by Ari Weinzweig
A State Like No Other
While I was out there once somebody told me, somewhat facetiously, that “You have to understand. New Mexico isn’t like other states. Things that work everywhere else just don’t seem to work here“. I don’t know much about that but I can tell you that one thing that does work in New Mexico is the food. It’s amazing. It’s a completely unique combination of flavors and foods—unlike anything I’ve ever found in any of the other 49 states, in Central America, or anywhere else for that matter. Start with blue, white, and yellow corn and add intensive use of red and green chiles. Add in a bunch of ingredients like saffron and goat cheese, mountain honeys, herbs, and you’ve got some phenomenal food. Tandy Lucero, who has four centuries of family in New Mexico, told me. “We’re like a country unto ourselves. There’s nowhere really like it.”
Even visually, coming in from by air, the state strikes me as something special. It’s amazing to see from above how the dessert stops and the mountains just seem to start out of nowhere. Very brown, very flat surfaces that almost instantaneously erupt into big, barren rock-strewn mountains, capped with snow covered white peaks.
Aside from our mutual interest in chiles, I like Tandy Lucero a lot because we’re both happily seduced by history. Walk into his tiny office and you’ll find yourself staring at a dozen sheets of copy paper taped together on the wall behind his desk. Clearly it’s a family tree. But a casual inquiry tells me quickly that it’s not just any family tree. “There’s three different families on here,” he says excitedly. “The Gidenz, the Aragon and the Ortiz. One branch of the family—the Ortiz—has been in New Mexico since the 1600s.” Since I can barely trace my ancestry back to the late 19th century I’m already impressed. “But, this woman, Jane Lawrence,” he adds, “I can trace her back to the 700s, all the way to Charlemagne’s time.” That sort of longevity and sense of rootedness is not what I’d have expected to encounter out in the American west. But like I said, New Mexico is an exceptional place.
On the other wall, to the right of Tandy’s desk is an assemblage of family photos. Arranged in no particular order I can ascertain, they remind me of the sort of random placement of familial images my grandmother used to have in her apartment. But while the arrangement is casual, the content is not. There’s a pair of hundred year old photos, one each of Tandy’s two maternal great-grandfathers. One— Juan Pablo Aragon—is possibly the most distinctive old photo I’ve ever seen. A beautiful oval frame, the photo itself is slightly convex, like something you’d see in a locket. But this is no miniature—it’s a good two feet high and a foot across with a beautiful blue, green and brown pastel portrait of his mustachioed grandfather. Nearby are wedding photos of both sets of Tandy’s grandparents, each taken somewhere in the vicinity of 1910. On the far right there’s one of his parents.
From the photo, it’s obvious that he looks a lot like his father. Square shouldered and about six feet tall, Tandy’s got dark, if slightly graying hair, and a big mustache that curls up at the edges, not unlike that of his great-grandfather. He’s got a proud square-sided face. And, of course, he talks with a solid New Mexican accent, which unnervingly reminds me of that of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Despite his long heritage Tandy in the state, didn’t start out to work with native foods. “I backpacked around the world for a year. Except I didn’t make it all the way around the world. I ended up in Puerto Rico for awhile. But then I came back to New Mexico and I’m still here.” “When I started out in 1981 I only knew New Mexico red and green chile. That was twenty years ago. I was gonna supply New Mexico specialties. And then along came Mark Miller with his Coyote Café and he said, ‘If you get these chiles in I’ll buy ‘em from you.’ And I found sources for all these Mexican chiles and they took off. But at the time they nobody knew them around here.”
Of course it’s not just personal history that’s so engaging, but that of the region as well. The story of chile in America (the peppers not the Texas stew) isn’t very well known, but it ought to be. It’s as much a part of our national culinary heritage as hot dogs and hamburgers, Vermont cheddar or Virginia ham.
Peppers probably came up to what is now New Mexico from the Central America in the pockets and packs of Spanish settlers. In the form of an expedition led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado the conquest reached what is now New Mexico in 1540; Spanish historians believe the mission brought chile seeds up from Mexico and gave to the Pueblos. The native Pueblos, however, claim that they were growing and eating chiles long before the Spaniards showed up. Either way, the blending of Spanish and native cultures accounts for many of the state’s unique people and its chiles. The northern half of the state is known for producing particularly flavorful peppers. Most are smaller, well-wrinkled varieties; their yields are typically way too low to make them viable options for anyone seeking meaningful commercial results. Many peppers became identified with particular towns the most prominent of which is the famous chile of Chimayó.
In more modern times, 1821 saw the opening Santa Fe Trail opened and New Mexican farmers started to be ship chiles back east. During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act establishing the national network of land grant colleges, as a part of which New Mexico State University at Las Cruces was founded in 1889. The school quickly became a center for chile development. In 1921 a professor by the name of Fabian Garcia introduced New Mexico No. 9, the first scientifically developed chile cultivar. It became the standard strain grown in the state straight through ‘til the 1950s. In the second half of the 20th century the New Mexico 6-4 and the NuMex Big Jim followed the fame of Garcia’s No. 9. I’ve no doubt that somewhere on the Las Cruces campus there’s a “family tree” as detailed as the one behind Tandy’s desk.
South of the Rio Grande, in Mexico, if you say “chile” it will mean little without having a varietal name—ancho, arbol, etc.—attached to it. But if you ask for chile in the Land of Enchantment they know you’re referring to New Mexico peppers. Most New Mexico people simply say “chile” in the same way that people in Parma just order “cheese” but everyone knows that what they mean is Parmigiano-Reggiano. More often than not the only detail you’ll be asked to provide is whether you want red, green or some of each, a mixture that natives know as “Christmas.”
In more detailed discussions chiles are known both by seed source and by growing location. These days there are dozens of varieties, each with its own slightly different spin on the typical New Mexico green chile flavor. If you hang around with people in the business you’ll find them comparing chile varieties and vintages the way the French do wine. “The green you’re getting from me are Sandia chiles,” Tandy advised. “They’re grown in the Hatch valley, near Las Cruces. They’ve got a little bite and a lot of flavor. Some of the other ones, you only have heat no flavor but the Sandia is the favorite of the New Mexico people.”
The red chile is harvested in October, after the chiles have had time to turn from green to reddish orange all the way through to the deep red color of full ripeness. It’s at this point that the chiles are at their peak of sweetness as well as heat. Most all of the red chiles are dried in the early autumn; most these days are done in commercial dryers. Many though are still strung up to dry naturally. If you visit the state you can’t miss the millions of red chile ristras—or wreathes—hanging in almost every spot that’s even remotely related to food. They make beautiful decoration but they’re of far more practical value than the evergreen wreathes we’ll see here in the Midwest. As the weeks pass you can pull off a chile or two at a time, soak ‘em, and use ‘em.
The New Mexico chile is pretty moderate the heat standards south of the border—hot, but no so hot that it overwhelms other flavors. The main thing about it is its flavor, which is, indeed, very rich and very good. Aside from the above mentioned ristras, you can find red chile for sale as whole pods on their own, or, quite commonly, in the form of chile molido, or ground chile.
Although he obviously has a high interest in chiles of all sorts, it’s the native New Mexico product that really gets Tandy going. After showing me a dozen different Mexican chiles, he guides me into a separate room where he’s storing a year’s supply of New Mexico chile molido. He cuts open a box, unwraps the plastic bag in which the chile has been sealed. “Look at this,” he says with excitement. “The quality on this is just sooooo good.” He opens another box. Again, the aroma is truly pretty amazing. It’s so deep I want to dive in headfirst. “This is what chile is all about,” he says. “It smells so good it makes you want to eat it with a spoon!”
“What makes it so special?” I inquire.
“The color tells you a lot.” Without a doubt this stuff does look rich. It’s a deep, dark, almost crimson red with only a hint of orange, almost as intense as the color of good saffron stigma. “Usually you’ll see a more yellow-orange color in the chile. That’s because they’re grinding the seeds and stems in with the chile. It gets bitter. But the guy who does this for me, his seed is so popular that everybody wants that—he takes all the seed out first to sell by itself so his chile is very pure.”
All you need to make a New Mexico red chile sauce is a good bit of chile molido, some cold water, a little bit of salt, and maybe some garlic, cumin and Mexican oregano. Mix ‘em all cold so the chile doesn’t lump up, then simmer for somewhere from 20-45 minutes depending on how thick or thin you like your sauce.
The red chile in New Mexico is certainly special, but it’s the green that really gets me going. The license plates in the state say “Land of Enchantment,” but maybe they ought to try switching to “Land of Green Chile.” Chiles are big business in New Mexico—24,000 acres under cultivation, annually producing over 46,000 tons which easily makes it the largest chile growing state in the union, and on its own accounts for over half of US chile growing.
Most all green chile in New Mexico these days is roasted right after it’s been harvested. Because the chile loses water very quickly after picking, it has to be processed within a few days of leaving the fields. In the southern part of the state the harvest starts in late August; in the north not until early September. If you’re into chile it would be worth timing your visit just to experience it. Personally though I stumbled into chile season unknowingly. I went to Santa Fe for vacation; I came back with a green chile obsession.
The smell is the first thing that got my attention. It caught my unsuspecting tourist nose completely by surprise, creeping over walls and around soft adobe corners. It’s subtle, smoky, but unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before. “You only find it in New Mexico,” explained Tandy. The aroma of roasting chiles is as much a part of the end of the New Mexican summer as the smell of burning leaves would be in the Midwest. “I never get tired of it,” Tandy added.
When the season starts, fresh green chiles come in from the countryside in most every kind of container you can imagine; weathered bushel baskets, heavy burlap bags, split wood crates, and beat up cardboard boxes, all filled with freshly picked, smooth, skinned, Kelly-green (dappled with an occasional red or orange streak) crunchy peppers. Maybe two inches across at the stem end, with gently sloping shoulders, and six, seven inches long, about as long as a small banana. They taper down towards their tips, slightly curled like the toes of pointed Arabian sandals. They’re roughly half the width and half again as long as the round, dimple-bottomed, green bell peppers we’re used to in the rest of the country.
The roasting is done using a contraption that, as far as I know, is unique to New Mexico. Cylindrical wire cages that are, oh, about five or six feet-long, and about two to three feet across that sit on simple metal frames, just within the reach of a half a dozen gas jets. A small motor mounted on the end turns the cage. Simple, ingenious, practical, and easy to use, they look a bit like giant bingo hoppers. The metal of the cages turns black from regular exposure to the flames.
In the old days this roasting was done in an outdoor oven, an horno, but this old technique is almost extinct these days. “Back when I was growing up people used their ovens,” Tandy related nostalgically. “But it literally takes a whole weekend to roast a sack of chiles. You have to really tend to it. The chile would have to be hand turned four times. And since the invention of those roasters the home roasting is almost nonexistent. It’s a lost art anymore.”
These days, what used to take two days now takes no more than about ten minutes. To roast, a case of crisp, freshly picked peppers is unpacked into the cage. The door is latched shut and the gas jets are lit. The cage rotates slowly, gently tossing the chiles around as it goes. A few peppers cling to the cage by their stems, and travel up, over and around like riders on a giant chile Ferris wheel. The chile is roasted when the skins are charred fairly evenly. The peppers drop quite a bit of weight during the roasting since most of the pepper’s natural water is lost during the process. A forty-pound sack of fresh chiles comes out at about 15 pounds. When they’re done the motor is shut off, the cage stops, the door opens and out comes a case of hot, smoky, roasted, green chile.
During the season New Mexicans go after roasted green chiles like 19th century pioneers racing to make claims in a land rush. At the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market one farm family had the smarts to bring along their machine to do on-the-spot chile roasting. They were doing, what my grandmother used to call “land office business.” Customers were lining up, anxiously pushing crushed and crumpled dollar bills at the poor woman who stood at the front of the stand, like a beleaguered restaurant hostess with a wrinkled yellow legal pad of a waiting list in her hand. Meanwhile her husband and father-in-law were sweating away at the roaster trying desperately to keep up. At a little after 8:00 in the morning on the second Saturday in September, the wait for a bag of roasted chile was over an hour!
The other eleven months of the year—when green chiles are not regularly a’roasting—most New Mexicans get their fix out of the freezer. Well, not right out of the freezer—they do thaw them first. Experience has born out that the charred skins help to buffer the pepper’s delicate flavor against the freezer’s foreboding temperatures. This “freez-a-bility” means that New Mexicans buy up enough roasted peppers each September to keep themselves in green chiles through the rest of the year. I should mention that you can also get canned green chile, but to my experience it’s too soft, too mushy.
When they come out of the roasters, the skin of the chiles is a pale, almost luminescent green with lots black-brown blisters. The skin is left on after roasting to protect the flesh, the part of the pepper that counts the most. When you’re ready to eat a freshly roasted chile you need to peel it, which fortunately is fairly easy to do. Just grasp the thick, stem end of the pepper and gently slide the charred skin off with your other hand. Right out of the roaster they’re slippery, warm, and a little wet, almost the consistency of a raw oyster. Tandy pulled a few chiles from a recently roasted batch to fix us “a little green chile sandwich.” A couple of still warm, just-peeled peppers, a pinch of salt, a bit of garlic, simply rolled inside a warm corn tortilla. Damn, it was good.
The flavor of roasted green chile—like that of any food—is hard to describe to someone who’s never had it. There are hints of the green bell peppers we all know so well, but really, it’s much richer and far more complex than that. At first you taste the smokiness, then a hint of warmth, then gradually, like the sun coming over the mountains, you start to feel the heat. The flavor melts slowly away in your mouth like a piece of hard candy, lingering sweetly and spicily long after you’ve swallowed the pepper. Truly, amazing. For hours I wouldn’t eat anything else for fear of losing the taste of that simple little sandwich.
Of course every green chile is a bit different, and the perceived heat will vary drastically depending upon who’s doing the eating. For the most part, it ranges from mellow to medium hot; unless you’re exceedingly sensitive to heat, smoke won’t start shooting out of your ears, nor will tears flow down your face. Yeah, it’s “hot,” but I’d peg the heat at only about a 4 or a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. All but the most heat sensitive will likely find it a modest spiciness, a pleasant warmth that melts softly in your mouth, and slowly but surely sets your tongue to tingling. And it’s nowhere near the eye watering, tongue blistering heat of, say, a Jamaican Scotch Bonnet pepper or a Habañero.
To me, the jewel in the New Mexican chile crown is dried green chile. Increasingly hard to find, it’s not inexpensive—you may pay up to $100 a pound. Of course like dried mushrooms and saffron, the most any of us are buying is an ounce or two at a time so, fortunately, the cost is a lot less foreboding than it sounds.
For hundreds of years dried green was the norm in New Mexico. “Nowadays though,” Tandy told me sort of sadly, “people just freeze the chile. But when I was growing up everybody dried it.” There is a difference between the two. The flavor’s a bit richer, the texture a little different as well. “There’s something special about the dried green,” Tandy said wistfully. “That’s my favorite. But, then, I grew up on the dried green. It sure brings back the memories.”
There’s no real magic to the drying. Just patience and the willingness to watch your profits “vanish into thin air.” It’s done by simply placing roasted and peeled chiles out on racks, then setting them in front of slowly moving fans. It takes a day or so to complete the process. By the time you’re done with the drying, a 40-pound sack of fresh chile (roughly 300 peppers) is distilled down to about a scant pound and a half of dried. “I don’t make any money on green chile,” Tandy said with a chuckle. “It’s a giveaway item. I just stick with it because it’s traditional. People think it’s expensive, but really I don’t make any money at all.”
Of course I already knew that finance was not what makes Tandy tick. We all need money to live, but it’s clearly the food and the traditions that get him going. And the more he talked about dried green chile the more excited he got. “It’s so easy, it takes five minutes to make it.” He paused for a second then decided to just show me first hand. “Come on,” he said, as he walked me over to a little stove in the side of the packing room, and set to work to prove his point.
“You just take a quart of cold water and put it in a saucepan. Add an ounce or so of dried green chile. Bring it to a boil for a minute, and then take it off the heat. Then you just let the chile sit in the water for about five minutes. And that’s it.” Well, that’s not quite it. But almost. All that’s left to do is to take the chile out of the water, pat it dry, then sprinkle it with a bit of sea salt and a touch of chopped fresh garlic. Cut it into modestly sized strips. And then spoon the mixture onto warm corn tortillas. “Little green chile burritos,” Tandy says, happily handing me one. They were delicious. Simple as can be. Hot but not too hot, the flavor lingers and lasts. “The Mexican chiles are never like this,” he adds proudly.
This truly is great American fast food. Twenty minutes later he smiles and says, “I still taste that green chile.” As did I, and happily so.
The Language of New Mexico Chile
Interestingly, not only is New Mexico chile unique in flavor but also in linguistic application. The “s” that most of us would instinctively put at the end of the word when using it in the plural doesn’t show up in New Mexico. Whether you’re referring to one pepper or a hundred, the syntax seems to be strictly singular. Where we Midwesterners would surely say “chiles,” New Mexico people stick to simply “green chile.”
Equally interesting the term “green chile” is used in New Mexico to refer to a multitude of related, but never the less distinctive, variations on a chile theme. In New Mexican vernacular there’s “green chile,” the crunchy, freshly picked, uncooked, green vegetable/fruit. There’s “green chile” the roasted and peeled peppers. There’s “green chile” the dried roasted and peeled. And then there’s “green chile” as a sort of stew—onions, pork, chiles and spices that’s served for lunch, as in, “a bowl of green chile.” And finally, there’s “green chile,” a sauce of onions, garlic, a little water and, uh, green chile that’s offered on the side with what seems like most every dish you order in New Mexico. You just have to kind of intuit which “green chile” is being referred to by the context in which it comes up. They’re all good. And in New Mexico, they’re all “green chile.”
What To Do With Green Chiles
“We use chile differently here in New Mexico,” Tandy told me. “In Mexico they use the chiles as a seasoning, as a spice. But here we make chile the main item in the dish.”
There’s a wealth of wonderful dishes that are typical of New Mexico and which rely on red or green chiles. I mean, chile.
“Do you cook?” I asked Tandy.
“Oh yeah!” he answered enthusiastically.
So what do you do with the chile?
Just Eat It
The best thing to do with a roasted green chile is quite simply, to eat it. I mean, all this other stuff I’m telling you is just a load of inedible, dry, newsprint unless you’ve got green chile to put in your mouth. So go to it. If you’re working with dry green, simply bring ‘em to a boil in a quart of water, let ‘em soak for five minutes or so, drain, pat dry and you’re ready to use. If you’re using frozen, all you have to do is thaw, peel off the charred skin, and you’re ready to go. Either way, you can put green chile on sandwiches of all sorts—they’re particularly good with cheese, but try ‘em with roasted pork, grilled chicken or steak. Chop green chile and toss on pasta or put it on pizza. Stuff roasted green chiles with cheese and bake for incredible chiles rellenos. Put green chile and goat cheese in an omelet. Cook up a green chile and cheddar cheese soup. At our bakery we make a very good green chile and cheddar cheese bread. It’s simple, really. It’s green chile. Eat and enjoy.