New Mexico Feature
Flavors of New Mexico
Chile peppers, which have been locally grown since ancient times, are a defining ingredient of New Mexican cuisine. Combined with corn tortillas, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes, chiles bind together the New Mexico that for centuries sustained indigenous people, the Spanish, and subsequent arrivals. A fan will travel any distance—down any highway—in pursuit of a great chile sauce (which is referred to in these parts as simply "chile"). From Chope's south of Las Cruces to M&J's Sanitary Tortilla Factory in Albuquerque and JoAnn's Ranch-o-Casados in Española (to name a few classic hot spots), the pursuit of the most flavorful—but not necessarily the hottest—chile remains a personal quest akin to proving one's honor.
How chiles first arrived in New Mexico is the subject of debate. Some believe the Spanish introduced them to the Pueblo Indians on their travels north from Mexico. Others say they were grown in New Mexico centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish, having been introduced through trade with the peoples of Mexico and South America.
The source of the chile's heat is the chemical capsaicin, found in the pepper's heart and membrane. In addition to providing a culinary delight to chile lovers, capsaicin has been used medicinally since prehistoric times; it's thought to prevent blood clots and heart attacks, and has been found to hinder cholesterol absorption. Low in fat and high in vitamins A and C and beta-carotene, it also speeds up metabolism and helps digestion. When you eat chile, or even touch it, endorphins (the "hormones of pleasure") are released in the brain. The same chemical reaction that produces "chile addiction" also blunts pain.
The green variety of chile, generically called "Hatch" (for the New Mexico town that produces the bulk of the state's crop), is the commercially developed type known as New Mexico 6-10 and the Big Jim. The best red chiles are said to be grown from the old stock cultivated in Chimayó and other high mountain villages of the north—Española, Dixon, Velarde, and Peñasco.
By far the state's most important vegetable crop, New Mexico chiles are grown on 30,000 acres, mostly in Luna and Doña Ana counties. Sixty percent of the nation's chile crop comes from the Land of Enchantment.
From mid-August through the fall, the New Mexican air is scented with the warm, enticing fragrance of chiles roasting outdoors in large, wire, propane-fired cages. Around State Fair time in September, people head for their favorite roadside stand to buy a sack of fresh-roasted green chiles. Once stored in the freezer, they're used all winter long, in stews, enchiladas, salsas, and burritos.
As the season progresses into October, it's time to buy a red-chile ristra, a string of chiles, to hang full, heavy, and sweet, near the front door, a sign of warmth and welcome. It's said the ristra brings good luck—and it certainly is convenient to have the makings of soul-warming red-chile salsa right at hand.
Aguacate: Spanish for avocado, the key ingredient of guacamole.
Albóndigas: Meatballs, usually cooked with rice in a meat broth.
Bizcochitos: Buttery cookies flavored with cinnamon and anise seeds and served typically at Christmas but available throughout the year.
Burrito: A warm flour tortilla wrapped around meat, beans, and vegetables and smothered in chiles and cheese; many New Mexicans also love breakfast burritos (filled with any combination of the above, along with eggs and, typically, bacon or sausage and potatoes).
Calabacitas: Summer squash, usually served with corn, chiles, and other vegetables.
Carne adovada: Red-chile-marinated pork (or, occasionally, chicken).
Chalupa: A corn tortilla deep-fried in the shape of a bowl, filled with pinto beans (sometimes meat), and topped with cheese, guacamole, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa.
Chicharrones: Fried pork rinds.
Chilaquiles: Often served at breakfast, this casserole-like dish consists of small pieces of fried tortillas baked with red or green chiles, bits of chicken or cheese, and sometimes eggs.
Chile relleno: A poblano pepper peeled, stuffed with cheese or a special mixture of spicy ingredients, dipped in batter, and fried.
Chile: A stewlike dish with Texas origins that typically contains beans, beef, and red chile.
Chiles: New Mexico's infamous hot peppers, which come in an endless variety of sizes and in various degrees of hotness, from the thumb-size jalapeño to the smaller and often hotter serrano. They can be canned or fresh, dried or cut up into salsa. Most traditional New Mexican dishes are served either with green, red, or both types of chiles (ask for "Christmas" when indicating to your server that you'd like both red and green). Famous regional uses for green chile include green-chile stew (usually made with shredded pork), green-chile cheeseburgers, and green-chile-and-cheese tamales.
Chimichanga: The same as a burrito, only deep-fried and topped with a dab of sour cream or salsa. (The chimichanga was allegedly invented in Tucson, Arizona.)
Chipotle: A dried smoked jalapeño with a smoky, almost sweet, chocolaty flavor.
Chorizo: Well-spiced Spanish sausage, made with pork and red chiles.
Enchilada: A rolled or flat corn tortilla filled with meat, chicken, seafood, or cheese, an enchilada is covered with chile and baked. The ultimate enchilada is made with blue Native American corn tortillas. New Mexicans order them flat, sometimes topped with a fried egg.
Fajitas: A Tex-Mex dish of grilled beef, chicken, fish, or roasted vegetables and served with peppers, onions, and pico de gallo, served with tortillas; traditionally known as arracheras.
Flauta: A tortilla filled with cheese or meat and rolled into a flutelike shape ("flauta" means flute) and lightly fried.
Frijoles refritos: Refried beans, often seasoned with lard or cheese.
Frito Pie: Originally from Texas but extremely popular in New Mexican diners and short-order restaurants, this savory, humble casserole consists of Fritos snack chips layered with chile, cheese, green onions, and pinto beans.
Guacamole: Mashed avocado, mixed with tomatoes, garlic, onions, lemon juice, and chiles, used as a dip, a side dish, or a topping.
Hatch: A small southern New Mexico town in the Mesilla Valley, known for its outstanding production and quality of both green and red chiles. The "Hatch" name often is found on canned chile food products.
Huevos rancheros: New Mexico's answer to eggs Benedict—eggs doused with chile and sometimes melted cheese, served on top of a corn tortilla (they're best with a side order of chorizo).
Nopalitos: The pads of the prickly pear cactus, typically cut up and served uncooked in salads or baked or stir-fried as a vegetable side dish. (The tangy-sweet, purplish-red fruit of the prickly pear is often used to make juice drinks and margaritas.)
Posole: Resembling popcorn soup, this is a sublime marriage of lime, hominy, pork, chiles, garlic, and spices.
Quesadilla: A folded flour tortilla filled with cheese and meat or vegetables and warmed or lightly fried so the cheese melts.
Queso: Cheese; an ingredient in many Mexican and Southwestern recipes (cheddar or Jack is used most commonly in New Mexican dishes).
Ristra: String of dried red chile peppers, often used as decoration.
Salsa: Finely chopped concoction of green and red chile peppers, mixed with onion, garlic, and other spices.
Sopaipilla: Puffy deep-fried bread that's similar to Navajo fry bread (found in Arizona and western New Mexico); it's served either as a dessert with honey drizzled over it or savory as a meal stuffed with pinto beans or meat.
Taco: A corn or flour tortilla served either soft, or baked or fried and served in a hard shell; it's then stuffed with vegetables or spicy meat and garnished with shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, and grated cheese.
Tacos al carbón: Shredded pork cooked in a mole sauce and folded into corn tortillas.
Tamale: Ground corn made into a dough, often filled with finely ground pork and red chiles; it's steamed in a corn husk.
Tortilla: A thin pancake made of corn or wheat flour, a tortilla is used as bread, as an edible "spoon," and as a container for other foods. Locals place butter in the center of a hot tortilla, roll it up, and eat it as a scroll.
Trucha en terra-cotta: Fresh trout wrapped in corn husks and baked in clay.
Verde: Spanish for "green," as in chile verde (a green chile sauce).
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