Nicola DiCio’s grin is as warm as the bright September sunshine when we pull into White Oak Farm, the 50-acre farm straddling Hampton and Indiana townships that’s been in his family for three generations. He has a good reason to be happy.
Not so very long ago, the large timber-frame barn — the one that next weekend will welcome hundreds to the region’s first-ever Hatch chile festival — was about one good gust of wind from falling down after decades of neglect. Running Reyna Foods, the bustling Mexican food store he owns in the Strip District, left precious time or energy for making repairs. Especially since he also operates a tortilla chip factory on the banks of the Allegheny River in Armstrong County.
Eventually, though, the lure of almost 100 years of family history proved too strong to ignore. Three years ago, Mr. DiCio decided it was time to breathe new life back into the farm on which he’d spent much of his childhood. So working rafter by rafter and stone by stone, he slowly rebuilt the rickety barn from the ground up.
“It was always my intention to tie the farm into my current business,” says Mr. DiCio, who as a teenager grew thousands of tomatoes on the land to sell to wholesaler Charley Brothers, which in the 1970s distributed to Shop ‘N Save grocery stores. He started Reyna in 1987, at age 24, after deciding he wasn’t cut out for pharmacy school. “Once I got started, I really enjoyed it and kept renovating.”
His eye for detail is so exacting that the bank barn, he notes with a proud laugh, is in better shape today than when it was built in the late 1800s by his Italian grandfather Nicola Domenico DiCio, who worked for the Fort Pitt and Duquesne breweries before becoming a beer distributor. Tempered windows now fill the once dungeon-like space with light. A new French drain promises to keep it dry. And there’s a pretty patch of cobblestone instead of dirt welcoming guests at the entrance.
Not that the first-annual Pepper Farm Festival on Oct. 6 will revolve around architecture. Rather, the day-long event aims to introduce Pittsburghers to what those in the Southwest have enjoyed for generations: the intoxicating smell of Hatch chile peppers roasting over an open fire, and the equally addictive taste of their smoky flesh in everything from salsa and dips to stews and enchiladas
. This will be the third year in a row Mr. DiCio will truck in and roast fresh New Mexico Hatch chiles for the buying public. But many still are unfamiliar with the long and skinny fruit, which some in the pepper-loving community consider nothing short of a tragedy. That includes Mr. DiCio, who will sell as many of the fresh peppers as he can get his hands on.
“They’re so good,” he says.
Having been to Santa Fe in early September, I agree there’s nothing quite like New Mexico-grown green chiles. And no town does it better than the tiny village of Hatch just north of Las Cruces. Known as the “Chile Capital of the World, it’s so famous for its mild- to blistering-hot chiles that up to 30,000 fans gather each Labor Day weekend for an annual two-day chile festival to celebrate the harvest. This year’s gathering on Sept. 1 and 2 marked 41 years.
Tickets to Mr. DiCio’s inaugural event cost $5 in advance at reynafoods.com (or $8 at the gate) and what a bang for the buck. In addition to cooking classes and food from local chefs and farmers — Justin Severino of Lawrenceville’s Cure is preparing a special Hatch sausage — the daylong party includes craft vendors and artists, live music, a masa (dough) making presentation, hay rides and chile bobbing and eating contests.
Mr. DiCio also will demonstrate how to make ristras, the colorful strings made with freshly picked, mature red chile pods that when dried help cooks spice up their favorite recipes.
Can’t make it to the country? Skinned and seeded Hatch chiles will be available for purchase at Reyna, too, after the event, though the market price has yet to be determined. Reyna also sells canned Hatch chiles.
Fresh Hatch chiles are hard to find on Pittsburgh menus, so the festival is sure to draw a large crowd. Big Burrito Group, which each August offers a special Hatch menu at its Mad Mex restaurants, already has called it quits, and the Hatch chile burgers at Fuddruckers, should you be up for the three-hour drive to the closest location in Chambersburg, will be equally fleeting.
The Pepper Farm Festival is the second public event at Mr. DiCio’s farm, where unplanted fields stretch into the treeline along Wagner Road. During Prohibition, his grandfather hid giant cement vats in the hillside in which he fermented corn mash for moonshine sold in a speakeasy. Until federal agents sniffed their way up the creek, that is, ordered him to stop and then blew the vats up with dynamite.
Two years ago, Mr. DiCio started a few “experimental” fields above the barn. That’s quickly grown into a dream of turning the farm into a seasonal pantry for local chefs and restaurants by growing fresh herbs and vegetables using sustainable farming methods. Already, he’s busy honing his expanding chile pepper crop using seeds saved from last year’s Hatch harvest, and during a walk to a pretty pond at a far corner of the property, he reveals plans not just for a smokehouse in which to smoke and dry peppers, but also a new 14-stall barn for a team of draft horses. There’s also some talk of hydroponics
. “I want to plow the fields by hand, like the Amish,” he says. A serious wine maker who is equally serious about the violin, Mr. DiCio proudly points out a grape crusher with an expandable bladder and an impressive-looking wine press that he stores in the barn. He served some of his homemade reds and whites at an Italian barbecue he hosted with five local chefs at the farm for 100 of their closest friends earlier this summer, and he’d like to do more.
“I want to get people more in touch with where their food comes from,” he says, including the school children he’d like to visit the farm.
With his blue eyes and Italian surname, customers are often surprised to learn the 48-year-old is half Mexican. His mother, Lydia Reyna, was born in Reynosa, Mexico, and raised just three miles from the Mexican border in McAllen, Texas. She liked nothing better than feeding her family the native dishes she learned to make as a girl, so he grew up eating as many fresh tortillas as he did homemade pastas.
“I’d bring them into school, and nobody knew what they were,” he says.
Today, his big blue factory in Cadogan cranks out 2,000 pounds each day of some of the country’s best tortilla chips, made via traditional techniques using equipment he designed and engineered. Each day in his Strip District store, workers knead corn masa into hundreds of fresh tortillas. He also sells warm fresh flour tortillas — a simple but perfect wrapping for a freshly roasted Hatch chile.
Mr. DiCio got into the Mexican food biz in a tiny storefront in Etna in 1987. The first store of its kind in Pittsburgh, it expanded so quickly that within a year he’d relocated to the Strip. A year later, he opened his chip factory. He moved to his current location at 2031 Penn Ave. in 2008, and sometime early next year will open a restaurant in the lower level serving the traditional Mexican food Pittsburghers increasingly hunger for.
The festival, he says, was a natural outgrowth of the wildly successful Hatch green chile roasts employee Linda Jones cooked up in front of the store the past two years. Still, he had to compromise on the name, agreeing to call it a pepper festival instead of a Hatch fest so people wouldn’t be scared off.
Hatch doesn’t refer to the cultivar, Mr. DiCio explains, but rather the region where the pepper is grown. It’s a serious distinction: A new state law that went into effect in July prohibits vendors from labeling their chiles as New Mexico chile unless the peppers were grown there. Planted in April, the first Hatch chiles arrive in mid- to late-August. If it’s a good growing season — and this year was — you can buy the fresh chiles through the beginning of October.
Hatch aficionados say the fertile volcanic soil of the Rio Grande Valley, coupled with the hot days and cool nights, are what give Hatch chiles their culinary edge. They’re best enjoyed roasted, a process that loosens their tough green skins and brings out their flavor. If they’re red, that means they’ve ripened in the field and developed an almost smoky flavor. But those generally don’t get roasted: the dried pods either are ground into a powder for seasoning and sauces or strung into ristras.
In New Mexico, chile peppers are roasted in wire cages heated by propane gas in parking lots and roadside stands, driving anyone within wafting distance bonkers with the pungent, delicious smell. So Mr. DiCio will fire up a big mesh barrel just outside his barn, too. He’ll roast 25 pounds at a time, continually turning the cage until the crackling, snapping peppers lose their skin.
Be sure to breathe deeply.
GREEN CHILE STEW
This fragrant, flavorful stew is probably the most famous dish made with Hatch green chiles. Serve with fresh flour tortillas from Reyna Foods in the Strip District.
- 2 pounds lean pork, cubed
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 onion chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 to 3 cups chopped roasted green chiles
- 3 cups diced tomato, fresh or canned
- 2 cups water
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
Dredge meat in flour and brown with onion in hot oil. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Add remaining ingredients, except potato. Cover and simmer for at least 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally. Add potatoes and simmer another 1/2 hour. Makes 6 servings. — Nick DiCio, Reyna Foods
GREEN CHILE CHICKEN ENCHILADA CASSEROLE
Even my father, whose tolerance for spicy foods is limited, thought this dish was terrific. To cut down on cooking time, use shredded breast meat from a rotisserie chicken.
- 11- to 12-ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
- 1 cup half-and-half or canned evaporated milk
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 1 dozen corn tortillas
- 2 cups shredded cooked chicken
- 1 cup chopped roasted mild to medium New Mexican green chiles, fresh or thawed frozen, or more to taste
- 4 ounces (1 cup) shredded Colby or mild cheddar cheese
- 2 ounces ( 1/2 cup) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large shallow baking dish. Stir together soup and half-and-half in a small bowl. Heat 1/2 to 1 inch oil in a small skillet until oil ripples. With tongs, dunk each tortilla in oil long enough for it to go limp, a matter of seconds. Don’t let tortilla become crisp. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Drain on paper towels. Slice tortillas in quarters. Make 2 to 3 layers of tortilla pieces, chicken, chile, both cheeses, onion, and soup mixture. Leave enough soup mixture to top the casserole generously, covering all the tortilla triangles. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until heated through and bubbly. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8. — “Tasting New Mexico” by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (Museum of New Mexico Press, March 2012, $29.95)
MACHO CHILE RELLANOS
Make sure the oil is really hot, or the rellenos will take too long to cook and get greasy. Smother in salsa and serve with lettuce and tomato. If you can’t find Hatch chiles, substitute poblano or Anaheim.
- 6 Hatch or other New Mexican green chiles
- 1/2 pound Monterey Jack cheese
- 4 eggs, divided
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 cup oil for frying
Roast chiles and peel, leaving stem on the chile. Pat chile dry with paper towel. Cut a small slit on 1 side of each chile. Cut cheese into 6 long sticks. Place 1 stick of cheese into each chile. Beat egg whites in medium bowl until stiff. Slightly beat egg yolks. Mix yolks with whites. Roll chile in flour then dip in egg mixture. Fry in hot oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Makes 6 servings. — Eloisa Mendez, grand prizer winner, “Hatch Chile Festival Cookbook” ($18, hatchchilefest.com)
GREEN CHILE CHEESEBURGERS
First offered on local menus in the mid 1950s, green chile cheeseburgers are so popular in New Mexico that the state tourism department has developed an official “green chile cheeseburger trail” of restaurants, drive-ins and dives offering them (newmexico.org/culinary). Don’t worry about them being messy — it’s expected.
- 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 pounds freshly ground beef chuck
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 6 burger-sized slices mild cheddar, American or Monterey Jack cheese, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups chopped roasted mild to hot new Mexican green chiles, fresh or thawed frozen, warmed
- 6 large sturdy hamburger buns
- Ketchup or mayonnaise
- 6 thick slices large red-ripe tomatoes (skip them out of season)
- Crisp iceberg lettuce leaves and slices of milk onion, dill pickles, or crisp cooked bacon, optional
- Fire up grill.
Mix together ground chuck, salt and pepper. Gently form the mixture into 6 patties 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Your patties should hold together but avoid handling them any longer than necessary. Grill burgers uncovered over high heat for 1 1/2 minutes per side. Move burgers to medium heat and rotate a half turn for crisscross grill marks. Do not — DO NOT — mash the burgers with a spatula. Cook for 31/2 to 4 minutes longer, then turn once more and cover each burger with cheese. Cook another 31/2 to 4 minutes for medium doneness, a bare hint of pink at the center of each crusty richly browned burger. Smear buns with ketchup or mayo. If you’re using tomatoes, or another of the other optional toppings, arrange on each bun next. Follow with cheese-covered burgers. Spoon chile over each. Crown with bun tops. Eat burgers hot from the grill, squeezing buns gently to mingle all the juices. Serves 6. — “Tasting New Mexico” by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison (Museum of New Mexico Press, March 2012, $29.95)
HATCH CHILE SALSA
The hotter the chile, the hotter the salsa. So choose a mild cultivar like NuMex 6-4 Heritage, from a long line developed by New Mexico State University, if your taste buds are timid.
- 1 piece whole white onion, sliced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 4 pieces garlic cloves
- 1 pound tomatillos
- 2 Hatch chiles, roasted and seeded
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 dash kosher salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut top off of small head of garlic and place on a sheet of aluminum foil. Pour 1 tablespoon olive oil over it and sprinkle with salt. Fold the foil into a pouch like shape and place in the oven. Roast garlic for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees until cloves are soft and golden brown. Remove cloves by squeezing the skin or piercing each clove with fork. Meanwhile, on a grill, roast tomatillos and Hatch chiles until skin is black and charred all over. Immediately place in a paper bag for about 3 minutes, then remove the tomatillos and Hatch chiles and begin removing the charred skin and seeds. Heat the oil in a saute pan and caramelize the onion over medium heat. Transfer all vegetables and any juices to a food processor. Add the cumin, lime, and salt to taste. Pulse mixture until well combined but still chunky. Serves 6. — Whole Foods Market, Pittsburgh