A mad dash for Hatches

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The past couple of years, around mid-August, Hatch chili peppers have found their way into the produce departments at local groceries. It’s a short window for this particular variety of hot pepper that’s gained popularity with local folks who’ve discovered how delicious they are when roasted on an open grill.

I was first introduced to Hatch peppers when one of the Whitefish groceries was roasting them outside the store one weekend in a huge metal mesh drum being turned over the charcoal. The blackened peppers were then peeled, sliced into strips and rolled with cream cheese — they were spicy, smoky, sexy.

I bought some fresh Hatches, took them home and roasted them. I also roasted poblanos and jalapenos … and tomatillos and garlic, which became the foundation for my homemade salsa that’s simmered for an hour before canning.

Hatch chilis are grown specifically in Hatch, New Mexico, (colloquially known as the Chili Capital of the World) in the fertile soil along the Rio Grande river valley. They’re regionally famous and that fame is starting to stretch worldwide.

When the groceries in the Flathead advertised a couple of weeks ago the Hatches had arrived, I made a beeline.

The first batch of Hatches I bought were grilled alongside poblanos and jalapenos mid-morning one cool, slightly rainy Saturday, with the idea I’d freeze them and make salsa another weekend.

Those who roast peppers know that the peeling off of the charred, blackened skins and removal of the seeds takes time. Since the weather remained unimproved as the day wore on, I decided to just go ahead and make salsa the same day.

That set in motion a mad dash for produce from Columbia Falls to Kalispell. My typical spot for Roma tomatoes is a little produce stand outside of Columbia Falls that sells fresh, mainly Washington-grown produce. They’d sold out of Romas that morning.

I headed into Columbia Falls. (The same store was roasting Hatches from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. that Saturday.) It was 3 p.m. No roasting going in front of the store. Inside, no Hatches. I quizzed an employee who checked and told me the truck hadn’t shown up yet; they were expecting it any minute. I wasn’t optimistic.

Back in my car I started making calls. Where were the Hatches? Another store told me their supplier shorted them several boxes and the few they did get were gone. And what about the Romas — who had them and how much? The price ranged from .99 to 1.79 per pound.

Kalispell looked like my best bet. I swung into the store that had the best price on Romas. My recipe called for 3 ½ pounds — about 30 Romas. Exactly 27 Romas were on the shelf. I took what they had and added the last three on-the-vine tomatoes they had.

At the next store — and the only store in the valley that apparently had any Hatch chilis — I cherry-picked yet another dozen and a half from the dwindling box just to freeze.

I was hoarding Hatches.

By the time I’d run the full produce circuit around the Flathead it was after 5 p.m. It seemed a tad late to start making salsa — all that peeling, seeding, chopping, and simmering … While the water in the canner was put on to boil, I got started. Five hours later a dozen bright pints of homemade salsa were cooling on the counter.

The dishes were done, the kitchen tidied up. I sat back to watch a little TV, listening for that familiar, satisfying ping of the lids as the jars sealed one by one.

Community Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or community@dailyinterlake.com.

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