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.
Sometimes, a home-grown tomato is so pretty that I hesitate to pull it off the vine. I’d rather take photos, smile as I stroll past the plant or point out the healthy fruit to anyone willing to listen.
Of course, watching a vegetable you started from seed grow into a healthy plant is a reward in and of itself. But it’s even more rewarding when the plant provides fresh, delicious and healthy food for you and your family (or friends and neighbors!).
What’s more, harvesting fruit helps the plant continue producing, sending energy to develop, ripen and flavor fruit instead of continuing to feed overripe ones. Here are some tips on when and how to harvest fresh vegetables in the garden or a U-Pick site, courtesy of the Home Garden Seed Association and my experience (including plenty of mistakes).
Color helps cue gardeners on picking tomatoes, which should be a deeper red than the ones you see in the grocery aisle. But color can be a tough cue when growing some varieties, such as yellow tomatoes. We have a few Midnight Snack tomatoes courtesy of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. The delicious snack-sized tomatoes have an indigo color on top (and the fruit has extra antioxidants). You just feel the fruit and check for reddening on the bottom to make sure it’s ripe. Once a tomato feels somewhat soft when you squeeze it gently, it’s probably ready to eat. Just twist it slightly from the vine and it should give. Be sure to store tomatoes in a cool spot in your kitchen, but not in the refrigerator.
Cucumber fruit seems to mature all at once, and the best way to know when to harvest is to have an idea of the fruit’s mature size from seed packets or through trial and error. We often note that the spiky part of the peel loses some of its sharpness at peak ripeness. When in doubt, though, opt for early rather than late. Cucumber seeds get large and tough and the fruit less sweet the longer the fruit stays on the vine. Use scissors or shears to cut the cucumber from the plant; avoid twisting it off. Cucumbers store best dry in the refrigerator. I keep mine wrapped in a soft towel and wash them when I’m ready to eat them.
Carrots can begin to lose sweetness if left in the ground too long. Gently swipe away some dirt to check if the top (shoulder) of the carrot is bigger than about half an inch. For most varieties, this is a signal it’s ready to pull. Carrots tend to vary more than other fruits at harvest, especially if they have not been thinned adequately. But the taste of any nearly mature carrot from the home garden is so much better than store-bought carrots, regardless of its appearance. Carrots also store better dry, so either leave the dirt on and pack them in a vented plastic bag or let them dry completely after snipping the leaves just above the shoulders. I’ve found that our carrots store best in the ground (up to a point) and I only harvest what I need every day or two.
Beans and Peas
Harvesting beans is one of my favorite activities. I like looking for the elusive pods under the leaves. It does require two hands, however. You need to hold the stem of a bean or pea as you pull off the fruit to avoid breaking the stem and pulling off immature neighbors of the mature bean. I set a basket on the ground or hang a used grocery bag on my arm to free up both hands for harvesting. Pick beans while long and slender and before lumps form in the pods. Snap peas are best when peas are just beginning to form in the pod, but are not yet mature.
Most lettuces taste best when leaves are four to six inches long. I love cutting loose-leaf varieties because you can harvest them two or three times. If a loose-leaf or head lettuce looks elongated, it’s getting to be too late for optimal flavor. Cut outside leaves of loose-leaf lettuces first, and cut head lettuce at the base of the plant, just above the ground. Wash and dry lettuce immediately; spinners are great for this. Store in a plastic bag that is closed but has plenty of air inside. I also sometimes add a paper towel to absorb moisture in the bag. You’ll be amazed how much longer your fresh lettuce keeps compared with prepared bags!
Whether growing sweet bell peppers or New Mexico chile peppers, it helps to learn the mature color for your variety. The good news is that peppers usually have a decent flavor even when immature, although the skins might be a bit tougher. So know enough about your pepper to watch for its expected mature color and pick as soon as it turns. Leaving peppers on the plant too long slows production of new fruit. All pepper types come off the plant easiest when fully ripe. Store peppers in a bag in the refrigerator crisper. With green chile, I wait until I have enough peppers to roast and then freeze them.
Ah, the giant zucchini. Big enough to feed a family of 10, but not as sweet and tender as the one harvested at about 5 to 7 inches in length. Cut all squash fruit with snippers or a knife; don’t twist it off the vine. Winter squash should be ripe when the rind loses its shine and you can scratch the rind without puncturing it. Wipe squash clean with a dry towel; don’t wash before storing. Keep both summer and winter squash in a dry, but well-ventilated spot about 50 to 68 degrees. If you place it in the refrigerator, put it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.
Harvest kale and chard much like loose-leaf lettuce. You can begin to harvest outer leaves when they are about four inches high, cutting them about one inch above the ground. Avoid cutting the center tip of the plant, which can stop growth of new leaves. Wash and spin kale and store it in one of the coolest spots in the refrigerator inside a ventilated plastic bag.
In general, seed packets and other materials give you an idea of a fruit’s maturity date, but it varies from region to region and from one year to another.
Most vegetables are better harvested in the morning when crisp, healthy and dry. Or you can pick what you want just before preparing your meal. One final note: When harvesting several different vegetables, have a few containers handy. It’s no fun picking green beans out of lettuce leaves, and squash or cucumbers can flatten a juicy tomato.
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.
If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum). 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.
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 to make 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 fills 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. I’ll post some of my favorite recipes in the next few months.
If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Here’s a list of companies that support the NM Chile Association.