The first time I stumbled upon a New Mexican stuffed sopaipilla, filled with tender pork, pinto beans and green chile stew, I almost swooned.
My wife, Rana, and I set off on a multiyear mission from Dios to find the perfect New Mexico green chile. I've had stuffed sopaipillas in the New Mexico cities of Chama, Española and Clovis, green chile enchiladas in Santa Rosa and Las Vegas, green chile cheeseburgers in San Antonio and sent-from-heaven green chile stew at now-defunct Paloma Blanca in Clayton.
Each of those dishes was different - perfect in its own way, sure, but a geographic picture of a regional staple. I'm still working on the list, especially after sampling Walter Howerton's homemade green chile stew.
More delicate than any I've had in a restaurant, but still plainly green chile, Howerton's recipe had not a hint of rendered fat, although it was made with pork. The potatoes and zucchini worked in perfect concert. And underlying it all, the green chiles brought a satisfying but not overwhelming burn to the table. After each bite, there was just a hint of heat remaining, waiting for the next spoonful to arrive.
"I grew up in North Carolina but I consider New Mexico home," said Howerton, 64. Traveling around the country, trying to decide what to do and where to live after college, Howerton wound up in Española, N.M., north of Santa Fe. He lived for a while with a family whose traditions included green chiles. "In a very short period of time, green chile became a part of my life. (The matriarch) of that family taught me to make green chile stew.
"In our home, my dad was a meat-and-potatoes guy and he didn't like spices," Howerton said. "In our home, women cooked and men ate. I didn't realize when I went out on my own, I either had to eat out all my life or learn to cook. I'd had tacos, but I knew nothing about New Mexican cuisine. Once I started eating New Mexican food, that's what I ate. I took to the taste right away.
"It was both exotic and ordinary, just like northern New Mexicans. People in northern New Mexico live closer to the ground than most folks," he said. "The chile helps keep them real. That is what I like about the place and why I feel at home there. Chile feeds that comfortable feeling of home."
Howerton learned to cook to avoid starvation, and in between stints working on newspapers around the country, he actually cooked at a restaurant in New Mexico and a truck stop in Iowa. One of his sons still cooks in a truck stop. He and his wife, Dauna, moved to Austin seven years ago so she could pursue an advanced degree at the University of Texas, but they brought with them their love of green chiles.
"Every year we've been here, this time of year we have a Hatch chile orgy," Howerton said of Austin and its own affair with green chiles. "Out there, every town and area seems to have its own chile strain. We maintain chile connections with people in New Mexico. It's so much a part of the life I could eat (green) chile every day."
Howerton roasts his own Hatch green chiles and freezes them. He typically uses about half roasted, frozen chiles and half commercial chiles in a recipe. He doesn't like canned green chiles because he thinks they have a slight pickled taste. The best prepackaged green chiles available locally are frozen chiles from the brand Bueno, he says, which is available in frozen food sections of larger markets.
Walter Howerton's Green Chile Stew
2 Tbsp. canola oil
2 lbs. pork, cubed (pork shoulder works best, but chicken or beef can be substituted)
2 medium potatoes, diced; potatoes can be increased
1/2 small onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4-6 cups water (half chicken broth acceptable)
18 oz. chopped green chiles or roasted Hatch chiles, medium-hot or hotter (If fresh chiles aren't in season, use Bueno brand frozen chiles.)
3 medium zucchinis, sliced into rounds
1 tsp. salt
Black pepper to taste (optional)
Cheese and sour cream for serving (optional)
Heat oil in Dutch oven. Add pork, potato and onion and brown slightly. Add garlic and then liquid. Bring to a boil. Add chiles and reduce to a simmer. Add zucchini and cook 30-60 minutes.
Stew will be ready to eat at that point but will be better the next day. Season with salt and pepper if desired. Serve with cheese on top and fresh tortillas on the side. A dollop of sour cream is optional.