New Mexico: Chile Hot Spot

Dried red chiles — strung into "ristras" — hang in many New Mexican homes. i i

Dried red chiles — strung into ristras — hang in many New Mexican homes and are used for cooking throughout the year. The state is the largest producer of chiles in the United States. hide caption

itoggle caption
Dried red chiles — strung into "ristras" — hang in many New Mexican homes.

Dried red chiles — strung into ristras — hang in many New Mexican homes and are used for cooking throughout the year. The state is the largest producer of chiles in the United States.

How to Roast Peppers

  • Place whole peppers over a gas or charcoal grill or under a broiler. They should be turned frequently with tongs until all sides are charred.
  • Put the charred peppers into a plastic bag and let sit until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes.
  • Wear gloves to peel peppers, to keep seeds from eyes and skin. Peel the peppers (the skin should come right off) and remove the seeds and stems. Chop the pepper and set aside until ready to use. They may also be frozen in plastic bags with all the air squeezed out.
Baskets of green chiles are abundant at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. i i

Baskets of green chiles are abundant this time of year at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Bonny Wolf for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bonny Wolf for NPR
Baskets of green chiles are abundant at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

Baskets of green chiles are abundant this time of year at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

Bonny Wolf for NPR

Hot Tips

  • Dairy products are the best way to combat that burning sensation. There is a substance in dairy products that counteracts the heat in the chile. So if your mouth feels like it's on fire, drink a glass of milk.
  • Try to keep the chile away from body parts. The oil can burn your skin and hurt your eyes. Wear gloves when handling chiles.
  • The chile's heat comes from a chemical compound called capsaicinoids. They are located on the membrane of the chile. Many people think seeds are where the heat lives. Actually, they absorb it from the membrane.

Source: New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute

Chile farmer Matt Romero turns his roaster by hand at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. i i

Chile farmer Matt Romero turns his roaster by hand at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Bonny Wolf for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bonny Wolf for NPR
Chile farmer Matt Romero turns his roaster by hand at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

Chile farmer Matt Romero turns his roaster by hand at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

Bonny Wolf for NPR

About the Author

Bonny Wolf is Kitchen Window's contributing editor and a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. She also hosts the Kitchen Window podcast. Her book of food essays, Talking with My Mouth Full, is out in stores. You can find more information at bonnywolf.com.

The second I stepped out the door of my friend's house in New Mexico, I noticed a sweet-smoky-earthy smell. No matter how far I walked, the aroma was inescapable.

When I got back, I asked her what it was. "Chiles roasting," she said. "That means it's fall."

During the next 10 days, I learned that whether you're driving on a dirt road in the barren mountains or standing in the parking lot of an Albuquerque supermarket, the deliciously pungent aroma of the roasting of the year's chile crop permeates the New Mexico air from late August through September.

New Mexico is the largest producer of chiles in the United States. But in New Mexico, chiles are more than a crop. They're a culture, a way of life. It is unimaginable to New Mexicans that people eat food untouched by their state's chile.

There's even an official state question: Red or green?

And if you can't decide if you want red chile or green chile, you may answer, "Christmas," and you'll get some of both.

Green and red chiles are actually the same chiles at different life stages: either picked earlier when they're green, or later after they're left to turn red on the vine.

The Spanish conquistadors brought chiles to New Mexico in the 16th century, and they've been part of the cuisine and culture ever since. The chile is so valued that it's been named the state vegetable (even though it's technically a fruit).

Green chiles are roasted, peeled, seeded and either used right away or frozen. Dried red chiles are ground into powder or strung into the lovely, deep-red ristras — strings in Spanish — you see hanging in many New Mexican homes. Northerners usually hang ristras for decoration while New Mexican cooks use the pods throughout the year to season food. Because the climate is so dry, there's no fear of mold.

This time of year, chile roasting is everywhere. You can buy a gunny sack of chiles at the supermarket and take it to the parking lot where someone with a propane-fired, mesh metal roasting drum will roast them for you for a couple of bucks.

Or you can buy them already roasted. I went to the Santa Fe Farmers Market, where chile farmer Matt Romero turns his big roaster by hand. The six-inch-long green chiles tumble around and around until the tough outer skin is charred and blistered. They're bagged and piled on a table for sale. "We sell them as fast as we roast them," he says.

Chile heat varies from year to year depending on the weather, the soil and other factors out of the grower's control. Most New Mexico chiles are medium hot.

The modern New Mexican chile was developed in the late 1800s by Fabian Garcia, a horticulturalist at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts — today's New Mexico State University. He wanted to breed a more standardized New Mexican chile.

In 1896, the sheriff of Ventura County, Calif., brought chile seeds back from a trip to New Mexico and planted them near Anaheim. The name stuck, and Anaheim chile is the generic name often given to the New Mexican chile.

However, there has been much breeding and improving over the years, so you'll see chiles called Espanola, Sandia, Nu Mex, Big Jim, Long Green and others.

New Mexico cuisine has been influenced by several cultures: Pueblo Indians, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo. They've been blended together with the chile at center stage. Never call it a chile pepper, by the way, or you will be mocked.

Little in traditional New Mexican cuisine is untouched by the chile: blue-corn enchiladas, quesadillas, carne adovada (pork in adobo sauce), sauces and salsas. The chiles rellenos in New Mexico are the real thing: fresh green chiles, roasted and peeled, then stuffed with cheese, batter coated and fried. Yum.

I was particularly taken with green chile stew — sort of the beef stew of New Mexico. And after a bad night, you can get hangover stew, green chile stew with two eggs on top.

The chile has moved way beyond the traditional. Hamburger joints sell green chile cheeseburgers, there's green chile sushi, green chile bagels, green chile sorbet and, of course, green chile pizza.

Another New Mexico specialty is the sopapaillas that are served with your chile-infused food. These wonderful puffed breads are the state's own invention. They're made of flour and a little lard and deep fried so they puff up like little pillows. They are served as bread would be and are to be slathered with honey.

You can approximate the foods of New Mexico in other parts of the country. Some poblano or Anaheim chiles will give you the general idea but, really, the flavor's not close to as good. There are, however, many mail-order outlets.

The best way, though, is to visit the state during chile season, breathe deeply and bring a bag of roasted chiles home with you. They freeze well.

Breakfast Quesadillas with New Mexican Red Chile Sauce

Breakfast quesadilla with red chile sauce i i
David S. Deutsch for NPR
Breakfast quesadilla with red chile sauce
David S. Deutsch for NPR

I visited my friend Susan McCreight Lindeborg, a Washington, D.C., chef who recently moved back to her hometown of Las Vegas, N.M. She makes these quesadillas for breakfast during the chile season. They're also good for lunch or dinner. Or a snack.

Makes 4 servings

4 whole-wheat flour tortillas

1 medium onion, diced

2 large, fresh green New Mexico or similar chiles, diced (amount may be increased according to size or hotness of chiles)

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 eggs

1 cup lightly packed grated mild cheese such as cheddar or Monterey Jack

Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium-sized saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil and saute the onion and chiles until both are soft.

In a bowl, beat the eggs until thoroughly mixed. Add the eggs to the onions and chiles and keep stirring gently until eggs are just done but a bit wet. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon a quarter of the egg mixture onto a tortilla, covering only half the tortilla.

Top the egg mixture with a quarter of the cheese and fold tortilla over the mixture, sandwich style. Brush the top of each folded tortilla with reserved olive oil.

In a large saute pan, brown the folded tortillas oiled side down over medium-high heat. While the first side is browning, brush oil on the second side. When the tortilla is lightly brown, gently turn it over to brown the other side. Keep finished quesadillas warm and covered in a low oven until all have been browned.

The quesadillas can easily be cut in half or even smaller.

Serve New Mexican Red Chile Sauce on the side (for pouring over quesadillas or dipping).

New Mexico Red Chile

Susan's recipe has been adapted over time using both contemporary and historic sources. There are as many methods of making red chile, she says, as there are cooks.

Makes about 6 cups

1/2 cup ground dry red medium-hot chile (Chimayo, if you can get it; available at Latino markets)

1/2 cup tomato paste

1 medium garlic clove, finely minced

1/2 cup peanut oil or other vegetable oil

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons crumbled dry oregano (preferably Mexican; available at Latino markets)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (best flavor is from freshly ground toasted cumin seeds)

1/2 cup flour

6 cups boiling water

In the bowl of a food processor, add the chile, tomato paste, garlic, oil, salt, oregano, cumin, flour and 2 cups of boiling water. Process mixture until it is smooth and transfer to a saucepan.

Add the remaining 4 cups boiling water, mix well and bring gently to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about an hour.

The chile is done when the texture has thickened enough to coat the food it will be covering. If it becomes too thick, add more water.

Taste the chile before removing it from the heat to make sure the flour has been cooked.

Leftover chile can be stored in the refrigerator for at least a week.

Green Chile Stew

Green chile stew i i
David S. Deutsch for NPR
Green chile stew
David S. Deutsch for NPR

This dish is on the menu of just about every restaurant featuring New Mexican food. It is simple, traditional New Mexican fare and differs according to the imagination and taste of the cook. It can be a plain soup or a thick stew, vegetarian or filled with meat. The only constant is the New Mexico green chile. Since I couldn't get New Mexico chiles, I used a combination California chiles and poblanos. In the off-season, use frozen chiles.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast or pork butt, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups diced onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic

10 green New Mexico style chiles, roasted, peeled, stems removed, chopped (or frozen chiles, available at Latino markets)

2 cups red potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 teaspoon oregano (preferably Mexican; available at Latino markets)

2 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

Roux

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup flour

6 cups chicken stock

In a large saute pan, heat the 2 tablespoons oil and brown the meat on all sides. Remove from pan.

In same pan, brown onions then add garlic and cook 1 more minute.

In the meantime, make the roux. Heat 1/4 cup vegetable oil in large saucepan over medium heat. When it is warm, gradually add flour. It should be the consistency of wet sand. Stir constantly until roux is thickened and lightly browned. Cool slightly then add chicken stock, about a cup at a time, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Lower to simmer.

Add chicken, onion and garlic mixture, chiles, potatoes, oregano and tomatoes to stock and roux. Add salt to taste.

Bring mixture to a boil, lower to simmer and cook until potatoes are tender and chicken is cooked, 45 minutes to an hour.

Serve in soup bowls.

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