Monday, November 20, 2006

Shades of New Mexico: Green Chile with Pork and Lentils

I encountered green chile in New Mexico during work trips there over 20 years ago. I was smitten. A luscious stew, usually with pork in a richly spiced gray-green sauce, it was considered the queen of the chiles. Several Atlanta colleagues who had spent time in New Mexico implored me to bring them back a stash of frozen roasted and pureed green chile so they could make their beloved stew here. Later, I learned that Texans also loved their green chile, and I’ve eaten something like it in Mexico as well.

Notice it’s “chile” not “chili”. The Mexican-Spanish word for pepper ends with an “e” (and is pronounced chee’-lay), whereas the Tex-Mex word was Americanized to end in “i”. That gives the word that Anglos use for the meat and bean stew, and for hot peppers, and for the commercial powder containing ground red peppers, cumin, oregano, and allspice used to season a pot of "chili".

A few weeks ago I developed a blond chili for our Athens restaurant-deli, “Donderos’ Kitchen”, and also put it out on the blog. With its success with the Kitchen’s customers as a bracing “soup” in the increasingly cold weather (as a change from our meat and vegetarian red-and-black [for UGA] chilis), it seemed timely to develop another distinctive chili. And out from my past emerged the recipe below. It is not a pure rendering of the “chile verde” I first met in Santa Fe (I can’t get those special chiles, after all), but the effect is as good as I remember.

Green Chile Tim

1-1/2 pounds boneless pork (such as butt or loin) cut in 1-inch chunks
3 large green bell peppers
3 medium jalapeño peppers (or more or less to taste)
1 pound lentils
2 medium-large onions, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 quarts water
2 bay leaves
1 pound tomatillos (green husk tomatoes, available in Mexican groceries and some supermarkets) – substitute would be green tomatoes
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2-1/2 teaspoons salt plus to taste
2 (18-ounce) cans white beans (canelini [preferred], great northern, navy), drained and rinsed
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
Sour cream (diluted with a little milk) for garnish, if desired

Either roast or fry the pork pieces in their own juices and fat until dark golden brown. Spoon off the oil layer, if any, but save the browned watery juices and bits stuck on the pan. Meanwhile broil the peppers and jalapeños on a cookie sheet, turning them as the skins blacken. Place them in a plastic bag and wrap them in a dish towel to cool, to loosen the skins. Peel them, slit them open and remove the seeds and the stems. Chop the peppers finely on a board or in a food processor. Set aside. Pour plenty of boiling water over the lentils in a bowl and let them soak at least 20 minutes. Drain them before using.

In a stewing pot, fry the chopped onions in the olive oil, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pot until onions start to brown. Add the garlic, and let fry another two minutes. Add the fried or roasted pork and any juices, scraping the pan they were cooked in, and with a little water rinse the scrapings into the cooking pot. Add 2 quarts of water plus the bay leaves. Simmer, covered, until the pork is becoming tender, about 1/2 hour. Break up the pork pieces. Drain the lentils and add them to the pork mixture. Chop the tomatillos (husks removed) and add them to the pot. Add water to the top of the lentils, and simmer until they are becoming tender, stirring occasionally and adding a little water to keep them moist. Add the seasonings and salt. When stirring, break up the chunks of meat against the side of the pot. When the lentils are fully tender, taste and add salt as needed. Add the rinsed and drained beans and simmer for few minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally and adding hot water to desired thickness. Taste again and do a final salt adjustment. Stir in the chopped cilantro and remove from the heat.

This is best if made ahead and reheated to serve. It can be topped with a little sour cream diluted first with milk to resemble Mexican “crema”.

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