Celebrate the Holidays New Mexico Style

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.

luminarias new mexico home
Last year’s luminarias at our Ruidoso Downs home. Photo credit: Dave Higgins, Albuquerque.

Luminarias

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.

luminaria preparation on Albuquerque home walkway
My daughter setting out luminarias in Albuquerque in 2011.

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.

Prepping Christmas luminaria bags and sand
My husband and son-in-law prepped the bags with sand. I think all I did was take photos…

Ristras

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.

red chile ristra
A red chile ristra and pine cone wreath adorned our door last year.

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!

biscochitos on plate
Biscochitos, the New Mexico state cookie, have spicy cinnamon, the herb anise and just enough spirits to make the holidays bright.

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.

Happy holidays from New Mexico!

New Mexico Recipe: Easy Red Chile

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.

dried-red-chile-pods
Dried red chile pods. I love the deep red color.

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.

boiling-red-chile-pods
Red chile pods in boiling water. Be ready for your throat to tickle as the capsaicin fills the air!

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.

making-red-chile
I place the hot red chiles right in the blender with a spoon of minced garlic and start adding water.

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.

red-chile-sauce-in-pot
I love the color of red chile sauce. Simmer it for a few minutes on the stove.

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.

freezing-red-chile
Cooked red chile poured into an ice cube tray, ready to freeze into individual portions.
frozen red chile sauce
The cubes are just the right size for a small helping and they thaw easily in the microwave or crock pot.

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…  

Easy New Mexico Red Chile

  • Servings: about 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Grow New Mexico chile in your garden this year, or at least buy dried pods and make red chile sauce!
Delicious New Mexico red chile sauce.

 

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.

New Mexico Chile

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!

red chile ristras
New Mexico red chile, strung in decorative ristras. Image from the National Park Service.

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.

green chile from community garden
Green chile harvested from neighborhood community garden, along with other great vegetables.

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.