One of Denver's signature rites of fall is visiting a roadside stand to stock up on roasted chiles for the winter — and then, back home, hunching over the kitchen counter for hours, ideally with plenty of cold beers on hand, peeling and seeding the deep-green pods to prepare them for the freezer.
No matter how long the process takes or how many beers you consume, the result — a few bulging Ziploc bags — never seems like enough. That brimming basket or mesh sack you picked out at your favorite stall or market looked so big when you bought it, and the plastic bag you got from the roaster felt ready to burst and spill its hot, smoky contents across the gravel lot. But by the time you load up the freezer, the haul doesn't look like enough to get you through the end of football season.
For those willing to make the drive, the Pueblo Green Chile & Frijoles Festival has been the place to stock up. The price per bushel comes in a little lower than it does in Denver; the selection — from eight or nine Pueblo farms that specialize in growing green chiles — is better; and the atmosphere (complete with flecks of blackened chile skin wafting in the air) is more conducive to getting in the spirit of autumn. The drive home is always a sweet torture of roasty aromas, and you usually have enough chiles to share with neighbors and still make it through the year.
But this year is not like other years.
While the Pueblo Green Chile & Frijoles Festival is still on September 26 and September 27, it's being billed as a "throwback" celebration, so events will be scaled back considerably, and the fest will look more like it did in 1994, its inaugural year. For health and safety reasons, the big outdoor market where vendors usually peddle clothing, jewelry, ristras, prepared foods and knickknacks will not be set up, but there will be two farmers' market areas selling multiple varieties of green chiles along with other late-season produce, and the roasting stations will be operating. Visitors will be asked to chip in $5, but that payment is voluntary, and the flow and volume will be controlled. Masks must be worn, and temperatures will be taken at the entrance.
While there will still be some food and drink vendors, missing this year will be the green chile-eating contest, the Chihuahua parade, the bean-spitting contest (especially problematic in the time of COVID), the entertainment tents and the live food demos. But the professional and amateur contests for red chili, green chile and salsa are still on.
The four-hour round-trip drive from Denver may seem less appealing without the extracurriculars — but you can experience your own green chile festival in Denver if you follow a few of our tips:
Buy Fresh Roasted Green Chiles
Don't even think about purchasing your chiles from the supermarket. You'll pay way too much for flavorless peppers produced on industrial-scale farms. And the big chains certainly won't roast your chiles for you. A few permanent markets around town, including the seventy-year-old Heinie's Market (11801 West 44th Avenue in Wheat Ridge), offer a wide variety of Colorado-grown chiles.
Open-air vendors are another good option. Look for established spots such as Incredible Edibles (1950 South Parker Road in Aurora), Morales Family Chile Store (5212 Sheridan Boulevard), the Chili Guys (5501 Federal Boulevard) and D + D Produce (3421 South Federal Boulevard). Most carry Hatch and Pueblo chiles, so you can go with New Mexico's favorite or stick with something more local.
Eat a Pueblo Slopper
This year's slopper-eating champion, Jeff Esper, downed 37.5 of the chile-smothered cheeseburgers at the Colorado State Fair on September 5, but you won't need to destroy the competition to enjoy one of Pueblo's culinary originals. If you make it to the chile festival in Pueblo, include a stop at the bar that claims to have invented the slopper — Gray's Coors Tavern (515 West Fourth Street) — or at the Hangar Bar & Grill (100 23rd Street) for a monster slopper in an airplane-themed diner.
Sloppers aren't as common in Denver, but you can enjoy a commendable version at Fiddlesticks Bar & Grill (10815 West Jewell Avenue in Lakewood) or the Copper Pot (2796 South Broadway). Keep in mind that a slopper isn't just a timid green chile cheeseburger; it's an open-faced burger with a layer of yellow cheese melted on top, then completely drowned in green chile (which is why the best are served in bowls, not on plates). Order it with onions...and maybe even covered with French fries, like the real Pueblo pros.
Make Green Chile at Home
Now that you have pounds of roasted green chiles socked away to keep you warm in the coming months, what do you do with them? Purists simply dice them up to serve on burgers or in enchiladas, burritos, tamales and other Mexican fare. But a big batch of green chile stew (if you're new to Denver, you'll soon notice that everyone just drops the word "stew") will last for days and is great over just about anything. We keep it simple and stick with a recipe of onions, garlic, chicken or vegetable broth, a pound or two of diced green chiles, and shredded pork. A little lime juice adds brightness, flour or cornstarch makes it stick to your ribs, and tomato paste gives it an orange tint that lets your dinner guests think you make your green chile Den-Mex style. Potatoes, corn and other adjuncts just get in the way, and if we see you reaching for celery, carrots or bell peppers, we're sending you back to where you came from.
Pueblo chiles are thick-walled and full of flavor, making them perfect for a big batch of green chile. This recipe keeps things simple, to let the flavor and heat of the chiles shine. We recommend Mosco chiles, but you can use Dynamite if you're brave enough. For an even simpler stew, leave out the cumin and tomato paste.
For a wide variety of Pueblo chile recipes — including pumpkin chile spice cake! — visit the Pueblo Chile Growers Association.
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My Green Chile Recipe
3 pounds pork country ribs or pork shoulder (cut into fat strips)
1.5 pounds roasted Pueblo green chiles, peeled, seeded and diced
32 ounces chicken or vegetable stock
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, diced
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper to taste
Season the pork with cumin, salt and pepper, then coat it with flour. On medium-high heat, brown the pork on all sides in the pot in which you'll be cooking your green chile (add a little oil if needed). Remove the pork and add the onions, along with a pinch of salt, sautéing until translucent. Add the garlic and tomato paste and stir until you can smell the garlic (one or two minutes).
Put the pork back in the pot and pour in the stock. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for an hour with the lid on. After an hour, stir the diced green chiles (and their liquid) into the pot. Continue to simmer for at least another hour, until the pork is shreddable. The total cooking time could be up to three hours, depending on when the pork begins to fall apart.
Pull the pork from the pot and let it cool before shredding it. (Remove any big pieces of fat or connective tissue, and watch for bones if you're using country ribs or bone-in shoulder.) Add the shredded pork back into the pot, along with the juice of one lime, and let it come back up to a simmer. Taste and add more salt if desired. If you need more liquid, you can thin the chile with a little more stock or water (save the beer and tequila for drinking). Recipe yields enough green chile for four adults (plus leftovers) if you're eating it by the bowl, more if you're using it to smother burritos or burgers.