Those of you who haven’t spent time in New Mexico may not know that chile (definitely spelled with an “e”) has cult status in the state.
New Mexican food wouldn’t be the same without “red” or “green.” Chile, that is. Those are the standard sauces used in New Mexican cuisine.
When ordering most dishes in a New Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe, the first question from the server, if the customer hasn’t specified, is “Red or Green or Christmas?”
Just 70 miles away in Taos, the question is “Red or Green or Caribe?”
It’s not that you can’t get Christmas in Taos, which as you might have guessed is half red chile sauce and half green chile sauce, it’s that never, ever is Caribe an option in Santa Fe. It just isn’t. I believe this speaks to the development of related, but different, foodways in the historically isolated towns and villages of New Mexico.
The most famous of all New Mexico chile is Hatch. There are about six varieties of chile grown in Hatch but, if they’re grown there, they can all be labeled as Hatch Chile. The tiny village of Chimayó, just under 30 miles from Santa Fe in northern New Mexico, grows good chile, too.
When I buy roasted green chile at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, I usually head for the vendor selling chile from Chimayó. That’s exactly what I did last week to make a batch of Green Chile for this blog post (honestly, we don’t add the word “sauce” to the end as the context indicates whether one is talking about the sauce or the fruit. And, yes, chile is a fruit!). Chimayó has a multi-hundred year history of growing heirloom chile and I feel good supporting that history, if even in a very small way.
I served that chile during a dinner party for a group of close friends. Among the ten of us, only one was born and raised in New Mexico, Pat Assimakis (aka Pat Paris if you’re a maître d’ and she’s ever made a reservation at your restaurant). I gave Pat a taste of my green chile, she thought for a second and said, “Chimayó?” She nailed it! It’s got a slightly different taste from Hatch chile.
New Mexicans have strong opinions about their chile, be it red or green. The usual divide is between those who put almost nothing but chile in their chile (see, you knew the first meant the fruit and the second meant the sauce, right?) except for a bit of onion and/or garlic and those who add herbs (like oregano) and spices (like cumin). I am firmly in the former camp. Onion and garlic help to round out the flavor but, to my taste, herbs and spices detract from the pure chile goodness.
The other divide is degree of heat. Back to the restaurant scenario above, a frequent question from the customer after the server says “Red or Green?” is “Which is hotter?” Restaurants stake out their territory, not only in how they make their chile, but in terms of which is hotter.
Since I’m a bit of a chile-head, given a choice between the medium-hot and the hot Chimayó chile at the Farmers Market, I opted for the hot. So, I was more than a little concerned when Doug Howe, one of the other friends at our dinner, and the first to ladle some green chile onto his plate, took three large spoonsful. Before I could warn him, he took a bite and was in agony. I relieved him of his green chile, putting it on my plate, instead. Pat and I sure enjoyed the chile, Doug not so much. As for the other seven diners, I’m not sure.
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New Mexican Green Chile Sauce
This is classic New Mexican Green Chile. There are just a few aromatics and no herbs and spices to muddy the flavor. Removing the skin and seeds can be a chore as they want to stick to your fingers. Dipping the chile and your fingers in water makes the task a breeze however, you want to use that water as part of the sauce because all of the tasty liquid that collects inside the chile as it roasts would be lost otherwise.
Holding the chile over a bowl to catch any juice, use your fingers to remove the skin of the roasted chile. Most of the skin should slide off easily. You may need to work on a few bits here and there. Remove as much skin as possible but a few bits of stubbornly sticking skin aren’t a problem.
Shake whatever skin you can from your fingers (it has a tendency to cling desperately to your fingers) then dip your fingers and the chile in the bowl of water to remove the clinging skin.
Still holding the chile over a bowl, remove the stem end. You can usually do this by pinching the top of the chile but a pair of kitchen shears works well, too.
Discard the stem end and any seeds that cling to it.
Split the chile in half lengthwise. Again, this is pretty easy to do with a fingernail.
Dip the chile into the bowl of water and scrape away the seeds.
Put the cleaned chile into a clean bowl and repeat the process with the remaining chile.
Cut the chile into long strips.
Cut the chile crosswise into small squares
Add any liquid that has collected in the bottom of the bowl from the chopped chile to the bowl of water.
Strain out seeds and bits of flesh from the water using a three step process. Strain the water through a large sieve.
Strain the liquid through a fine, small sieve.
Strain the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth or a paper filter.
Chop the onion.
Mince the garlic.
Combine ½ cup of chopped chile, onion, garlic, strained water, and salt in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes.
Using an immersion blender or a regular blender puree the chile mixture. This will help to thicken the chile sauce without using a thickening agent.
Add the remaining diced chile and two cups of water to the puree and simmer until the chile is soft to the bite, but not mushy, approximately 15-20 minutes, adjusting salt approximately 10 minutes into the simmer. If you used a regular blender in the previous step, use the water to rinse out the blender jar before adding it to the pot.
The green chile can be refrigerated or frozen. It will become softer if frozen so best to cook it for a shorter time if it is going to be frozen.
Talk about a dish that simply wouldn’t exist in any recognizable form without new world crops, calabacitas is it! Squash, corn, and chile are all new world plants.
Calabacitas is Spanish for zucchini but is also the name given to a dish of zucchini, corn, and (usually) green chile.
Often served as a side dish, calabacitas makes an awesome burrito, too. Accompany it with some frijoles (and probably a tortilla or three) and you’ve got a great high-protein vegetarian dinner. Leave out the cheese and it’s vegan! Truth be told, I’m plus-minus on the cheese in any case. When serving this for company I usually sprinkle cheese on top as in this recipe, but if it’s just for “us,” cheese isn’t usually even a thought.
This is the time of year to serve the most sublime calabacitas possible as zucchini, corn, green chile, and tomatoes are all in the farmers’ market. But calabacitas is too good to be had only a few weeks a year and, honestly, versions made with frozen corn, canned tomatoes, and roasted green chile that you’ve squirreled away in your freezer along with the ever-present zucchini in the produce aisle are too good to pass up any time of year.
For me, calabacitas shares a serious failing with succotash. They are both great ideas in my estimation but the execution often falls flat.
When I set out to finally perfect a version of calabacitas that I felt comfortable serving, I thought back on all the less-than-perfect renditions I’d had since I first set foot in New Mexico in 1991.
The litany of offenses includes being too watery, being too rich, having huge chunks of zucchini that seem mismatched next to corn kernels, being under-seasoned and being aggressively seasoned.
That set out a plan of action for me. The zucchini should be cut approximately the same size as corn kernels. There needed to be a minimum amount of liquid in the finished dish. Loads of cream or butter or cheese were out of the question. The seasoning should complement the vegetables, not assume control of the dish.
Zucchini (the namesake vegetable) and corn were a given. Pretty much everything else was up for grabs. Tomatoes, which are sometimes included, seemed right for color and a bit of acidic brightness that the zucchini and corn lack. They have the added bonus of being another New World crop. Roasted green chile, also sometimes included, was right for several reasons. It screamed “New Mexico,” it would add a bit of complimentary smokiness to the blend, and, honestly, I’m a chile-head.
My preference was for hot or extra-hot chile. This is wrong for several reasons. First, calabacitas is not traditionally a spicy dish. Second, after one of the dinners where I tested out my evolving recipe, one of the guests said that it was unfortunate that the entire “calabacitas conversation” that evening centered on how hot it was and not on how good it was.
In cooking I prefer to bow to tradition but if there’s ever a place where I butt heads with tradition, it’s in making dishes spicy. But I decided there and then that I should follow tradition and use mild chile in my calabacitas.
Finally I was on to the aromatics and seasoning. Onion and garlic are my go-to combination unless there is some compelling reason for one or the other (usually based on tradition). The herbs eluded me for a while. I really wanted to use Mexican Oregano (which isn’t actually oregano) because of its New World origins but it just seemed to overpower the dish. In the end, I decided that a modest amount of Mediterranean Oregano played best in the sandbox with the other ingredients.
Let me know what you think of my rendition of a New Mexico classic.
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Calabacitas: A New Mexican Classic
Traditionally calabacitas is not a spicy dish so it is best to use mild roasted green chile unless you and all your eaters are chile heads. Bacon fat gives a great flavor but olive oil or other vegetable oil is fine, too. Frozen corn works well as there are so many other flavors in the dish but using fresh corn cut off the cob is a definite treat. I prefer to thaw frozen corn before cooking. Ice crystals can sometimes carry a "freezer" taste and rinsing them off can eliminate it. Also, it is easier to time the cooking of the corn in combination with other ingredients if it is not frozen when cooking starts. Rotel packs tomatoes in 10 ounce cans and they’re a bit of a Southwestern classic in and of themselves. In a pinch feta cheese can be used instead of Cotija
I also like coaxing a tremendous amount of flavor out of a small number of ingredients (though I don’t shy away from recipes with long ingredient lists either!).
I am a big fan of dishes that can be made in advance and warmed up for serving. Carne Adovada actually tastes better if it is refrigerated for a day or two.
For all of these reasons, Carne Adovada is an ideal dish for me. It is, bar none, my favorite New Mexican dish.
However, it isn’t necessary to use hot or extra-hot red chile. If you’re not a fan of spicy foods, use mild or medium-hot chile. Whatis critical is that you use actual New Mexico dried red chile.
Although I rode in a car along route 66 in the 1960s to visit an uncle in Los Angeles, I never spent any appreciable time in New Mexico until August 1991. Just days into that week-long visit to Santa Fe, I had Carne Adovada at Maria’s Restaurant.
I was hooked!
I was also enchanted by Santa Fe, as was my husband. By late 1992 we put in an offer on our first house in Santa Fe. The offer was accepted and we closed in January 1993. Thus began our love affair with Santa Fe.
We moved to Santa Fe full time in 2012 but we spent considerable time in Santa Fe every year until then (about ten times per year including all major holidays).
I was never happy with any Carne Adovada recipe that I tried, and I tried plenty, until I stumbled on a recipe from Al Lucero, the former owner of Maria’s Restaurant, in the program book for Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta a number of years ago.
In times past, when a hog was butchered in the fall, some of the meat was preserved in red chile. This chile-infused meat was later braised to become Carne Adovada. I don’t know of anyone who cures pork this way any longer but many recipes for Carne Adovada call for marinating the pork overnight in the red chile. This would seem to be closer to the traditional method, though simply marinating the meat would not produce the additional flavor that would come from actually curing the pork in the chile. Some recipes, though a minority in my experience, call for the addition of vinegar to the marinade to try to achieve more of a “cured” or “fermented” flavor.
Al Lucero’s approach is different but definitely creates an extra layer of flavor. The pork cubes are roasted first then braised in red chile. Refrigerating the completed Carne Adovada for a day or two before serving improves the flavor even more.
What I especially like about Al’s method is that it does not introduce any non-traditional ingredients to the Carne Adovada. Until I can taste Carne Adovada made from pork that is actually cured in red chile, I’m sticking with my tweaked version of Al’s method.
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Carne Adovada (Braised Pork with Red Chile)
The purity of the chile flavor is key to Carne Adovada so I avoid putting in other seasonings such as onion and oregano that are sometimes called for. This recipe, based on a recipe of Al Lucero, the former owner of Maria’s Restaurant in Santa Fe, roasts the pork first for a depth of flavor not obtainable otherwise. Remove any large pieces of fat from the pork but thin layers of fat between the meat are needed to ensure moist and tender pork, so don’t remove it all. I frequently buy a bone-in pork shoulder (aka pork butt) and use the bone to make broth.
Put the meat in a wide shallow baking/roasting pan that has a lid and roast at 450°F, uncovered, until well browned, turning every 20 minutes or so, approximately 90 minutes.
While the pork is roasting, make the red chile sauce using the proportions of ingredients called for above and following the directions in the Red Chile blog post. See the "Notes" section below for the link. There is some rendered fat in the pan. Do not discard the fat, it carries lots of flavor and improves the mouth feel of the sauce.
Beginning to brown.
Tossed after the top has browned.
Almost brown enough.
Browned and ready for the chile. Note that the liquid has all evaporated and created a brown fond in the pan. This gives extra flavor.
When pork is browned, add all the red chile sauce without draining any of the juices out of the pan.
Cook, covered, at 250°F for approximately 3-4 hours or until meat is very tender, stirring occasionally.
Remove the meat from the oven. Allow it to cool to room temperature.
Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.
Reheat the carne adovada, covered, at 250°F for approximately 2 hours. If the sauce is not thick enough, reheat uncovered at a somewhat higher temperature until the sauce is thickened.
This plate contains carne adovada, red rice, frijoles (beans), and calabacitas) (zucchini, corn, and roasted green chile).
I come by a love of spicy food honestly. I grew up in a family with a strong Southern Italian heritage and a love of spicy foods. There was usually one, if not two, types of hot salami in the fridge. My Uncle Joe Medile made the hot Italian sausage that we ate frequently and when my father said it wasn’t spicy enough, as he always did, the next batch was spicier still. My cousin Angie put up hot peppers (her recipe is coming in the autumn). Another Uncle ate sandwiches of fried hot peppers from his garden. I still have hot salami in my fridge, and I make sausage and jarred hot peppers and eat fried pepper sandwiches!
I could go on but you get the picture.
In college, I fell in with a crowd of friends from all around the world, quite a number of whom were into fiery foods; foods so hot that they made anything with a European sensibility (like Italian food) seem like child’s play.
It wasn’t surprising that when I first ate New Mexican food in 1991, I was hooked by Red Chile and Green Chile.
New Mexican chile (and it is spelled chile, with an “e” on the end) at the most basic is a sauce. Go into any New Mexican restaurant and order a burrito and the wait person, without missing a beat, will say “Red or Green?” unless you are in the know enough to have made your choice of chile part of the order in the first place. The sauce will be poured over the burrito before serving. If you are indecisive, you can have “Christmas” which will get you half red chile and half green chile.
New Mexican Chile has nothing in common with chili, whether it’s Tex-Mex, Cincinnati, or any other version. There is Green Chile Stew which contains pork (usually) and is served in a bowl like, well, a stew. But you won’t get Green Chile Stew if you ask for Green Chile. You’ll get a sauce.
I’ve collected lots of Red Chile recipes from friends; eaten Red Chile scores, if not hundreds of times in restaurants; and researched Red Chile in old cookbooks. I take a very traditional approach to what goes into my Red Chile, and it’s not much.
I think a traditional Red Chile should be made with ingredients that would have been available in the small, isolated farming communities in Northern New Mexico where the dish was perfected. When I see recipes that purport to taste traditional, if not be traditional, that contain things like raisins, chipotle in adobo, and Asian fish sauce, I sigh.
Mind you, those ingredients, and other equally incongruous ingredients (like frozen orange juice concentrate!), might make a tasty sauce but it would not be New Mexican Red Chile!
Red Chile should taste of chile with other ingredients used in small quantities to complement the chile. In my case those ingredients are garlic and salt. Period!
Before the advent of refrigeration, Red Chile, which is made from dried fully ripened, i.e. red, chile pods, was eaten most of the year. Green Chile, made from roasted, freshly harvested green chile pods, was eaten at harvest time.
Next month I’m going to post my favorite New Mexican recipe, Carne Adovada, slow-cooked pork cubes in an abundant amount of red chile sauce. The Red Chile in this post is an integral part of the process. If you want to give the Carne Adovada a try you might want to practice making Red Chile. If you’re at a loss for what to do with it, consider using it as a sauce on steak, chops or scrambled eggs. Pour it over mashed potatoes. Make burritos and smother them in red chile.
Before moving to New Mexico full time, we spent almost every holiday in Santa Fe. We always invited a large crowd of friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. Since we would leave Santa Fe to return to Chicago on the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving, leftovers became a problem. We quickly developed the tradition of having all of our Thanksgiving guests back for dinner on Friday which consisted of leftovers. The only new addition to the meal, though, was red chile which some of us, at least, used in place of gravy!
The uses for red chile are limited only by your imagination.
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New Mexican Red Chile Sauce
Commercially available red chile pods are categorized by heat level: mild, medium, hot, and extra hot. As with any agricultural product, there is some variability. Look for certified New Mexico grown chile. The town of Hatch in Southern New Mexico is probably the most well know chile-growing region but Chimayo in Northern New Mexico grows some pretty awesome chile, too. If you can’t find New Mexican chile in the markets near you, you can order it on line. I think that using whole pods rather than ground chile (chile molido…NOT to be confused with chili powder!!!) makes for a better texture. See the note at the bottom for a method using ground red chile. Remember, ground New Mexico Red Chile only contains chile pods, nothing else!!! Recipes for Red Chile usually start by specifying a particular number of chile pods. However, many of the pods in any batch of chile are broken. My solution was to weigh the pods, after removing seeds and stems, so that I no longer had to guess about how much broken up chile pod equals one whole pod.
Break off the stem of each chile pod and empty out the seeds and pith. You might have to break the pod in one or two places to get out the seeds. Try not to break it into small pieces, however.
The stems, seeds, and pith ready for the compost heap!
Weigh out 1 ½ ounces of chile pods after stem, seeds, and pith have been removed.
Put the chile in a bowl.
Cover the chiles with very hot tap water.
Steep the chiles in the hot water until softened, 15- 20 minutes.
Lift the chiles out of the water and into a colander, attempting to leave as many of the seeds behind as possible. Despite your best efforts, there will still be some!
Discard the water used to soften the chiles.
Put the softened chiles, garlic, and 1 ¼ cups of fresh water in a blender.
Puree until smooth, one to two minutes.
Pour the chile puree into a saucepan.
Use the remaining ¼ cup of water to rinse out the blender jar. Add this to the saucepan.
Add the salt to the chile puree.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered till thickened, about 20-30 minutes.
Adjust salt near the end of cooking.
Some cooks like to toast the chile pods in the oven. I have done this but I don’t believe it adds enough flavor to justify the extra work.
The water used to soak the chile can be bitter so I always discard it and use fresh water for making the sauce. The seeds and pith can also add a bitter note. You’ll never get rid of all the seeds but eliminate as many as possible.
If you want to use ground New Mexico red chile pods (chile molido) rather than whole pods, first puree the garlic with some of the water. Add the garlic puree to the ground chile. Add the remaining water a little at a time, stirring well, to avoid lumps. Add the salt and proceed with simmering as described above.