We talk a lot here about the joys of our New Mexican food, but what makes it so special — nearly addictive — to those of us who are lucky enough to call this state home?
YOU KNOW IT WHEN YOU EAT IT!
The most obvious answer is the chile, of course. We’re not talking some chili powder blended with cumin, like Texans use next door, or fresh salsa, more common to Mexico’s cuisines. It’s our pungent long green New Mexican pods and their more mature counterpart, red chiles, that fuel and fire food in the Land of Enchantment. In the early 1600s, chile seeds were brought by the Spanish who pushed northward from Mexico into the area near present-day Santa Fe. The seeds flourished in the climate. Over the centuries, a distinctive New Mexican chile developed, grown from the Hatch area in the south to Rio Grande mountain valleys near Dixon and Embudo.
RED OR GREEN?
Not everyone realizes that green and red chiles are from the same plant, with the green pods ripening to red later in the growing season. To further confuse things, when we talk of chile or chiles, we can mean the pods or a cooked sauce made from them. Pretty much the sole source of seasoning for classic dishes, either or both of these sauces can blanket burritos and enchiladas, and more. Green has a more vegetal flavor, while red is earthier, with a hint of sweetness. Typically, green is used fresh (or from fresh frozen). It’s roasted, then chopped, before cooking in a roux, with a bit of onion or garlic, and some stock or water. It retains a little texture when cooked. Red is most often used dried, after stringing up in the ristra form, a beautiful sight dangling from the eaves of local homes. Red chile is made into sauce in a way similar to the green version, but because the chile is ground initially, the sauce has a smoother texture. Both are piquant, plated expressions of the local heritage.
THE THREE SISTERS in New mexican food
Chile’s the flashy ingredient in local fare. However, “the three sisters” — corn, beans, and squash — are the underpinnings of New Mexican food. These crops were the staples of Mesoamerican agriculture, perhaps as early as 7,000 B.C. All were being grown by the Puebloans in this area when the Spanish arrived and remain the core of the cuisine today.
Corn is the most recognized of the sisters today but, unlike the sweet yellow and white varieties prevalent through other parts of the country, the corn grown by the Pueblo people was often blue. Blue corn is known for its nutty quality and higher protein content. The masses know it best in corn chips, but blue corn tortillas are still common for enchiladas here. The enchiladas are frequently stacked flat, rather than rolled because the tortillas tend to be less supple than ones made from white or yellow corn. Starchy varieties of corn are the basis for posole, the hominy-like dish that’s a part of most combination plates. Sometimes the dried corn is stewed up with a little pork. It can be served as a stand-alone item, topped with cabbage and other ingredients in a more Mexican style.
Beans here are most often the speckled pinto, slow-simmered in a pot on the back of the stove. Pintos are commonly eaten whole, rather than mashed and fried, simply by the bowl or accompanying main dishes.
Squash isn’t as common today as the two other sisters, but calabacitas reigns as the region’s most popular fresh summer vegetable dish. A saute of zucchini or yellow summer squash, it’s usually mixed with onion, fresh corn, and chopped green chile. It makes a popular filling for vegetarian or vegan versions of tacos or burritos, as well as a stand-alone side dish for everyone.
MEAT in new mexican food
In general, New Mexican cuisine relies less heavily on meat, especially beef, than Tex-Mex to the east and Arizona-Mex to the west. In Northern New Mexico, in particular, goat and mutton were favorites. Pork eventually won out for our tamales and as the base of the signature dish, carne adovada, where it cooks low and slow in a hearty bath of red chile. Green chile stew might be as much as chile as beef or pork here. All these animals were brought to the Americas by the Spanish and other settlers. There’s been a growing interest more recently in Pre-Contact meats like bison and wild turkey.
DON’T FORGET THE SOPAIPILLAS
The Spanish brought wheat to the Americas, growing it pretty much everywhere they settled. They made raised bread from it, but it became popular for tortillas, too. Tortillas here are thicker and fluffier than across most of the Southwest, though supple enough to wrap around a filling, or dunk into a chile stew.
A dough similar to that used for tortillas can be fried up in hot oil to make poofy sopaipillas. Sopaipillas are a cousin to Native American frybread, which might be eaten with honey or sugar, or used as the base for a taco.
In some areas, sopaipillas are thought of as a dessert. More common in Northern New Mexico is for them to be served on the side with a drizzle of honey to help cut the heat of the chile dishes. The fried breads can be stuffed with meat, beans, or even natillas, a dessert custard.
AND SPEAKING OF DESSERT…
The classic desserts — the baked custard known as flan, and the stovetop pudding-like custard, natillas — have origins back in Spain. Capirotada, a bread pudding with a sauce of caramelized sugar, and cheese for creaminess, is especially popular around Easter. All are good at quenching the heat of a fiery meal.
Know that this is a very basic overview, and that is necessarily simplistic, but I hope it will entice you to try more of New Mexico’s local dishes. Whether you find a recipe and cook up traditional New Mexican food at home or visit area restaurants, you are sure to have a delicious meal! Included here for you to try is a heritage recipe that deserves to be more widely known.
Torta de Huevo Tradicional recipe
If you didn’t grow up here, you may have never come across this homey dish traditionally served during Lent. These are light crispy egg fritters, sometimes called torrejas, but referred to here as torta de huevo, not to be confused with Mexican tortas, which are sandwiches. They typically are served in a little sea of red chile sauce. This version is from The Rancho de Chimayó Cookbook, authored by my late husband, Bill, and me for the restaurant’s owners, the Jaramillo family.
Makes 2 to 3 main dish servings
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Scant ¼ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt or more to taste
Canola or vegetable oil for frying, to a depth of 1 inch
Your favorite red chile sauce
- Separate the eggs, dropping whites into a medium-sized non-plastic mixing bowl and placing yolks in a small bowl. Mix the yolks lightly with a fork or whisk. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt, and set aside.
- Beat the egg whites with a mixer at high speed until stiff. Gently fold the egg yolk mixture into the egg whites.
- Lay several thicknesses of paper towels near the stove. In a heavy skillet, heat the oil to 375 degrees F. Scoop up a large spoonful of the batter and drop it gently into the oil. Within seconds it should puff up by 50 percent or more into a fritter. Turn the fritter at least once to cook evenly and fry until deep golden brown. It will be fragilely crisp. Remove the first fritter with a slotted spoon and drain it on the paper towels. Cut into the fritter to see if it is cooked through but has a melting tenderness. The interior should not be dry. Adjust the oil temperature if necessary.
- Drop in the remaining batter, several large spoonfuls at a time. Don’t crowd the fritters as they cook. Repeat the process until all the batter is used.
- Transfer the fritters to a platter or plates and surround them with warmed chile sauce. Serve immediately.
Ahead-of-time note: Up to an hour ahead, the egg whites and yolks can be prepared to the point just before they are combined. Keep both bowls chilled until ready to use.
Top image: Flat blue corn enchiladas with red chile sauce.
Story by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.