NEW MEXICO IS CALLED THE LAND OF ENCHANTMENT for many reasons. We are blessed with splendid scenery, lavish vistas and endless blue sky. History, culture, art, mountains, rivers and an active outdoor lifestyle attract us to this astonishing place.
But for me, New Mexico is also about its delicious, distinctive and enchanting food. Do not mistake our spicy plates of enchiladas, burritos, tacos and quesadillas for Mexican food! While the names of the dishes may be the same, people here are quick to distinguish local Northern New Mexican cuisine from the dishes that originate south of the border.
And the most important ingredient in the state is inarguably the chile.
In late summer, customers wait in line at grocery stores and open parking lots to have green chiles roasted by the bushels. The air is pungent with the heavenly smell as the chiles are turned over open flames in roaster cages. And in the fall, beautiful strings of dried red chiles, called ristras, hang from portáls and latillas, decorating homes while they are stored for future culinary use.
Both chile versions are then transformed into extraordinary piquant sauces. These sauces are the showcases of New Mexico’s cuisine. In fact, the official New Mexico state question is: “Red or green?”
Good chile sauce prepared well is what completes an already marvelous dish. I often cannot decide between red or green. So I overcome that dilemma by asking for both when I order my enchiladas, burritos or Frito pie at a restaurant. We call that “Christmas.” In this case, there is nothing wrong with “Christmas” all year-round!
Visitors to one of our many authentic Northern New Mexico restaurants will find that most are family-run. They use secret family recipes that uphold traditional preparations of dishes that are wholly unique to that location. In fact, the question “Who has the best chile in Taos?” is part of one of the most anticipated contests in town — part of the Taos News’ annual “Best of Taos Awards.”
Unfortunately, as I write this, COVID-19 has swept the country. Every community has taken precautions to prevent its spread, and ours is no different. New Mexico has issued guidelines for social distancing, public gatherings and new rules for restaurants. Many restaurants switched temporarily to carry-out only, but as this publication was set to go to print, the state was easing restrictions and some restaurants were back to offering sit-down service.
So what do you do to get your chile fix? My recommendation is to prepare it yourself.
If you would like to try your hand at red or green chile, I propose the following two recipes (see below.)
They are both fantastic and pretty easy. Try the family recipe from the El Potrero Trading Post in Chimayo for red chile sauce. It is the first red sauce I ever made more than 25 years ago when I bought my first bag of dried chile powder directly from them. I still think it is one of the best.
The second is my version of green chile sauce, which emphasizes and enhances the pure flavor of the chile. Whichever sauce you decide to make, I suggest starting with mild chiles or mild chile powder first, then varying the heat to taste on your next batch. As a natural product, the heat of chile may vary slightly from the label.
Once the chile sauce is ready, layer or roll your favorite fillings — scrambled eggs, shredded pork, sautéed zucchini, cooked beans or anything you like — using corn or flour tortillas for unforgettable enchiladas or burritos. Spoon the sauce generously on top. Sprinkle with cheese and microwave or broil to melt, if desired. Garnish with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, sour cream and chopped jalapeños – and serve!
Go ahead and pack some ground red chile and a tub of frozen green chile in your luggage. Perfect souvenirs that will bring back memories of the taste of New Mexico. And make that “Christmas!”
New Mexico Green Chile Sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1-½ cups chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons corn flour, such as yellow or blue corn masa
1 tablespoon New Mexican honey
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
3 cups chopped roasted mild to hot New Mexican green chile (could be from frozen)
3-½ cups chicken stock or water
Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic about 5 minutes. Add the flour or masa, honey, oregano, cumin and salt. Continue sautéing for about a minute. Add the chile and stir to combine. Slowly add the stock or water, stirring well.
Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, for about 15 minutes. Uncover and cook for about 15 minutes more until thickened.
Makes about 6 cups. Freezes well.
El Potrero Trading Post Basic Red Chile Sauce
¾ cup ground red chile powder
4 cups chicken stock or water
2 teaspoons cumin
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon red wine vinegar
4 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons cooking oil
4 teaspoons oregano (optional)
1 potato, cubed and cooked (optional)
Salt to taste
Presoak chile in liquid for 20 minutes. Sauté garlic in oil. Add flour and brown by pressing flour flat in skillet. Add liquid, chile and remaining ingredients.
Stir and simmer.
The red wine vinegar is the secret ingredient our dad taught us — it makes the flavor come alive! This sauce can be frozen and used later.
Add mashed potato for additional thickness, if desired.
Makes 4 cups. Freezes well.