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Chile Time

Montreal native Sigalit Hoffman, currently a medical student in Israel, on a recent visit to Albuquerque. "I love the red chile at Garcia's Kitchen," she says.

Story, photo and recipes
by Sharon Niederman

A dedicated chile lover will travel any distance down any highway in pursuit of a great chile sauce.

Chile, an ancient, locally grown mainstay, prepared as a stew or sauce, is the defining ingredient in New Mexican cuisine. Combined with corn tortillas, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes, chile binds together the food that for centuries sustained indigenous people, the Spanish and subsequent arrivals.

From Chope’s south of Las Cruces to Garcia’s Kitchen in Albuquerque to the Horseman’s Haven in Santa Fe to Orlando’s in Taos, the pursuit of the most flavorful — or the hottest — chile remains a personal quest akin to proving one’s honor.

When Christopher Columbus set out across the Atlantic in 1492, he was looking for a sea route to the lucrative spice trade of Asia. Instead, he stumbled onto the New World, where he tasted chile. He took some back to Spain, and from there chile spread around the world on trade routes, transforming the cuisines of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, North Africa, India, Nepal, Tibet, and China. In addition to its distinction as one of the world’s favorite spices, chile is one of the oldest: it’s believed to have originated 10,000 years ago in the Amazon region of South America, in what are today Brazil & Bolivia.

How chile first arrived in New Mexico is the subject of debate. Some believe the Spanish introduced it to the Pueblo Indians. Others hold that chile was grown in New Mexico centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish, having been introduced through trade with the people of Mexico and South America.

The source of chile’s heat is the chemical capsaicin, found in the pepper’s heart and membrane. The seeds themselves are not hot, but they absorb capsaicin from their contact with the heart and membrane. Though “chile” is a Spanish spelling of chilli, the Aztec or Nahuatl, word for pepper, “capsicum” comes from the Latin capsicon, meaning chest, or box. In addition to providing culinary delight, capsaicin has a long tradition as a healing substance and pain reliever. Medicinal uses of chile extend from prehistory into modern medicine. Chile may protect against blood clots and prevent heart attacks, and it is known to hinder cholesterol absorption. Chile is low in fat and high in vitamins A and C and beta-carotene. It also speeds up metabolism and helps digestion by intensifying stomach acid production and sometimes working as a laxative.

New Mexican old-timers chop up chile and place it on arthritic limbs; more recently, topical creams made with capsaicin have become available over-the-counter. Chile-based products also bring relief from chronic pain caused by cluster headaches, shingles, and herpes — even amputation and other surgery.

Chile’s legendary power to ease pain works like this:

When you eat or touch chile, the skin sends a pain signal to the brain, releasing endorphins, the hormones of pleasure. So the same chemical reaction that produces “chile addiction” also blunts pain.

The green variety of chile, generically called “Hatch,” for the New Mexico town that produces the bulk of the state’s crop, is the commercially developed type known as New Mexico 6-10 and the Big Jim. When it comes to red chile, the best is said to be grown from the old stock cultivated in Chimayo and other high mountain villages of the north.

By far the state’s most important vegetable crop, New Mexico chile is grown on 30,000 acres, mostly in Luna and Doña Ana counties. Sixty percent of the nation’s chile crop comes from New Mexico. Chile consumption in the U.S. has more than doubled over the past two decades, and salsa is now the nation’s most popular condiment.

As the season progresses into September New Mexicans line up to buy their sack of fresh green chile, watch it being roasted, and go home to store it in the freezer for use all winter long in stews, enchilaas, salsas and burritos. October is the time to buy a red chile ristra, a string of chiles , to hang near the front door as a sign of warmth and welcome. It’s said the ristra brings good luck — and it certainly is convenient to have the makings of soul-warming red chile salsa right at hand.

Pesto Nuevo Mexico

1/2 cup basil leaves, well-packed
1/2 cup parsley, well-packed, stems removed, Italian if available
1/3 cup fresh, raw piñon (pine) nuts
10-12 slices sun-dried tomato
2–4 teaspoons olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh-grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon Chimayo red chile, finely ground
3 cloves garlic, chopped
salt and pepper

Drizzle 1–2 teaspoons of olive oil over the tomatoes. Set aside. In blender or food processor, with 1–2 teaspoons olive oil, pulse first the basil until smooth, then add parsley leaves and repeat. (You may need to stand by with a spatula and remix the herbs into the blender.) One by one, add and pulse piñons, garlic, Parmesan and red chile. Break tomatoes into small pieces, add to the mixture. Blend in getting the pesto as smooth as possible. Don’t worry if a few piñons remain whole. Add 1 shake salt and 2 shakes pepper. Blend well into hot, fresh-cooked pasta.

Triple Peppers con Queso

3–4 fresh green chiles, including seeds
1 jalapeño, finely chopped, seeds removed
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound Velveeta cheese, cubed

Lightly saute the vegetables in just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. As vegetables are becoming soft (5–7 minutes), add cheese, a little at a time. Heat briefly on low, just until cheese melts. Keep warm in crockpot or fondue dish. Serve with an assortment of fresh vegetables and chips. You can vary this dish by preparing it with cheddar or jack cheese. If it needs a bit of thinning, add a little evaporated milk.

This essay originally appeared in Fodor’s Guide to New Mexico, 3rd Edition.
The recipes originally appeared in Hellish Relish: Sizzling Salsas and Devilish Dips from the Kitchens of New Mexico (Periplus, Boston, 1999) by Sharon Niederman.

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