Tasting New Mexico chiles in Santa Fe
A staple of New Mexican cuisine, green chiles can be found in everything from burritos and tequila to caramels and ice cream
It’s 8am at Tia Sophia’s, a well-worn family diner in the New Mexican capital of Santa Fe. My server takes my order while pouring black coffee from a flask; I ask for the breakfast burrito, said to have been invented here in the 1970s.
“Red, green, or Christmas-style?” he enquires, referring to a dish smothered in both red and green chile sauce. It’s my inaugural chile experience in the American Southwest: “Christmas,” I reply.
In the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, more than 7,000ft above sea level, Santa Fe is all chocolate-brown adobe buildings, and in its vibrant centre, wide, leafy streets. There are strong Native American, Spanish, Mexican and Southwestern influences: foodwise, the fresh produce comprises indigenous vegetables, including beans and squash, as well as new-world imports such as corn. The state’s high elevation and arid desert climate make it optimal for growing the ingredient that binds them all together: New Mexico green chiles. And locally, they’re very much chiles, rather than chillies.
My burrito arrives, a large flour tortilla folded into a rectangle around scrambled eggs, grated potato and two sweet pork sausage patties. It’s covered in melted orange cheddar, and the pale green and bright red chile sauces spooned on top have formed a pool around its sides. The green sauce, made with chopped fresh chiles, is mild and chunky and produces a warmth that grows steadily in the back of my throat; its natural smokiness enhanced by the fact the pods have been roasted over an open flame prior to peeling. The red sauce, traditionally made with dried pods that have either been rehydrated or ground, is hotter and sweeter, and served thick and smooth.
In the desert southwest of Santa Fe I talk to Rocky Durham, head chef at the Blue Heron Restaurant, about New Mexico’s deep-rooted passion for its chiles. They’ve been grown here for at least 300 years, and their unique flavour and what Rocky calls the “psychological euphoric sweat” they produce is something New Mexicans miss as soon as they leave their state. “I’m not a doctor,” he adds, “but I strongly believe a diet with green chile is healthier than one without.”
It’s late May, and at Santa Fe Farmers Market, the only signs of New Mexican chiles are bags of bright red powder stacked among local radishes, spinach and oven-dried hominy, and decorative bunches of dried pods known as ristras, which hang in windows and from lamp posts all over town. Come August and September, green chiles not only flood the market, but are also available to buy state-wide from roadsides, where they’re bulk roasted in large metal drums. Their smoke fills the air with what Michelle Chavez of the Santa Fe School of Cooking calls “the smell of New Mexico in the summer”. It’s not unusual to see families buying several bushels at once; they’ll peel, chop and bag them for the freezer, so they’re stocked up for the year ahead.
Eating out in Santa Fe, green chiles are omnipresent from January to December. Over the course of a weekend here I try a starchy green chile chicken tamale from a tiny turquoise stall at the Plaza, eye up green chile caramels at the Kakawa Chocolate House, hunt for margaritas made with green chile-infused tequila, and spot a sign for green chile ice cream. At the popular Dolina Cafe & Bakery, I polish off a great fat, Christmas-style — using both red and green chile sauces — omelette stuffed with ham, mushrooms, sour cream and caramelised onions. And the huevos rancheros at colourful Cafe Pasqual’s — black beans, corn tortillas and melted cheese served with green chile sauce and two eggs, sunny side up — is the highlight of my stay.
In September, crowds gather for the city’s annual Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, at which independently owned restaurants from across New Mexico compete for the title of best in state. I try the winner of the 2016 People’s Choice Award at the Second Street Brewery; a juicy beef patty stuffed with American cheese, topped with chopped green chile and crispy bacon, served with fries and a chunky pickle on the side. The chile adds a smoky warmth to the burger, and I can see why locals miss the flavour when they’re away. I’ve only been eating it for three days, but I can’t image a cheeseburger without it.
Three local favourites
Blue corn green chile chicken enchiladas
An heirloom corn variety originally developed by Native American tribes, blue corn has a sweet, nutty flavour and a colour ranging from pale to deep black-blue. Tortillas wrapped around shredded chicken, cheddar jack cheese, baked and covered in chile sauce — red, green or Christmas — enchiladas are a staple of New Mexican cuisine.
Whole fresh green chiles stuffed with a melting cheese such as Monterey Jack, cheddar or asadero. They’re either baked, covered in more cheese and garnished with chopped green chile, or dipped in a thick egg and flour or cornmeal batter and deep-fried in oil. Delicious with refried beans, salsa and rice.
Green chile stew
Every New Mexican grandma has a recipe for what Rocky calls “a real celebration of the green chile itself”. Usually pork and/or beef, green chile stew incorporates potatoes, onion and garlic; other additions might include chopped red peppers or tomatoes, hominy and seasonings such as cumin or Mexican oregano.
American Airlines and United Airlines operate flights from Heathrow to Santa Fe via Denver, Phoenix and Dallas Fort Worth. americanairlines.co.uk united.com
Where to stay
A short walk from Santa Fe Plaza and the city’s main sights, the boutique Inn & Spa at Loretto offers comfortable rooms, a cosy bar and restaurant plus a pool and spa. hotelloretto.com
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