If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum), no matter what neighboring states might say. You might not know that paprika and cayenne come from chile products. Paprika is made from low-heat red chile, and cayenne from a more pungent, higher heat pepper. But nothing beats fresh green chile.
Leaving green chile on the plant until it is red and nearly dry makes the red chile pods that are used for chile ristras, and especially for delicious red chile sauce. People who live in New Mexico love to eat chile, and the only real debate is whether red or green chiles are better. The best way to solve any dispute and please the taste buds is to order both (a choice called “Christmas” in our local restaurants). Take my poll below if you have a strong opinion!
According to New Mexico chile growers, the industry is in trouble because of low-cost foreign competition. But chile crops require warm weather, arid conditions and warm soil. Southern New Mexico in particular boasts the perfect chile-growing conditions. And since weather can affect not only harvest but flavor and heat of the fruit, why would anyone buy from less than the best?
If you want to grow a few plants in your own garden, the chile plants thrive best when temperatures are at or above 60 degrees. Even a light frost can kill a chile pepper plant. Direct-seeding is preferred, but you need a long, warm growing season to start chile from seeds. Otherwise, you can transplant chile plants that are about six to eight inches high and space them about 10 inches apart. Make sure they’re getting full sun and are in well-drained soil. They need consistent watering, but adjust based on rainfall. They won’t like wet feet.
Chiles are ready for harvest around August, and New Mexico towns fill with the smell of roasted green chile. Both red and green chiles are loaded with vitamins A and C and tons of flavor. If you’ve never tried them before, start with mild or medium heat and work your way up.
If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Try the search page for NM chile sellers from the NM Chile Association.
Jokes circulate on social media this time of year about New Mexico traditions, such as adding green chile to stuffing. And all year long when faced with the difficult choice of red or green chile to top your burrito, eggs and just about anything else, New Mexico diners take the easy but delicious way out, selecting “Christmas” for both red and green, please.
So, we have delicious food, but a few other traditions make the holidays in New Mexico special.
You can hang pretty icicle lights, but a row of luminarias casts a beautiful, flickering light along a path. Made from brown paper bags filled with sand and a small candle, the tradition of lighting luminarias dates back at least 300 years. The meaning of the lights was to welcome the Christ child.
Of course, even something as peaceful as a luminaria is not without controversy. The literal translation of the word is “bonfire,” which is not the intent! Another word for the lights is farolitos, but most agree this stands for the candle placed inside the bag.
Regardless, luminarias are an easy addition to holiday décor. You simply fold down the tops of the bags, fill each with a couple of inches of sand and then place your candle in the middle of the sand. We light them on Christmas Eve. Learn more about luminarias and see some great photos at Visit Albuquerque.
Although not limited to the holidays, red chile ristras are a classic and organic way to celebrate the season in New Mexico. Our dry climate is perfect for chile crops in the warmer, southern portion of the state (like Hatch, of course!). Traditionally, red chile pods are dried in the sun for storage and use later.
Ritras, or a string of red chile pods, are said to bring good luck, and typically hang on a front porch. They’re the perfect color for adding to holiday décor, and you can even find wreaths made with red chile pods.
More About New Mexican Food
Sorry, I have to return to holiday food for a minute. Posole is a favorite holiday meal in New Mexico. Made with hominy, pork, herbs and spices, posole is a hearty soup and meal in itself. We usually flavor ours with red chile. You can cook the pods with the posole or add red chile as you serve.
Queso is a well-known and simple dish for holiday gatherings. Our favorite queso recipe actually comes from neighboring Texas. It’s from Texas Cowboy Cooking by Tom Perini of Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, Texas.
And what’s a holiday gathering without tamales? I’ve never tried to make them, because I hear it’s a lot of work. But nothing beats authentic, homemade tamales wrapped in corn husks and steamed to perfection. Then you top them with red, green, or… Christmas!
Top it all off with a few biscochitos and pinon coffee. Here’s my post on the delicious anise-laced cookies from a few years ago.
The New Mexico state cookie is unique, crunchy, slightly sweet and uses an unusual herb. The biscochito (or bizcochito) is also easy to bake. What makes the biscochito different from a typical sugar cookie is incorporation of the herb anise, or aniseed, into the recipe.
I’ll admit to not favoring these cookies in the past only because I tend to shy from the rather strong flavor of anise, which resembles black licorice. But when I made my own, I found the recipe used just enough anise seed to give the cookies a hint of the herb without overpowering the buttery crunch or sweet and spicy taste of the cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top.
Apparently, anise is used medicinally to help with upset stomachs, and as an expectorant. The plant (Pimpinella anisum) dates back thousands of years, and is native to Egypt and the Near East. Meditteranean plants typically do well in warm, dry climates. In fact, once seedlings are established, anise does best if the roots are allowed to dry between watering. The herb prefers sun, but only grows as an annual.
But back to the cookies, because right now, I’m all about the holidays. I’ll worry about my garden after I open some garden-themed gifts (hint, wink).
I don’t have my own biscochito recipe, but the one I use is from a Southwestern cookbook put out in the 1980s by the Junior League of Albuquerque called Simply Simpatico. It’s a great cookbook in general
Here’s a link to New Mexico Magazine’s recipe, although I used shortening instead of lard, no orange juice, and much less anise. Suffice it to say that if you are not fond of anise, or uncertain, go easy on it your first batch; I suggest a teaspoon of anise for each pound or stick of shortening. The other secret to making these cookies so good is the little bit of liquor. My recipe called for a sweet wine, but several use brandy instead.
The cookies should be a sort of cross between sugar cookies and shortbread, crumbly but crispy, with plenty of cinnamon and sugar on top.
Try this New Mexico favorite and be a hit at your family or office holiday party. Feliz Navidad from New Mexico!
If you’re like me, you cook way more turkey than you need for the number of family or guests. But turkey is a delicious leftover. I love turkey sandwiches, but in New Mexico, we’re all about growing and eating chile. So I’ve substituted turkey in my favorite chicken enchilada recipe several times. That way, we can eat up all the leftovers without feeling like we’re, well, eating leftovers!
This is such an easy recipe, and it’s simple to adapt for areas of the country where you can’t grow or buy fresh green chile. Use canned chile (New Mexico grown if you can find it, of course!) and make it as hot as you like. I’ve even made a small chile-free version of it in a tiny casserole dish for my daughter when she was younger and wouldn’t eat hot, spicy foods.
Typically, chicken enchiladas are layered like a casserole, at least in my experience throughout New Mexico and Arizona. If you prefer to put the tortillas in oil and then roll them with the chicken and onion inside, you can make them that way. I like mine layered, plus I believe these are a tiny bit healthier because I dip the tortillas in low-sodium chicken broth instead of frying them. At the least, I can trade those calories for more cheese!
And if you live in a climate that’s warm enough to grow your own chile peppers, I highly recommend it. We realized when eating the dish pictured that ours lacked a little flavor this year, but we had a cool summer and live a few zones colder than optimal for chiles as it is. I’m going to try a few tricks next year to keep the chile plants warmer.
Check out the recipe for Turkey Green Chile Enchiladas below, and note that I used chicken in the photos only because I had some leftover roasted chicken in my refrigerator. We’ll be eating plenty of turkey next week!
3 to 4 fresh roasted green chiles or 1 to 2 cans (4 oz each) New Mexico green chile, chopped, to taste
1 can low-sodium chicken broth
1 (10 oz) can cream of chicken soup
1/2 (10 oz) can cream of mushroom soup
1 dozen corn tortillas
2 to 3 cups shredded cheddar or jack and Colby (Mexican blend) cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Chop or shred cooked turkey into bite-sized pieces. Chop onion. Peel, rinse and seed green chiles before chopping to desired size.
Mix chopped onion and turkey together; add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Mix canned soups and 1/2 cup of chicken broth. Add chopped green chile to soup mixture and stir. Pour remaining chicken broth into a shallow bowl.
Dip a corn tortilla into chicken broth and place it into the bottom of a casserole dish, preferably a 9 x 12 rectangular pan. Repeat with another tortilla and a third as necessary, tearing the third tortilla in half as needed after dipping to adequately cover the bottom of the pan.
Sprinkle chicken/onion mixture evenly over tortillas, followed by about one-third of soup/green chile mixture. Sprinkle evenly with some cheese.
Repeat the layering process two more times, being sure to reserve a small portion of soup mixture and cheese for the top layer.
Dip and place the final three tortillas on the top layer. Add remaining soup and green chile mixture and top with cheese as desired. Bake uncovered in center of oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until mixture appears bubbly toward the center of pan. Cut into squares and serve with desired toppings, such as salsa, lettuce and tomato, sour cream or guacamole.
Several events signal fall in New Mexico: the State Fair, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and the smell of roasting green chile in the air. I can’t do justice to describing the scent except to say that it’s earthy, unique and mouth watering.
If you’re from New Mexico or have traveled here in the fall, you’ve seen vendors roasting green chile in special baskets over sparkling fires. You can purchase chile by the pound or bushel, take it home and freeze enough for the year. Aside from cool evenings and changing leaf colors, there’s no better reason to love New Mexico autumns!
Alternatively, of course, you can grow your own green chile. I wrote about New Mexico chile in March if you’d like to know more about growing the plant. Today, I roasted about eight chiles, all picked from a single hardy plant in our vegetable garden.
I say hardy not because chile is difficult to grow. On the contrary, this particular plant survived a gopher attack near its roots that caused water to just drain down a hole until we plugged it and used drip irrigation only. The gophers invited ants to take up residence a few inches away. And when the weather was unseasonably damp in July, black appeared on the stems and I thought we would lose the plant to a fungal disease.
Instead, we’ve been fortunate enough to harvest at least 15 peppers off one plant, and we’ve roasted our harvest on the grill a few times.
The reason green chiles are roasted is to blister the skin of the pepper so that you can peel it easily when ready to cook the chile. If you purchase green chile instead of growing it, you’ll get the best flavor and easiest peeling by having the seller roast the green chile for you; they use high heat and toss the chiles for more even blistering. But it’s also simple to roast green chiles from your garden on the grill, especially if you’ve already got the grill on to cook (maybe a patty for a green chile cheeseburger!)
Simply wash the green chiles and pat them dry. Then place them on the grill about five to six inches above the coals. Turn or roll the chiles to coat them evenly. Patience helps, so that you roast them fairly slowly. You should hear some popping sounds and smell the chile cooking slightly. Using long-handled tongs, carefully remove each chile to a plate, and quickly place them in a plastic bag or other covered container to steam the peel slightly. Whole green chiles are much easier to peel after freezing. I just remove as much air as I can and place my bag in the freezer while the chiles are still slightly warm.
Red chile can make just about anything better. And one of my favorite quick lunches is a fried egg with red chile and melted cheese with a side of lettuce. So simple, but so New Mexican. My red chile recipe also is simple and vegetarian. Depending on where you live, the hardest part might be finding the dried chile pods. But check out the Resources page for more information.
I use mild red chile mostly because I am a wimp. But to me, there is just as much flavor in a mild chile as in a hot one. It’s a matter of choice, as is the choice to use spices such as oregano in the recipe. I just want chile flavor. First, rinse your red chile pods and twist off the stem. As you pull it out, you can also run your fingers around inside to loosen seeds. The more you can rinse out, the less you’ll have to deal with later. Place the chiles in water and boil – I use about eight or nine pods per batch.
Once they have boiled for a few minutes, take them off the heat. The time isn’t critical. Some people don’t even bother with the boiling step, but it makes me feel better from a food safety aspect and softens the dried chiles a bit for blending. Don’t drain the water off; simply carry the pot over to your blender (I start right away, but do this step once you’re comfortable working with the heated water and peppers). Remove the chile peppers with a spoon or scoop and place in the blender, along with a heaping teaspoon or so of fresh minced garlic.
Add a few scoops of the retained boiled water to the blender and blend on a high speed. Stop and check the consistency. It’s personal preference, but I like my chile thick enough to rest on food and spread slightly, if that helps you picture the texture. Adding water slowly keeps you from making it look and run like tomato soup! Continue to add a little water at a time and blend until husks and seeds are liquefied as much as possible and consistency is rich. Next, pour out remaining water from the pot and pour blended chile into the pot. Cook on low to medium heat, reducing heat to simmer once it begins to boil (which is quickly and at a low temperature), usually for about five minutes. Let cool slightly.
If you don’t want any bits of seed or pulp in your chile, you can run it through a fine strainer before or after cooking the batch. I have done this and it results in a smoother chile, but you lose quite a bit in volume. Pour the chile in a little at a time, and work it through with a spoon. Refrigerate your chile or use it soon after cooking. One batch should make about enough to freeze in an ice cube tray overnight. Usually, I let the tray sit just for a few minutes to soften slightly (not enough to thaw) and pop the cubes out of the tray, placing them in a gallon freezer bag. I thaw single or multiple cubes as needed in the microwave (covering the bowl with wax paper or a paper towel) or throw them right into the crock pot for some recipes.
Be sure to wash your hands frequently while handling red chile, and still be careful rubbing your eyes. Word to the wise: If you find your chile too hot, avoid downing a glass of water with the meal. I won’t go all scientific on the properties of capsaicin, but you can fact-check me online or just do your own test if you’re adventurous. One reason you usually get a yummy flour tortilla or sopaipilla on the side is that bread (and milk) help ease the burn. Fats and oils mix best with capsaicin. That’s too bad, really. But I fry my eggs in olive oil, so there’s that…
Ingredients: 8-9 dried red chile pods a few quarts of water 1 heaping tsp. of minced garlic Rinse chiles, removing stem and as many seeds as possible. Place chiles and a few quarts of water in a saucepan and boil for about five minutes. Remove from heat, retaining chiles and water. Place cooked chiles in a blender, along with garlic and up to 1/2 cup of water from pot. Blend until mixed well. Check consistency. Continue to add water from the pot in small amounts until blended well and desired consistency. Discard remaining boiled water and return pureed chile to pot. Cook on low to medium heat about five minutes. Serve immediately or cool slightly for straining of pulp, refrigerating or freezing.
If only we could grow avocados in the high desert. Aside from their water needs, we just have too cold a climate. But the good news is that unlike many fruits, avocados are pretty good whether they’re not quite ripe or going soft. You just have to be flexible and force the issue with them a little.
About the Avocado
So nutritious, so delicious! Avocados are fatty, but it’s the good fat. And the avocado has no sodium or cholesterol. I recently learned that I should pop mine in the fridge so they don’t ripen too fast, especially on our warmer summer days. And I can keep them there until ready to make my favorite avocado dish – guacamole.
This Gringa’s Guacamole
There are lots of variations on guacamole, but I keep mine simple (skip to a short and printable version below, but miss my amusing musings). I make it to taste and with no raw onions that add that smacky aftertaste. I want the full effect of the fruit to shine through on my palate on my plate!
Start with an avocado that’s a little soft and not too green. If the peel is starting to wrinkle, it’s probably too ripe. I usually make my guac a few hours before we plan to eat it. Too soon and it might turn a little.
Slice it in half, and here’s a tip for speeding things up: Take your knife (not a giant one, but one with some stabbing power) and pop the seed in the middle with the long blade. This usually grabs the seed so you can easily twist it out of the half, leaving the seed whole. Hang on to that seed!
Then use a spoon to scoop out the flesh. If you’ve got the right amount of ripe, it works great. After scooping the flesh from a few medium avocados in a bowl, use a fork (or a potato masher) to mush it up – to the consistency you like. One of my fruits today was a little hard, so I cut it with a knife (or you can use the two-knife method, like cutting pastry dough) until I got the pieces small enough to mash.
Add a Few Ingredients
Like I said, I keep it simple. I add some light sour cream, which makes your dip go further and gives it a creamy texture and a pretty light green color. Next, I drop in some salsa or pico de gallo to spice it up and give it a little bit of onion flavor without adding raw onions. Personally, I think they ruin a good guacamole, but if you like them, throw them in. If I’m coming over to your house, please refrain. Or make me my own serving. I’m not a princess; I just don’t like raw onions.
Next, I sprinkle in some garlic salt. Use powder if you prefer, but the salt brings out the flavor. Or use real garlic. I’m all about easy and retaining the avocado flavor, so I like the salt.
Finally – you have to put in some lime juice, or lemon if you prefer or only have it. I love fresh lime juice, but often use lemon juice from a jar, and it works fine. Squeeze just a little, probably a teaspoon or less, for your taste. The juice adds some tartness, but also helps prevent browning of the avocado. Stir it up.
Now, remember those seeds you stabbed? Place them back into your stirred dip, cover it, and pop it back into the fridge until serving time. The oil on the seeds helps keep your guac from browning. You can take them out before serving, but don’t set the dip out until right before you’re ready to enjoy!
Two ripe avocados
Light sour cream, maybe a quarter cup or so
Some of your favorite salsa or pico de gallo
Lime (or lemon) juice – a half fruit ought to do it
Cut avocados in half. Retain the seeds. Spoon flesh into mixing bowl. Cut and mash flesh to desired consistency. Add sour cream, salsa, garlic salt and lime juice to taste and stir. Add ingredients as needed after tasting on a chip. Or having a friend or family member taste on a chip. Try it again on a chip. Try not to eat it all before you put it in the refrigerator, placing retained seeds gently into dip and covering. Remove seeds just before serving. May be kept in refrigerator overnight with seeds back in dip and light spray of cooking spray over top, but best served within a few hours of making.