According to many accounts, chile peppers were introduced into what is now the U.S. by Capitn General Juan de Oñate, the founder of Santa Fe, in 1598. However, they may have been introduced to the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico by the Antonio Espejo expedition of 1582-83. According to one of the members of the expedition, Baltasar Obregón, "They have no chile, but the natives were given some seed to plant." By 1601, chiles were not on the list of Indian crops, according to colonist Francisco de Valverde, who also complained that mice were a pest who ate chile pods off the plants in the field.
"A la primera cocinera se le va un chile entero," goes one old Spanish dicho, or saying: "To the best lady cook goes the whole chile." And so it is that the chile pepper is the single most important food brought from Mexico that defines New Mexican cuisine. After the Spanish began settlement, the cultivation of chile peppers exploded, and soon they were grown all over New Mexico. It is likely that many different varieties were cultivated, including early forms of jalapeños, serranos, anchos, and pasillas. But one variety that adapted particularly well to New Mexico was a long green chile that turned red in the fall. Formerly called "Anaheim" because of its transfer to the more settled California around 1900, the New Mexican chiles were cultivated for hundreds of years in the region with such dedication that several distinct varieties developed.
These varieties, or "land races," called 'Chimayo' and 'Española,' had adapted to particular environments and are still planted today in the same fields they were grown in centuries ago; they constitute a small but distinct part of the tons of pods produced each year in New Mexico.
In 1846, William Emory, Chief Engineer of the Army's Topographic Unit, was surveying the New Mexico landscape and its customs. He described a meal eaten by people in Bernalillo, just north of Albuquerque: "Roast chicken, stuffed with onions; then mutton, boiled with onions; then followed various other dishes, all dressed with the everlasting onion; and the whole terminated by chile, the glory of New Mexico."
Emory went on to relate his experience with chiles: "Chile the Mexicans consider the chef-d'oeuvre of the cuisine, and seem really to revel in it; but the first mouthful brought the tears trickling down my cheeks, very much to the amusement of the spectators with their leather-lined throats. It was red pepper, stuffed with minced meat."
New Mexican chiles are pod types of the annuum species. The plant has mostly a compact habit with an intermediate number of stems, and grows between 20 and 30 inches high. The leaves are ovate, medium green, fairly smooth, and about 3 inches long and 2 inches wide. The flower corollas are white with no spots. The pods are pendant, elongate, bluntly pointed, and measure between 2 and 12 inches. They are dark green, maturing to various shades of red. Some ornamentals are yellow or brown. Their heat ranges from quite mild to medium, between 500 and 2,500 Scoville Units.
New Mexican Chile varieties
offer various heat levels
More than 40,000 acres of New Mexican chiles are under cultivation in New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Texas. The growing period is about 80 days, and each plant produces between 10 and 20 pods, depending on variety and cultural techniques.
For chile plants to bear this much large fruit in
New Mexico's desert climate, proper irrigation is
crucial. Water from the Rio Grande is provided
through a system of ditches and furrows
Varieties of the New Mexican pod type are: 'Anaheim M' (mild, 8-inch pods); 'Anaheim TMR 23' (mild, 8-inch pods that are mosaic-resistant); 'Chimayó' (a land race from northern New Mexico with thin-walled, 6-inch pods); 'Española Improved' (pods 5 to 6 inches, medium heat); 'Fresno' (erect, 2-inch pods, medium-hot); 'New Mexico No. 6-4' (the most commonly grown New Mexican variety, pods are 7 inches long with medium heat); 'NuMex Big Jim' (long pods, up to 12 inches, medium heat); 'NuMex Eclipse'(chocolate-brown, mild, 5-inch pods); 'NuMex Joe E. Parker' (improved 6-4 variety); 'NuMex Sunrise'(bright yellow, mild, 5-inch pods); 'NuMex Sunset' (orange, mild, 5-inch pods); 'NuMex R Naky" (pods are 5 to 7 inches long with mild heat); and 'Sandia" (medium hot, 6-inch pods with thin walls).
Big Jim: Largest NuMex Variety
The earliest cultivated chiles in New Mexico were smaller than those of today; indeed, they were (and still are, in some cases) considered a spice. But as the land races developed and the size of the pods increased, the food value of chiles became evident. There was just one problem&endash;&endash;the bewildering sizes and shapes of the chile peppers made it very difficult for farmers to determine which variety of chile they were growing from year to year. And, there was no way to tell how large the pods might be, or how hot. The demand for chiles was increasing as the population of the state did, so it was time for modern horticulture to take over.
Chile pickers in a field
near Las Cruces, NM
In 1907, Fabian Garcia, a horticulturist at the Agricultural Experiment Station at the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now New Mexico State University), began his first experiments in breeding more standardized chile varieties, and, in 1908, published "Chile Culture," the first chile bulletin from the Agricultural Experiment Station. In 1913, Garcia became director of the Experiment Station and expanded his breeding program.
Finally, in 1917, after ten years of experiments with various strains of pasilla chiles, Garcia released New Mexico No. 9, the first attempt to grow chiles with a dependable pod size and heat level. The No. 9 variety became the chile standard in New Mexico until 1950, when Roy Harper, another horticulturist, released New Mexico No. 6, a variety which matured earlier, produced higher yields, was wilt resistant, and was less pungent than No. 9.
The New Mexico No. 6 variety was by far the biggest breakthrough in the chile breeding program. According to the late Dr. Roy Nakayama, who succeeded Harper as director of the New Mexico Agricultural Experiment Station, "The No. 6 variety changed the image of chile from a ball of fire that sent consumers rushing to the water jug to that of a multi-purpose vegetable with a pleasing flavor. Commercial production and marketing, especially of green chiles and sauces, have been growing steadily since people around the world have discovered the delicious taste of chile without the overpowering pungency."
In 1957, the New Mexico No. 6 variety was modified, made less pungent again, and the new variety was called "New Mexico No. 6-4." The No. 6-4 variety became the chile industry standard in New Mexico and over thirty years later was still the most popular chile commercially grown in the state. Other chile varieties, such as Big Jim (popular with home gardeners; see picture above) and New Mexico R-Naky, have been developed but became popular mostly with home gardeners.
Today, Dr. Paul Bosland, who took over the chile breeding program from Dr. Nakayama, is developing new varieties that are resistant to chile wilt, a fungal disease which can devastate fields. He has also created varieties to produce brown, orange, and yellow ristras for the home decoration market. The breeding and development of new chile varieties--in addition to research into wild species, post-harvest packaging, and genetics--is an on-going, major project at New Mexico State. But modern horticultural techniques finally produced fairly standardized chiles. New Mexico is by far the largest commercial producer of chile peppers in the United States, with about 35,000 acres under cultivation.
All of the primary dishes in New Mexico cuisine contain chile peppers: sauces, stews, carne adovada, enchiladas, posole, tamales, huevos rancheros, and many combination vegetable dishes. The intense use of chiles as a food rather than just as a spice or condiment is what differentiates New Mexican cuisine from that of Texas or Arizona. In neighboring states, chile powders are used as a seasoning for beef or chicken broth-based "chili gravies," which are thickened with flour or cornstarch before they are added to, say, enchiladas. In New Mexico, the sauces are made from pure chiles and are thickened by reducing the crushed or pureed pods.
New Mexico chile sauces are cooked and pureed, while salsas utilize fresh ingredients and are uncooked. Debates rage over whether tomatoes are used in cooked sauces such as red chile sauce for enchiladas. Despite the recipes in numerous cookbooks, traditional cooked red sauces do not contain tomatoes, though uncooked salsas do.
Roasting Green Chiles
in Hatch, New Mexico
New Mexicans love chile peppers so much that they have become the de facto state symbol. Houses are adorned with strings of dried red chiles, called ristras. Images of the pods are emblazoned on signs, T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, windsocks, and even underwear. In the late summer and early fall, the aroma of roasting chiles fills the air all over the state and produces a state of bliss for chileheads.
Classic New Mexican Red Chile Sauce
This basic sauce can be used in any recipe calling for a red sauce, either traditional Mexican or New Southwestern versions of beans, tacos, tamales, and enchiladas.
Place the chiles on a baking pan and put them in a 250 degree F. oven for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the chiles smell like they are toasted, taking care not to let them burn. Remove the stems and seeds and crumble them into a saucepan.
Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
Puree the mixture in a blender until smooth and strain if necessary. If the sauce is too thin, place it back on the stove and simmer until it is reduced to the desired consistency.
Yield: 2 to 2 ½ cups
Heat Scale: Medium
Variations: Spices such as cumin, coriander, and Mexican oregano may be added to taste. Some versions of this sauce call for the onion and garlic to be sautéed in lard--or vegetable oil these days--before the chiles and water are added.
Green Chile Stew
This is the beef stew or macaroni and cheese of New Mexico--a basic dish with as many variations as there are cooks. Add a warmed flour tortilla and you have a complete meal.
2 pounds lean pork, cubed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 to 8 green New Mexican chiles, roasted, peeled, seeds and stems removed, chopped
1 large potato, peeled and diced (optional)
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 cups water
Brown the pork in the oil. Add the onion and garlic, and sauté for a couple of minutes.
Combine all the ingredients in a kettle or crockpot and simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours or until the meat is very tender.
Heat Scale: Hot
New Mexican Carne Adovada
This simple but tasty dish evolved from the need to preserve meat without refrigeration since chile acts as an antioxidant and prevents the meat from spoiling. It is a very common restaurant entree in New Mexico. Serving suggestions: Place the Carne Adovada in a flour tortilla to make a burrito, use it as a stuffing for sopaipillas, or use it as filling for enchiladas. If quartered potatoes are added during the last hour of baking, the dish becomes a sort of stew.
1 ½ cups crushed dried red New Mexican chile, seeds included
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
3 cups water
2 pounds pork, cut in strips or cubed
Combine the chile, garlic, oregano, and the water and mix well to make a caribe sauce.
Place the pork in a glass pan and cover with the chile caribe sauce. Marinate the pork overnight in the refrigerator.
Bake the carne adovada in a 300 degree F. oven for a couple of hours or until the pork is very tender and starts to fall apart.
Heat Scale: Hot
Posole with Chile Caribe
Here is the classic version of posole as prepared in northern New Mexico. Serving the chile caribe as a side dish instead of mixing it with the posole allows guests to adjust the heat to their own taste.
Dried red NuMex Sandia Chile
2 dried red New Mexican chiles, stems and seeds removed
8 ounces frozen posole corn or dry posole corn which has been soaked in water overnight
1 pound pork loin, cut in ½-inch cubes
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 medium onion, chopped
6 cups water
Combine all the ingredients in a pot except the pork and boil at medium heat for about 3 hours or until the posole is tender, adding more water if necessary.
Add the pork and continue cooking for ½ hour, or until the pork is tender but not falling apart. The result should resemble a soup more than a stew.
The Chile Caribe:
Boil the chile pods in two quarts of water for 15 minutes. Remove the pods, combine with the garlic powder, and puree in a blender. Transfer to a serving bowl and allow to cool.
To Serve: The posole should be served in soup bowls accompanied by warm flour tortillas. Three additional bowls of garnishes should be provided: the chile caribe, freshly minced cilantro, and freshly chopped onion. Each guest can then adjust the pungency of the posole according to individual taste.
Note: For really hot chile caribe, add dried red chile piquins, cayenne chiles, or chiles de arbol to the New Mexican chiles.
Heat Scale: Medium, but varies according to the amount of chile caribe added.
Southwestern Spiced Squash (Calabacitas)
This recipe combines two other Native American crops, squash and corn, with chile. One of the most popular dishes in New Mexico, it is also so colorful that it goes well with a variety of foods.
3 zucchini squash, cubed
½ cup chopped onion
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
½ cup chopped green New Mexican chile, roasted, peeled, stems removed
2 cups whole kernel corn
1 cup milk
½ cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
Sauté the squash and onion in the butter until the squash is tender.
Add the chile, corn, and milk. Simmer the mixture for 15 to 20 minutes to blend the flavors. Add the cheese and heat until the cheese is melted.
Serves: 4 to 6
Heat Scale: Medium