “green chile cookoff” (remember, one can accurately interpret “green chile” as referring to a pepper or to the classic concoction), and by the fact that most of the entrants neither grew up in The Republic of Green Chile nor have obtained a “Green Card.” They came from places like San Jose, Cleveland, Oklahoma City. Some of them came with considerable skill in the kitchen. Many of them are extraordinarly inventive, especially if the contest requires mere use of the pepper as an ingredient.

Few understand how to make green chile.

My five companions and I took an eye-opening — at times gratifying, at times frightening — trip through nearly 30 samples, each entered in either the “with meat” or the “no meat” category.

I can say one positive thing about most of the entries: They included some of the pepper in them.

Most of them.

But, we were looking for THE green chile. Most of the judges had grown up eating this delightful brew, and we had the radar on.

Some of the entries included beans

There are no beans in green chile.

Some of them included citrus fruit of one kind or another.

There is no citrus fruit in green chile.

A couple had cinnamon or cloves in them

No go, amigo.

A few were loaded with cilantro.

Highly debateable in some quarters. Not debateable here. No cilantro.

Several went overboard with ground cumin.

Too much of a good thing. A little works well but, after all, this is not Morroco.

And so it went.

I considered several factors as I came to my decisions.

1) Meat or no meat?

It is possible to make a passable green chile without meat. Possible, but unlikely. Those made without meat usually lack depth of flavor and suffer from lack of mouth feel and necessary aftertaste.

2) If meat, what kind? And how to prepare?

Traditionally, the meat of choice is pork. Fatty pork. Fat is flavor. Beef can work, but beef also lends a flavor that screams “stew,” and that is not what is desired.

Ideally, the meat is not ground, and the chunks are large enough that they remain tender in the braising process. The meat should be well seasoned. The meat, however, is a journeyman player on the team, not the star.

If pork is the choice, it should be cooked briefly in the oil used for the roux (see 6, below) before the flour is added. It should not be browned; browned meat skews the mix.

3) Aromatics?

Surprisingly few great green chiles include onions, though onion is not out of bounds. But, garlic? Oh, my, yes — we need garlic. But not huge hunks that bob around like life rafts on a searing sea. And not so much that the garlic overwhelms the blend. It is a supporting character, there to add to the body. Anyone who puts celery in green chile should be taken to the back forty and shot.

4) Seasoning?

Salt, of course, though a light hand is always advisable, One entry at the contest tasted as if it was made with sea water. Ahoy, matey!

Black pepper? Perhaps, but only a touch.

A couple entries used chile pequin as an ingredient. Too sharp, the heat too forward, too dominant — needles compared to the subtle warm blanket effect of the addition of, say, a smidge of ground Chimayo red, barely enough to change the color of the liquid.

5) Base?

Some purists say water.

Far preferable to the soup base used in some of the contest entries. A soup base has seasonings that push the blend in a depressing direction.

Some of the great greens are made, however, with water and chicken stock, or just the stock. The stock provides a velvety platform and just a hint of flavor. Beef stock? See 2 above. Pork stock? I’ve never tried it but, hey, why not? Makes sense. If you have the time to burn, plunge in. Let me know how it works out.

6) Thickener? Roux or reduction?

A roux is common in the tradition. Fat and flour, cooked together, with the base liquid added to achieve the correct consistency (not too watery, never pot-pie thick — reserve the true goo for chile con queso). The key question here, the answer to which will have a dramatic effect on the final product, concerns the kind of fat (see 7).

The roux is the launch pad. The meat is cooked in the fat to provide flavor, the flour is added, then cooked long enough to get rid of the flour taste. Some cook it to the blond roux stage before liquid is added.

Save the cornstarch for Chinese food.

7) Fat. Animal or vegetable?

One of our entries used butter. Great for sauces, totally inappropriate for green chile.

Olive oil? Debateable. At best, a low-grade olive oil can pull the wagon, since there is little if any olive flavor. If an oil is used, it should be relatively tasteless, like canola oil.

But, the classic is lard. Yep, pig fat, buttery white and full of flavor. Ever caught the smell as you enter a genuine taqueria? Guess what? Lard.

Forget what the Torah says; bring on the pig. You Know Who has already decided you’re nothing but trouble, so what is there to lose?

8) Type of chile, and heat level?

Everyone raves about Hatch green, but there are great peppers grown in a variety of spots in New Mexico and Colorado. The trick is taste and heat. A lot of the taste factor occurs in the roasting. Many claim (myself included) that roasted chiles frozen with their skins on have greater flavor. The skins are removed when the peppers are thawed..

Big Jim, poblano, whatever they decide to call it — this is the pepper to use. Save the pasillas for rellenos and other applications.

Some also claim (I am inclined to agree) that peppers gain heat during their time in the freezer. And heat is what a great green chile is all about. The right amount of heat. There is a point on the heat scale where heat eclipses flavor, and that line must not be crossed. The perfect green does a balancing act between the heat of the pepper and the amount to be added to the pot. Too little heat and you might as well make a Bell pepper stew. Too much heat and, as my pal Ron says, you need to swallow a smooth stone; that way the splash the next morning will cool you down.

9) Permutations? Allowable, even desirable abnormalities?

Tomatillo?

Probably not, though I have tasted some greens with a teensy bit of tomatillo in which the fruit did no harm. The sour quality, however, is best left to the Mexican verde.

Tomato?

A big debate. Some superb versions include tomato — but very, very little. Purists shiver when tomato is mentioned.

So, the stage is set.

First question out of the chute when I evaluate an entry: Can I taste the green chile?

If the flavor of the roasted chile is not prominent, the cook has failed. Game over.

Then it is on to things like depth, base character, seasoning, front and back heat, aftertaste.

To cut this short: there was little need last weekend to ask most of the critical questions of most of the entries. Many would have worked well with another name.

Many were tasty, in a non green chile sort of way. Some were perfectly palatable stews. Others would have worked well as sauces — a couple as dips.

Some . . .

Only three of the 30 qualified as the real stuff — on my card as well as the judging cards of my fellows. We agreed on all three. When it came down to picking the winner from the three, one lost points due to excessive grease. Another fell on the charts on the basis of a thin base.

It is always interesting to taste what others cook, in particular when it is well done and tasty — even if it doesn’t fit the contest parameters. There were plenty of entries I would love to eat as part of a meal, though they were not the green we sought as judges.

There are quite a few talented cooks in this community — just not many who have mastered the real deal green chile here in The Republic.

And, there are some good pharmacies here as well, with plenty of Prilosec and Zantac available once all the tasting is done.