Every state in the country boasts an official state song, bird, tree, and flower. New Mexico also proudly lays claim to other symbols, including chile and frijoles (beans) as our state vegetables, and the legislatively approved state question of “red or green?” The question refers to chile, of course, and is heard constantly in restaurants when servers need to know a diner’s preference for a particular dish. Now New Mexico has an official state aroma as well, the fragrance of roasting green chile.
Probably no food in any other state — not lobsters in Maine, pork in Iowa, nor beef in Texas — ranks as highly in the culture as chiles do in New Mexico. They season most New Mexican dishes in one way or another, defining the essence of our traditional cooking, and they are also a major crop economically, a top export, and for many of us, a virtual addiction. Let’s review the history and uses of chile to help you make an informed decision when you’re asked “Red or green?”
ROOTED IN HISTORY
The world’s first chiles probably grew wild as tiny berries in the jungles of present-day Bolivia and Peru at least nine thousand years ago. Migrating birds, possibly aided by human traders, carried the seeds north to central Mexico. Over time, plant breeders in that fertile region transformed the petite berry into the species Capsicum annuum and developed a variety of cultivars, such as the jalapeño and the poblano. When the Spanish came to New Mexico to settle, they brought this species with them to the Santa Fe area. Chile crops thrived in the high desert climate.
During the next two centuries, before the rest of the country knew anything about chiles, the fiery fruit — yes, it’s technically a fruit even though our legislators proclaimed it a veg — became the distinguishing feature of New Mexican cooking. Then as now, it wasn’t simply added to food as a finishing touch at the table but was a core component of a meal.
After the United States seized and occupied New Mexico, settlers moved into the southern part of the territory along the valley of the Rio Grande, destined to become the future center of chile cultivation in the country. In the budding town of Las Cruces in 1889, the territorial government established the college now known as New Mexico State University. The school hired one of its first graduating class members, Fabian Garcia, as a crop research specialist. He focused on chile, and bred a singular New Mexico variety of Capsicum annuum, the New Mexico No. 9. The university even has a Chile Pepper Institute you can visit.
The school continues to be the center of research on the hybridized chiles that grow especially well in Doña Ana County and surrounding areas of southern New Mexico. The village of Hatch in that area, the self-proclaimed Chile Capital of the World, is best known as the source of these pungent pods.
In contrast, Northern New Mexico farmers often grow descendants of the original chiles brought by the Spanish. Horticulturists refer to these heirloom lines as “landraces.” They tend to identify closely with geographic area such as Chimayó, Dixon, or Velarde. Chimayó chile is especially valued in its red form. When the pods dry to red, they have an incomparable sweet earthiness especially valued by chile connoisseurs. There isn’t actually a lot of Chimayó chile grown in the village’s high mountain valleys, so it goes for a premium price.
In both areas of the state, the chiles can vary substantially in heat. While some of that pungency is based on the particular cultivar, much depends on the growing conditions. Environmental stress increases tanginess, so climate, rain, temperatures, and soil composition matter in significant respects. Seeds from Garcia’s “New Mexico No. 9” made it to Southern California in the early 20th century and prospered in the crop-friendly environment. Those “Anaheim” chiles though, are typically less robust in heat as well as other flavor factors than chiles grown from the same seeds in the higher stress conditions of New Mexico.
HOT TIMES AHEAD: red or green?
As a gardener, I think it’s fun to have a few New Mexican chile plants. I will always count on my favorite farmers’ market vendors, though, to supply the bulk of my annual chile stash. That includes fresh green at the beginning of the late summer harvest, or red as the crop matures on the plants and turns to crimson, or allowed to dry in the strings of pods we call ristras.
Some chiles take on different names in their green and red forms. The jalapeño and the poblano mentioned above, are called the chipotle and ancho, respectively, in their red dried forms. In contrast, almost everyone in New Mexico calls our signature pods simply red or green.
Green and red both zip up everything from milkshakes to cupcakes these days, but the classic sauces are still the stalwart core of classic New Mexican dishes. Back before refrigeration and freezers, green chile was eaten in that brief fresh late summer season. Dried red was the solo option for the rest of the year. In case you’re wondering, it’s not impossible to dry green, but its much higher moisture content makes it a far greater challenge.
As the state question makes clear, now we can choose red or green according to personal preference. Some folks have a standing fave. I opt for both — often called Christmas — in restaurants that are new to me. I might choose one over the other in a place where I know the flavor of both. Other times, it depends on the dish. I prefer chile rellenos smothered in green, to complement the green pods of the dish. I often prefer red mingling with gooey cheese in enchiladas. It’s hard to go wrong though. It’s fair to ask which chile is hotter that day and make your choice accordingly.
It’s possible to buy chile cooked down into sauce from many sources. It’s good to be able to make your own when you wish, the perfect topper for burritos, enchiladas, tamales, and more. I’m giving you a recipe for red from whole pods because they retain their full-bodied flavor better than chile that has been pre-ground. The mixture will be blended into a silky sauce before serving.
The green can be made with fresh or thawed frozen chile that has been roasted and peeled (to eliminate its tougher skin). Then the green chile is chopped to give it a slightly chunkier finished texture. Whether you’re green or red, or ecumenical, make some today.
Red or Green: Chile Sauce Recipes
Red Chile Sauce from Whole Pods
Makes approximately 4 cups
8 ounces (about 20 to 25) dried whole red New Mexican chile pods, mild, medium, hot, or a combination
4 cups water or chicken stock (divided use)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 to 2 teaspoons crumbled dried Mexican oregano, or marjoram
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
Toast dried whole chile pods in a heavy skillet over medium heat until they are warm and release their fragrance, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Remove chiles from the skillet immediately. When cool enough to handle, break each chile pod into several pieces (wearing rubber or plastic gloves if your skin is sensitive), discarding the stem and seeds. Place chile pieces in a blender and pour in one-half of the water or stock. Puree until mostly smooth but with a few flecks of chile still visible in the liquid.
Warm oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté several minutes until the onion is limp. Pour in the blended chile mixture, then add oregano and salt. Puree the remaining chiles with the remaining water and pour it into the sauce in the pan. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for a total of 20 to 25 minutes. After about 15 minutes, taste the sauce and adjust seasonings. When ready, the sauce will be cooked down enough to coat a spoon thickly but still drop off of it easily. Use warm or refrigerate for later use.
Green Chile Sauce
Makes approximately 4 cups
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ to 1 medium onion, chopped fine
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups chopped roasted mild to medium-hot New Mexican green chile, fresh or thawed frozen
2 cups chicken or beef stock
½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
Warm oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour and continue cooking for another 1 or 2 minutes. Mix in chile. Immediately begin pouring in stock, stirring as you go, then add salt. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook for about 15 minutes, until thickened but still very pourable. Use warm or refrigerate for later use.
Variations: Cooks desiring a still meatier sauce may want to brown off a bit of ground or cubed pork loin or beef chuck with the onion and garlic mixture, and then simmer the sauce longer, until the meat is tender.
Story and photos 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.