Santa Fe: Cooking with New Mexico Chiles

Guest post by Dolores J. Palomo…

Breakfast at the Inn of the Anasazi, Santa Fe, NM
Breakfast at the Inn of the Anasazi, Santa Fe, NM (click to enlarge)

What better way to spend a morning in Santa Fe than a class at the Santa Fe Cooking School?

Delightfully fortified by indulging in a healthy breakfast like this at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, you can easily walk across town to the cooking school. Recently I signed up for a 3 hour demonstration about “New Mexico Traditional Cooking” featuring Chef Allen Smith.

Chef Allen Smith at the Santa Fe Cooking School
Chef Allen Smith at the Santa Fe Cooking School (click to enlarge)

A Tale of Two Chiles

First we were introduced to the New Mexico chile (see footnote). Generally, it refers to chiles grown in the state’s Hatch valley, though there are also chiles from the more southern Chimayo area.

Green Hatch chiles
Green Hatch chiles

They ripen usually in late summer varying with the weather, and may appear for a few weeks in selected out-of-state markets as green Hatch chilies.

They are about 5-6” long and look like the widely available Anaheims. Both varieties are descended from the original cultivar, but the Anaheims grew up in California and developed a more mild flavor.

Their New Mexico cousins acquired more complexity in the high desert environment. Like wine grapes, chile flavor and heat vary according to the particular terroir. The heat of any batch of chiles cannot be determined by a chart — you have to taste.

Chef Smith explained that chile dishes need plenty of salt, but sugar does bring out the flavor — hence the honey in the recipe below. Making a good sauce thus depends upon tasting and adjusting.

Chile ristras in market
Chile ristras in market, by Kolin Toney (click to enlarge)

Hatch peppers turn red as they ripen, but green ones are very easy to freeze, ready to roast when you need them. When dry, they are braided into ristras.

New Mexico red chile powder is made from the dried chiles without the seeds. With the seeds, it’s called chile caribe, which you can use for more heat. You can also find the seeds alone — they look like the ubiquitous red pepper flakes in pizza parlors (though those are made from any kind of chile pepper), but have that distinctive New Mexico flavor.

Green Hatch chiles can be roasted. Do not oil the peppers, but simply roast them in the oven, under a broiler, or over open flame, then let steam in a plastic bag, and peel. They freeze well, and freeze even better with skin on. The dried ones should be soaked for about 30 minutes — then peel the char if roasted and remove stem and seeds, but not the veins (unless you want a mild flavor). Puree and then use as desired.

We’ve all been told to wear protective gloves when handling chiles, but oiling your hands can also protect them. And if your mouth is burning, don’t use water (or beer or wine) — ingest something sweet.

Meanwhile Back in the Kitchen

Students learn about cooking with New Mexico chiles
Students learn about cooking with New Mexico chiles

While Chef Smith was telling us all this and more about chiles, he was busy preparing our menu, primarily the Carne Adovada, literally ‘marinated meat’. You will find the recipe below.

This was served with Calabacitas (sautéed onion, garlic, summer squash, corn, and chiles), and chiles rellenos — by far the best I’ve ever had and not easy to prepare. Perfectly cooked frijoles (not mashed into submission) and of course hand-made tortillas were also served. All this was followed by a dessert of heavenly sopapillas, expertly prepared by Smith’s assistant.

Cooking sopapillas
Cooking sopapillas (click to enlarge)

Recipe for Carne Adovada

Here is Chef Allen Smith’s recipe for Carne Adovada (also spelled adobada). As with many famous national dishes, each cook adjusts seasonings to suit and to adapt to variations in ingredients.

  • 1/3 cup peanut or vegetable oil
  • 3 ½ cups pork loin or butt, cut into ¾” cubes
  • 2 cups diced onion, slow cooked – maybe 2 hours!
  • 2 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 4 cups chicken broth or water
  • 2 tsp freshly ground coriander seed
  • 2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 tsp chile caribe with pinch of cumin (optional)
  • ¾ cup New Mexican ground red chile, mild or medium
  • ¾ cup red chile honey (or plain honey)
  • 2 Tbsp sherry or red wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350 °.

  1. Heat oil in a large skillet, brown pork in batches and remove from skillet.
  2. Add onion and sauté until golden (Chef Smith suggests adding a little masa if you have it), then add garlic and sauté for a minute. Deglaze skillet with 1 cup of broth or wine, loosening all the brown bits.
  3. Into a food processor, add coriander, oregano, chile caribe, red chile power, red chile, honey, vinegar and salt. Then add onion/garlic/broth mixture from the skillet, and 2 more cups of broth or water, and process until well combined.
  4. Then pour into a large ovenproof pot or casserole along with the browned pork and remaining cup of broth or water, stirring to combine well, and let cook in oven for 1 hour or until pork is tender. Adjust seasonings as desired. Makes 8 servings.

Want to Learn More?

Great Chile Cookbook cover
Buy this book on Amazon

For more information about chile peppers, consult The Great Chile Cookbook — the very bible of chile-dom by Mark Miller, founder of the famed Coyote Café in Santa Fe.

SPELLING NOTE: chile or chili?  ‘Chile’ is the original Spanish spelling for the pepper and is preferred in the southwest, although both forms are recognized. ‘Chili’ can mean the bean dish, as in “I had chili for lunch,” but it is widely used elsewhere for the pepper itself.

One Reply to “Santa Fe: Cooking with New Mexico Chiles”

  1. Fantastic post Dolores!

    Even though I am not much into food preparation, it was a real pleasure reading your post. You are a very good writer.

    And the pictures were spot on.

    Keep on doing these posts ….

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