Saturday, April 28, 2012

New Mexico, land of enchantment and enchiladas

When I first saw the brown, barren expanse that was Albuquerque in the early 1990's from my airplane seat, I thought that I couldn't bear to live in a land that was so dry, parched and exposed.  There was little that was green and what trees there were appeared to be pathetic, scrubby little pinons that had obviously fought valiantly for their survival.  But after living my first month there, I began to appreciate the rugged beauty of the dessert, the spareness of the landscape, the clarity of the light, the massiveness of the Sandia mountain range.  And then I never wanted to leave.

Sandia Mountains
Photo by Mike Pedroncelli

I learned a different way of life in New Mexico, living with less water and greenery, more native plants and rock, coming to love the distinctive style of pueblo architecture, the inherent beauty of turquoise and silver (and also becoming a lifelong devotee of Christin Wolf Gallery and his brilliant designers).  I marveled at the incomparable sunsets and the way the Sandias turned a rosy watermelon pink as the sun made its way below the west mesa.  I loved the eager, early brightness of the morning light, and the clear and crisp feel of the morning air no matter what the season.  I loved the Christmas luminarias that decorated walkways and churches, the way most snowfall would melt by noon (although snow still clung to the Sandias), and the endless displays of chile ristras that hung everywhere, inside and out, in wealthy neighborhoods as well as in the barrio.


Having moved to New Mexico from the eastern shore of Maryland, a humid, watery area of the state situated on the Chesapeake Bay, I especially appreciated the dry heat of Albuquerque--I drove around in my car with the air conditioning off and the windows open that first summer, baking myself.  I also appreciated the relative lack of allergens (except for March, when the juniper pollen was blowing around in the high winds) and the way my gardens could subsist on very little water, once I got the hang of xeriscaping.

So when it came time to leave, I had to come to grips with the fact that the 3 1/2 years I had lived in Albuquerque had not been enough.  I was instantly homesick at the thought of leaving and sobbed as I made my way further westward, sobbed all the way until I could no longer see the beautiful Sandias in my rearview mirror.  Certainly, to this day, I respond with longing to the smell of pinon burning, or the sorrowful lilt of a Hopi flute, or a glimpse of a Kokopeli figure.  I also came to very much miss the cuisine of New Mexico, different from any other cuisine I had ever experienced, chiefly due to the use of red and green chile on or in almost anything edible. 

Dried red New Mexico chiles

Allegedly, the alkalinity of the soil is what gives New Mexico chile its distinctive taste, much like the Georgia soil makes a Vidalia onion sweet.  I've tried growing Sandia and Big Jim peppers in Texas; they're not the same.  I've heard the same stories from gardeners trying to grow Vidalia onions outside of Georgia.  The terroir is what makes distinctive foods and wines distinctive.

Now is a good time to mention that if you want to know anything about New Mexico chile peppers (or any other chile pepper for that matter), you can consult the website for New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute (CPI).  One of the CPI's claims to fame is that its director, Paul Bosland, is responsible for finding in 2007 what was then the world's hottest chile pepper, the Bhut Jolokia, or the Ghost pepper.  As you read this, I have some Ghost peppers locked away in a safe place in the nether regions of my pantry.  Locked away?  Yes.  Because the world is a safer place that way.  Since 2007, however, the Ghost Pepper's searing Scoville units (estimated between 320,000 to 1,000,000--401.5 times hotter than Tobasco peppers) have been surpassed by other peppers, most recently the Trinidad Muruga Scorpion.  Again, the CPI was there, doing what it does best: chile pepper research.

But before you run away, fearing that I am going to take you down the path to chile pepper hell (well-intentioned though I am), let me assure you that although New Mexico chiles can be quite hot, typically it's the mild and medium chiles are that served.  Safe enough for most palates, but hot enough to still make your nose run from time to time.

It's hard to describe the taste of New Mexico chile peppers accurately, but let me try.  Esoterics and mere prose are not enough.  You need form and substance.  And a dinner invitation to my house.

Green chiles, which are usually fire-roasted, peeled and seeded, are pleasantly acidic and at the same time, have a mineral quality to them, that when combined with the smokiness acquired during the roasting process (as the skin is charred and blistered), makes them addictively delicious and a versatile ingredient in foods from enchiladas to green chile stew.  And if you've ever had a green chile cheeseburger, then you'll know what a great thing green chile is!  Green chiles are the unripe version of dried red chiles and are sold in cans (look for genuine Hatch brand) but are also sold raw and need to be roasted before they are used.  You can also find roasted, chopped green chile in the freezer section of your local HEB.  Look for the Bueno label.  Of course, if you can get fresh Hatch chiles, which are in our area in early September and for several weeks afterward, by all means by them fresh and have them roasted, or roast them yourself.  You can find out how to roast green chile here.

Red chiles, on the other hand, are not usually smoked, but have a more deep and earthy flavor that green chiles.  Red chiles are usually dried and then reconstituted with water in soups, stews, or most commonly, chile rojo sauce.  The flavor has a more concentrated minerality and slightly (but pleasantly) bitter back note.  Red chiles are sold whole but are also flaked and powdered.  They are stemmed, seeded and torn into pieces to make red chile sauce, rehydrated with warm water, then put in the blender until smooth (the old school method is to put them through a food mill, leaving the skins behind), along with some fresh garlic, salt and oregano.  You can also buy red chile paste in the freezer section of your local HEB.  Again, look for the Bueno label.  Red chile sauce adorns enchiladas, it elevates huevos rancheros (scroll down to the fifth picture in this link), it bathes carne adovada, which I'm absolutely addicted to.  And red chile will stain!  So don't wear white when cooking with it or eating it.

Recently, I served a dinner composed entirely of New Mexican foods.  The cuisine of New Mexico focuses on the clean, pure flavor of ingredients, which are usually only lightly enhanced.  Foods are earthy, simple and absolutely delicious.  Typically, New Mexicans will eat their enchiladas, which are served stack, or flat, with a fried egg on top.  If you don't like that idea, then you can certainly omit it.  But try some of these recipes and let me know what you think.

New Mexico Flat Enchiladas with Chile Rojo

My adopted abuelito taught me how to make this sauce:

24 to 30 dried red chile pods (preferably New Mexico chiles)
4 to 5 cups water
1 tsp. salt
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. oregano

1.)  Wearing latex gloves, stem and seed chiles, then rinse well.
2.)  Combine chiles and water in a sauce pan and bring to a boil.
3.)  Lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.
4.)  Cool, then in 2 or 3 smaller batches, put chiles and their liquid into a blender with the salt, garlic cloves and oregano.
5.)  Blend each batch well for about 5 minutes, then strain through a sieve to remove any remaining larger pieces of chile skin, which can be quite unpleasant.  You can store this sauce for up to a week in the refrigerator or freeze it for later use.  Makes about 2 cups.

Now, make the enchiladas:

24 corn tortillas
4 to 6 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
8 eggs

1.)  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  Warm chile rojo in a sauce pan or skillet large enough to enable you to dip the corn tortillas into it as you assemble the enchiladas.  Keep extra sauce warm for serving enchiladas.
3.  Assemble the enchiladas in two large, greased baking dishes in the following way: One tortilla dipped in chile rojo sauce, a handful of cheese, a sprinkle of onion, another dipped tortilla, more cheese, more onion, another dipped tortilla, more cheese.  You should have enough enchiladas, cheese and onion for 8 enchiladas.
4.)  Bake the enchiladas for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until cheese is melted and gooey.
5.)  If you're eating the enchiladas with fried eggs, cook the eggs during the last few minutes that the enchiladas are in the oven.
6.  To serve, place one enchilada on each plate, top with a fried egg and ladle more chile rojo sauce over the top.  Serves eight people.

Frijoles de Olla  (adapted from Zarela Martinez' cookbook "Food From My Heart")

Who doesn't know how to make a pot of pinto beans?  These beans, simple and creamy, are the best I've ever eaten with New Mexico foods.  If you want more depth of flavor, add a bottle of beer to the cooking water.  Otherwise, they are delicious on their own.

1 lb. pinto bean
1 large sprig epazote
1 Tbs. salt
1 12 oz. bottle of beer (optional)

1.)  If you prefer to soak your beans overnight, by all means do so.  I think it improves the flavor.  Otherwise, after you've carefully picked over the beans for any foreign particles, place them in a colander and rinse well under cold running water.
2.)  Place the beans in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven and add enough cold water to cover them by at least 1 inch, about 8 cups.
3.)  Add the epazote and bring to a boil over high heat.
4.)  Reduce the heat to medium-low, partly cover the pot and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they are about half-done.  They will still be somewhat chalky and dense inside.
5.)  Add the salt and check the water level, adding more hot water if the beans seem to be getting dry.  If you're using the beer, now is a good time to add it.  There should always be at least 1/2 inch of liquid covering the beans.
6.)  Continue to cook until the beans are tender, occasionally checking the liquid level and adding more water as necessary.
7.)  Beans will take longer to cook if they are older.  Plan on at least 45 minutes for fairly fresh beans and up to 1 1/2 hours for old, dried-out beans.  The liquid should never be completely absorbed and the beans should be a little soupy when fully cooked.
8.)  Serve the beans in some of their cooking liquid alongside your favorite dishes, or drain beans if using in another recipe.  Makes about 7 to 8 cups of beans.

Ensalada de Col

This coleslaw is wonderfully refreshing and delightfully crunchy with its creamy Greek yogurt dressing full of herbs and spiked with cayenne.  It makes a lot, so you might want to halve the recipe.  I've adapted the recipe from one posted in the December 2011 issue of Food and Wine.
3 cups plain Greek yogurt 
1/2 cup milk 
1 small garlic clove, minced 
1/2 cup finely chopped roasted green chile, drained well
1 tsp. cayenne pepper  
1/2 cup thinly sliced chives
2 Tbs. chopped cilantro  
1 Tbs. chopped mint 
1/4 cup fresh lime juice 
Salt and freshly ground pepper 
1 Hass avocado, thinly sliced 
8 cups finely shredded green cabbage (from a 2-pound head) 
8 radishes, halved and thinly sliced 
2 cups finely julienned peeled jicama (8 ounces)
3 scallions, thinly sliced 
1 cup thinly sliced celery (3 ribs) 
4 oz. crumbled Cotija cheese 
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

1.)  In a medium bowl, whisk the yogurt, milk, garlic, green chile, cayenne, chives, cilantro, mint and 3 Tbs. of the lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
2.)  In a small bowl, toss the avocado and remaining 1 Tbs. of lime juice.
3.)  In a large baking dish or shallow casserole, spread the cabbage in a thin layer.
4.)  Top with the radishes, jicama, scallions, celery and avocado.
5.)  Spread the yogurt dressing on top, then sprinkle with the cheese.
6.)  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
7.)  Just before serving, sprinkle the pumpkin seeds on top.  Makes 10 servings.

What I like to drink with chile rojo...My wine guy turned me on to a silky, chocolatey pinot noir full of berries and ruby fruit.  Ramspeck Pinot Noir 2009 (Napa Valley, CA) is about $20 a bottle--a little tiny bit of a splurge, yes--but a delicious foil for the minerality of the chile rojo and the other accompaniments to this meal.  I really wanted the whole bottle to myself.  But I shared.  If you want alternative wine ideas, go with a fruit, juicy, but not too sweet red and of course, ask your wine guy at Spec's to help you!

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