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Red and Green for the Holidays PDF Print E-mail

by Nancy Gerlach, Fiery-Foods.com Food Editor Emeritus

Festive Chile Pepper Wreath - Photo by Harald Zoschke


  • Mole Poblano de la Noche Buena

  • Tamales y Mas Tamales

  • Southwestern Roasted Turkey with Green
    Chile Piñon Dressing

  • Posole

  • Winter Squash and Apple Chowder with
    Red Chile--Dusted Croutons

Festive Chile Pepper Wreath

Photo by Harald Zoschke

Mistletoe and holly are endangered species around here--everywhere we look in the Southwest, the traditional red and green decorations of the holiday season are dominated by the very same colors of New Mexico’s powerful state vegetable, the chile pepper. The abundance of chile gift items boosts the pungent pod to primary status as a New Mexico Christmas symbol.

At the time of Christ’s birth, chile peppers were already under cultivation only a thousand miles south of Albuquerque. There, in the great valley of Mexico, oblivious to the momentous events a world away, the Aztecs domesticated the hot fruits from a wild variety, cooking them with turkeys, using them in ceremonies, and decorating their bowls with pod designs. Since Christopher Columbus was the first person to transport chile seeds from the New World back to the Old, the colorful peppers could not possibly have been associated the earliest celebrations of Christ’s birth. Nevertheless, there’s always an optimistic visionary in the crowd: The artist who painted the "Last Supper" mural in the Cathedral of Cuzco, Peru, added a dish of chile peppers to the feast before Christ and His Apostles.

The first true connection between Christmas and red and green chiles coincided with the conquest of the Aztec Civilization and the imposition of Christianity upon them. The Spaniards found a veritable rainbow of cultivated peppers--historian Garcilaso de la Vega wrote in 1609 of green, red, yellow and purple uchu peppers. Given their gala colors and the coinciding of many Indian feast days with the Christmas season and Winter Solstice, chile peppers probably were destined to join the festivities.

Christmas tree ornaments

Some chile christmas ornaments from Harald Zoschke's collection (Photo by Harald Zoschke)

Apparently the earliest recorded chile link with the Christmas season occurred with the turkey, red chile and chocolate dish below, Mole Poblano de la Noche Buena. Legend holds that it was first created in one of the convents in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico. It seems that the sister superior of the Santa Rosa Convent, Sor Andrea, ceremonially combined ingredients from the Old World and the New to honor the archbishop for building the convent for her order. Often called the national dish of Mexico, it was traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Nowadays it’s a simple and different way to serve the remaining Christmas Day roast. And we must not forget that tamales are also part of the holiday season, traditionally served on Christmas eve.

As the Spanish and Indian cultures mingled, Mexican Christmas and holiday meals, festivities and decorations increasingly adopted the colorful chile peppers. Early chile decorations served culinary purposes--they were the ristras and wreaths made of dried red chiles that could be plucked when necessary for the Posole, another tradition Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve meals. And these days, another decorative Christmas plant, poinsettia, is yielding ground to ornamental pepper varieties given as gifts to cheer the home with their bright red fruits: the Christmas Cherry, the Christmas Greeting, and the Christmas Oriental.

In New Mexico, Christmas traditions from Indian and Spanish cultures have further collided with the mostly English customs of the early eastern U.S. settlers to form an an amalgam of holiday fare. Native New Mexico flavors transform the Pilgrim’s basically bland bird into Roast Turkey with Green Chile-Pinon Dressing. A traditional Southwestern combination of hominy corn and chiles called Posole complements the bird and provides an interesting--and hot--substitute for mashed potatoes. And for a non-traditional holiday dish, the Winter Squash and Apple Chowder with Red Chile-Dusted Croutons is great as a first course to any holiday feast or as a light entree for meals following those feasts.

So it’s not just coincidence. Chiles and Christmas do go together like mistletoe and holly.

The following are some of the dishes that I serve family and friends during the holiday season. Add some red and green chile to your favorite family recipes or try something new, but have a happy and hot Feliz Navidad!

Mole Poblano de la Noche Buena

Mole poblano

Use this sauce to accompany a variety of poultry dishes. Serve it in the traditional way, over a turkey breast, garnished with sesame seeds, or substitute sliced turkey, left over from your holiday feast. It also makes an excellent sauce for shredded turkey or chicken enchiladas.

  • 4 dried red New Mexico chiles

  • 4 dried pasilla or mulato chiles

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds

  • 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped

  • 1/2 cup almonds

  • 1 corn tortilla, torn into pieces

  • 1/4 cup raisins

  • 1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves, cinnamon and coriander

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, lard is traditionally used

  • 3 cups chicken broth

  • 1 ounce bitter chocolate, or more to taste

  • Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Place the chiles on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until they are fragrant, about 15 minutes, being careful not to let them burn. Remove, cool and remove the stems and seeds.

Combine the chiles, onion, garlic, tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of the sesame seeds, almonds, tortilla, raisins, cloves, cinnamon and coriander in a blender or food processor. Puree the mixture, small amounts at a time, until smooth.

Heat the oil in a skillet over a medium heat, and saute the chile sauce for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chicken broth, chocolate and salt and cook over a low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occassionally, until the sauce has thickened.

To serve, pour the sauce over the turkey or enchiladas, and garnish with the sesame seeds.

Yield: approximately 3 cups

Heat Scale: Mild

Tamales y Mas Tamales


Tamales Await the Christmas Sauce
- Photo by Chel Beeson


Tamales can be filled with almost anything from meat or poultry to fruits and nuts. To create variations on this traditional recipe, simply replace the pork with the ingredients of choice. Tamales are traditionally served covered with red or green chile sauce–but use both for red and green "Christmas" tamales.

  • 2 pound pork roast

  • Dried corn husks

  • 3 cups red chile sauce

  • 4 cups masa harina

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups pork broth or water

  • 2/3 cup lard or shortening

  • 2 cups green chile sauce

In a large pot, cover the pork with water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for an hour to an hour and a half or until the pork is very tender and starts to fall apart. Remove the roast and save the broth. With 2 forks or fingers, finely shred the meat.

Combine the pork with 1 cup of the red chile sauce and simmer for 15 minutes, adding more sauce if the meat becomes too dry.

Soak the corn husks in water to soften.

In a bowl, mix together the masa and salt. Slowly add the reserved pork broth, stirring with a fork until the mixture holds together. Whip the lard or shortening until fluffy. Add the masa to the shortening and continue to beat. Drop a teaspoon full of the dough into a glass of cold water. If the dough floats, it is ready. If it sinks, continue to beat it until it floats.

To assemble: Select corn husks that measure about 5 x 8 inches or overlap smaller ones together. Place 2 tablespoons of the masa in the center of the husk, and pat or spread the dough evenly into a 2-by 3-inch rectangle. Place about 3 teaspoons of the pork and the salsa down the center and fold the husk around the masa and filling, being careful not to squeeze the tamale.

There are two basic ways of folding the husks. The first is to take two strips of the corn husks and firmly tie each end of the tamale. This method works well with smaller corn husks.

The second method is to fold the tapered end over the filled husk, and then fold the remaining end over it. Tie the tamale around the middle with a strip of the corn husk to keep the ends folded down.

Place a rack in the bottom of a steamer or large pot. Make sure that the rack is high enough to keep the tamales above the water. Place the tamales on the rack, folded side down, or if the pot is large enough, stand them up. Do not pack them tightly as they need to expand as they cook. Cover with addition husks or a towel to absorb the moisture. Bring the water to a boil, reduce to a gentle boil, and steam for an hour for each dozen tamales or until done. To test for doneness, open one end of the husk and if the masa pulls away from the wrapper, it is done.

Serve with additional the red and green chile sauces, but be sure to unwrap the tamales from the husks before pouring the sauce over them.

Yield: 2 dozen

Heat Scale: Medium

Southwestern Roasted Turkey with Green Chile Piñon Dressing

Roasted Turkey

This dressing is best when baked in the turkey. For safeties sake, only stuff the bird right before putting it in the oven. Adjust the heat of the turkey by the amount of, and type of red chile you use to rub on the skin.. Serve with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, gravy, and habanero spiced acorn squash. When making the gravy, add some minced chipotle chiles and the adobo sauce they were canned in for a spiced version of turkey gravy.

  • 1/4 cup butter

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 1 cup chopped celery

  • 1 cup chopped green New Mexico chile, which has been roasted and peeled

  • 6 cups coarsely crumbled cornbread

  • 1 cup whole piñon nuts, or substitute chopped walnuts

  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme

  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth

  • 2 tablespoons ground red New Mexican chile

  • 1 10 to 12- pound turkey

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a saucepan over medium high heat, melt the butter and saute the onion and celery until soft.

Combine the chile, onion mixture, cornbread, nuts and thyme in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Add enough of the broth to thoroughly moisten, but not saturate, the mixture.

Stuff the turkey cavity and sew it shut. Place any remaining dressing in a pan, and cook in the oven along with the turkey. Rub the chile powder over the outside of the bird.

Roast the turkey for 20 minutes per pound, basting frequently with the pan juices, until done.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Heat Scale: Medium


(Pork and Posole Corn)


The technique of treating corn with lime to remove the tough outer skin was probably passed on to the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico by the early Meso-American cultures. The corn, called posole, is the main ingredient used in the dish of the same name. Hominy can be substituted for the posole corn; although the taste will be different it will still be tasty.

  • 3/4 cup dried posole

  • 1 pound lean pork, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 large onion, diced

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 3 cups pork or chicken broth

  • 3 tablespoons ground New Mexico red chile

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • 1 cup red chile sauce, optional

  • Limes radishes, onions, and cabbage for garnish

In a large saucepan or stockpot, cover the posole with water and soak it overnight.

Bring the water and posole to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the kernels start to become tender, 1 to1 1/2 hours. Add more water if necessary.

In a heavy skillet, brown the pork over medium-high heat, adding a little oil if needed. When browned, add to the posole. Add the onions to the skillet and, if needed, additional oil. Saute the onions until they turn a golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Transfer the mixture to the stockpot with the posole.

Add the broth to the skillet, raise the heat, and deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape all the bits and pieces from the sides and bottom. Pour the broth into the posole.

Add the chile and oregano to the pot and salt to taste. Bring to just below boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 to 11/2 hours, or until the meat is very tender and starts to fall apart. Add more broth, if necessary.

To serve, ladle into large soup bowls and serve with warmed tortillas and the chile sauce on the side.  serve with the limes, radishes, onions, and cabbage for garnishes.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Winter Squash and Apple Chowder with Red Chile--Dusted Croutons

Squash Chowder

This hearty soup combines several fall crops, namely squash, apples, and of course chile. Add a salad, crusty bread, and a nice wine and you have a memorable holiday meal.

  • 1 medium onion, diced

  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine

  • 1 1/2 pounds Hubbard or butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes

  • 3 tart green apples, peeled, cored, and chopped

  • 1/2 cup chopped green New Mexico chiles, which have been roasted and peeled

  • 1 quart chicken or vegetable broth

  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

  • 2 cups diced chicken (optional)

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 tablespoons applejack or Calvados (optional)

  • 1 to 2 teaspoons cider vinegar (optional)

  • Red chile dusted croutons (recipe below)

In a large saucepan over medium-high , saute the onions in the butter until soft. Add the squash and the apples and continue to saute for an additional 3 minutes.

Add the chile and broth to the onion mixture and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat, cover partially and simmer until the squash and apples are very tender, about 30 to 45 minutes.

Add the lemon peel, chicken (if using), pepper, and applejack. Season with salt to taste and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Add the vinegar if the soup is too sweet.

Serve the soup in large bowls garnished with the croutons.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Red Chile Dusted Croutons

These spicy croutons are not only a tasty addition to this soup, they are great on salads too. For a hotter crouton add some ground chile piquin.

  • 3 slices of white bread, crusts trimmed, cut in 1-inch cubes

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 tablespoon margarine

  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

  • 1 tablespoon ground red New Mexico chile

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and let them dry out at room temperature for a couple of hours.

In a skillet, heat the olive oil and margarine. Add the garlic and saute until the garlic just starts to brown, being careful not to let them burn. Remove the garlic and discard. Add the chile and the cumin and toss the crumbs in the mixture until well coated.

Spread the bread cubes on the baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Allow the cubes to cool at room temperature.

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