I was 18 when I moved to Albuquerque, N.M., to attend college. Growing up near New York City and a dedicated foodie, I thought that I had been exposed to just about every type of cuisine available.
From Afghan palau to Argentinian chípa, I simply assumed I had tasted it all. Yet there I was, making my first foray into the wide and diverse cuisine of New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
New Mexican cuisine, like the more widely known Tex-Mex, is a unique blend of locally produced foods with influences from many cultures. Many of the dishes share names with well-known Mexican foods. In a New Mexican restaurant, you will find enchiladas, burritos and empanadas, to name a few, but the New Mexican versions are notably different — mostly due to the ubiquitous use of the New Mexican chile.
My first experience with this delightful fruit came within a week of my arrival in Albuquerque, at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. I ordered a plate of chicken enchiladas, and the server followed up with the official state question, “Red or green?” My mind reeled.
What part of this order could possibly be red or green? The beans? The tortillas? Certainly not the chicken. Maybe the server was confused or misheard me. Fortunately, before I began questioning the woman’s understanding of her menu, I was set straight by my dining companion.
Almost all traditional entrees come with a sauce made out of chiles. The color of the chile, and thereby the sauce, depends on when the fruit was picked. Green chiles are less ripe. They are roasted, peeled and seeded.
The meat is chopped and added to dishes or cooked into a wide variety of green chile sauces. Green chile has a light, sweet flavor. A favorite dish is the chile relleno, a split green chile stuffed with cheese and battered with a light egg breading and fried. We even put chile sauce on top of that!
Red chiles are allowed to ripen longer. They have a smokier flavor that can have hints of other flavors, such as chocolate. Red chiles are prepared by drying them out. Ristras of dried chiles hang in nearly every restaurant and around most New Mexican homes.
The dried pods are cleaned and then either crushed into a powder called molido for later use or boiled directly into a basic red chile sauce.
Neither version is known for being especially spicy, but rather for their deep flavors.
The area of Doña Ana County in the southern part of the state — and particularly the city of Hatch — is considered the best source for green chiles, which are recognized as being distinct from other versions of capsicum annuum.
These chiles themselves are very nutritious: they’re higher in vitamin C than oranges per pound and have high levels of calcium and vitamin A. Following up on the use of chiles to treat cold symptoms, researchers have isolated one of the constituent parts — capsaicin — for use in cold and flu remedies. For my part, when feeling a bit under the weather, I would simply head to my favorite restaurant and order up a bowl of red or green.
Since moving to California, I have often commiserated with other New Mexican emigrants about our longing for chile. We have even conspired to make runs to New Mexico in the fall or to collaborate on bribing friends to ship some to us. I have made a few visits back to New Mexico and am always sure to bring back whatever I can carry.
Despite being the state’s number one agricultural product, these chiles are seldom found outside of New Mexico’s borders. Within the last few years, however, the demand for chiles has led to its increased appearance, especially in the West.
Websites have appeared that ship chiles and other New Mexican products like biscochitos (sugar cookies) and chicharrones (fried pork fat) to fans of New Mexican food. On my last trip back to New York, I even saw a restaurant specials board offering Hatch Green Chile Smothered Chicken Breast.
Locally, Riverhill Farm is growing various types of chiles, and we hope to roast them when this crop is ready later in the fall.
I am excited that Briar-Patch will finally provide a limited amount of New Mexican Hatch green chiles for purchase next week.
There will be a full size chile roaster on the patio to roast them from 1 to 5 p.m., Aug. 24 and 25.
Then, from 6 to 8 p.m., Aug. 29, I will teach a class on making chile sauces as part of our Co-op Cooking Class series. For more information or to sign up for the class, see www.briarpatch.coop or call 530-272-5333 ext. 129.
Chris Maher is general manager of BriarPatch Co-op Community Market. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Green chile beginners can just try them on quesadillas and in breakfast burritos. Then, once you’re hooked, here are a couple of recipes to take it to the next level.
Green Chile Stew
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds boneless pork, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup flour
14-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1-1/2 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
3 Yukon gold potatoes, quartered
1-2 cups chopped fresh or frozen roasted green chiles (amount depends on heat factor; start with just 1/4 cup chiles and add to taste)
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven with a cover. Add pork and cook until lightly browned. Add onions and garlic, being careful not to burn. Add flour and stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes, along with salt and pepper to taste. Add broth. Add 1/4 cup green chile. Cover and simmer on low heat for 1 1/2 hours. Add more chile at the end of cooking.
Serve with flour tortillas and grated cheese.
Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas
12 corn tortillas
Oil for frying (safflower works well)
3 cups cooked, shredded chicken
10 ounces jack cheese
3/4 cup minced white onion
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup sour cream
4 ounces fresh chiles, chopped
2 ounces cheese, jack or Colby jack
Fry tortillas one at a time, just until pliable, and set aside. Divide the chicken, 10 ounces of the jack cheese, and the onions onto the 12 tortillas. Roll each one or stack them (your choice). Melt the butter over medium heat and add flour. Slowly add the broth and mix until thickened.
Mix in the sour cream and chiles, being careful not to boil. Pour over the enchiladas. Top with cheese. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.