Sunday, February 12, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: New Mexico I - Behold the power of the New Mexico chile

New Mexico's cuisine offers up its own take on Southwestern - the fabled "New Mexican" cuisine, which stands in somewhat stark contrast to America's better-known version of Southwestern, the "Tex-Mex" style.  A few of the upcoming recipes, including the sauce that follows, are part of the New Mexican food tradition.

Official Name: State of New Mexico
State Nicknames: The Land of Enchantment
Admission to the US: January 6, 1912 (#47)
Capital: Santa Fe (4th largest)
Other Important Cities: Albuquerque (largest), Las Cruces (2nd largest), Rio Rancho (3rd largest) 
 Southwest, West; Mountain (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Chile PepperPinyon Nut; Bison
Bordered by: Colorado (north), Oklahoma & Texas (east), Sonora & Chihuahua (Mexico) (south), Arizona (west), Utah (northwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: biscochito (cookie), New Mexico cutthroat trout (fish), yucca flower (flower), chile pepper (vegetable, though technically it's a fruit), frijol (vegetable - yes, two state vegetables), pine nut tree (tree - for the pine nuts, not the tree), New Mexico black bear (animal, though these are not ever eaten these days)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Southwestern (specifically New Mexican) cuisine; the fabled New Mexico chile, Native American (such as Navajo) foods such as frybread, Navajo taco, etc.

As the Albuquerque Convention Center says right on its website,
New Mexican cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, Native American and Mexican ingredients and techniques. While familiar items like corn, beans and squash are often used, New Mexican cuisine has its own distinct preparation, ingredients and flavor.  [Albuqueque Convention Center 2008] 
New Mexican is not what most Americans think of when we think of Southwestern.  Just as Massachusetts has managed to corner the market on American attitudes towards New England cuisine, so Texas has done the same for Southwestern: in much of the country, "Southwestern" = "Tex-Mex".

Just don't go around saying that in New Mexico.  According to the Albuquerque Journal dining glossary [date unknown], you need go no farther to see the difference between New Mexican and Tex-Mex than the simple chili vs chile.  Chili is the beef & bean concoction (that I will get around to when I hit Texas if not also sooner).  This is a hallmark of Tex-Mex cuisine.  Chile, the fruit (a berry to be specific) of the Capsicum plant, is the bedrock of New Mexican cuisine.

Though of course, it isn't just the New Mexico green chile that we identify with New Mexican, but let's face it: the chile is the star.  Back to the Albuquerque Convention Center's website, which has more:
Harvested in the late summer, the long, narrow peppers are served freshly roasted and peeled, or frozen for use throughout the year. Most commonly, green chile is made into a spicy sauce that’s ladled over enchiladas, burritos and stuffed sopaipillas. Green chile is also found piled on top of cheeseburgers, stuffed into breakfast burritos, fried into rellenos (stuffed chiles) and made into a stew with chunks of potatoes and ground beef, but green chile is such a prominent part of the cuisine that it is also found in breads, on pizza, in pasta and much more. [Albuqueque Convention Center 2008]
It should come as no surprise that New Mexico is the country's leading producer of chile peppers [Albuqueque Convention Center 2008].

Though the local food movement is important - many of my chiles I grew myself, thousands of miles away from the Land of Enchantment - I wanted specifically to use New Mexico chiles for this recipe.  They're not terribly easy to find here in the Back East: most are grown either closer to home or very far, like Mexico or even overseas.  Still, they can be found.  I found a tub of frozen New Mexico green chiles produced by Bueno out of Albuquerque at the Adams Morgan Harris Teeter in Washington, DC.  It's a lovely chile, and as Jane & Michael Stern have so often asserted, both on NPR's Splendid Table and in their 500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late [2009], the New Mexico green chile is like no other.  That's whether it's picked green or allowed to ripen to red, and whether it is eaten fresh, frozen or dried and ground up.

For this recipe I wanted to make some sort of green chile cheeseburger.  One problem: I had forgotten to pick up hamburger buns (D'oh!).  So instead I ended up making a makeshift open-faced enchilada (another New Mexican specialty) that really turned out to be more like an open-faced taco than anything else.  Tasty nonetheless, especially with shredded Pecorino Romano left over from the New Jersey recipes I just got through.  So instead, I'm just going to focus on the green chile sauce that would have gone on the burger, and which can be used on so many things.

The Recipe: Traditional New Mexico Green Chile Sauce

The following recipe is from Bueno, printed on the side of their 13 oz container of green chiles.  I could not find the exact recipe on their website (they do have many others), but I did take a photograph of it, so that you, too, can make this recipe:

To make this recipe from the Bueno Foods people, you will need:

* 13 oz green chiles (yes, you may not be able to find New Mexico green chiles, and you can be forgiven for trying but failing to do so - or opting to go the "locally sustainable" route.  But just this once, please try to find the ones from New Mexico.  Only then can you be forgiven for giving up. One container of Bueno's brand, certainly not the only one but the only one I found, cost a little under $4 at the above-mentioned Harris Teeter.  Perhaps the one in Baltimore has them too?)
* vegetable oil (had it)
* onion & garlic (had those too)
* flour (just a little to thicken it - yes, you are making a roux here, just one with garlic and onion in it)
* salt & water (had it)

Heat your oil and add the chopped onion and garlic.

Fry over low heat for a few minutes.

Then add a little flour and stir for half a minute.

Make sure your chiles are thawed if you got them frozen (oops).  Now before I added them to the saucepan I just had to try one "in the buff" (um, no, the chile was in the buff!  Ah, forget it).  The Sterns were right: it is pungent, tangy, spicy and fruity all at once.  It's one hell of a chile.  This is what sparkling wine is from France, or what fish sauce is from Vietnam: it's the best version there is.

Go ahead.  Throw in those chiles.

And then add the salt and water.

You will next bring the chile sauce to a boil, cover and simmer for twelve minutes.

What I got in the end was not as spicy as what I ate beforehand.  It was still spicy, and most of my family would find it hot.  I thought it had just enough.  But there again was the tanginess and the fruitiness, mixed in with a little more of a salty flavor.  I don't see how you could eat this on a cheeseburger without making a mess.  But then again, I don't think New Mexicans are concerned about the messiness of a cheeseburger covered in green chile sauce.

And yes, I did try to make a very on-the-fly open-faced taco, in the spirit of the open-faced enchilada.  Before anybody at all says anything: this is not an enchilada, either the New Mexican style or the traditional Mexican one.  What I did was throw a few corn tortillas on the burner, stack grated Pecorino Romano cheese in between them and top the whole thing with beef & onion, and then - finally - the green chile sauce.  It was a bit difficult to eat without making a mess (yes, that again), but still just as tasty.

I'm going to look for these New Mexico chiles more often in the freezer section.


Albuquerque Convention & Visitor's Bureau.  "New Mexican Cuisine".  Published 2008.  Copyright Albuquerque Convention & Visitor's Bureau 2012.

Albuquerque Journal.  "Mexican Food Lover's Guide".  Date unknown.  Copyright Albuquerque Journal 2012.

Bueno Foods.  "Traditional New Mexican Green Chile Sauce".  Date unknown.

Detterick-Piñeda, Cynthia.  "Navajo Fry Bread, Indian Fry Bread".  WhatsCookingAmerica.Net, date unknown.  Copyright WhatsCookingAmerica.Net 2012.

Niederman, Sharon.  "Bizcochitos? Biscochitos?".  Posted December 16, 2008.  Copyright The Santa Fe New Mexican 2012.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "New Mexico" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "New Mexico".


Amy said...

You can also find canned Hatch brand New Mexican green chile from Harris Teeter in the Mexican food section. It's from Deming, NM and costs about $1.99/can. Frozen Bueno tastes better, but is more expensive, harder to transport, and also needs to be heated to 160F before eating. Canned is almost as tasty, but more convenient in my opinion!

John said...

I'll look for it. Thanks!

Lynn (NM Enchantment) said...

Great article! I'm so glad you enjoyed your foray into New Mexico green chile. New Mexicans don't always eat green chile sauce on burgers. A lot of times it's just the chopped green chile, straight out of the tub, plopped on the grill and warmed up and then piled on top of the burger. The green chile sauce makes for a "fork and knife" burger. I've shared your post on my blog: Thanks!

Unknown said...


Thanks for passing on the unique flavors that New Mexico Chile can only offer. I live here in New Mexico and have a web store, If any of your readers have a hard time locating the frozen, I do carry canned and jarred New Mexico Green chile, and jarred red chile. It can be shipped usually the same day.
Try Red and Green together, we call that Christmas. It is great on anything.