Southwestern Dining: New Mexico Style

Times Food Editor

No matter where you travel in the Southwest, you can count on two truisms. One: the weather will not be what you expect and two: wherever you are is the only place you can sample genuinely authentic Southwestern food.

I had these facts confirmed once again when I joined a group of fellow food writers on a recent study tour of Southwestern foods in New Mexico. Expecting the blazing hot days and semi-cool nights of late July, most of us packed accordingly. Big mistake. We should have packed sweaters and hip boots, as we were inundated during all but the last day of the New Mexican portion of our trip with heavy-duty, gully-washing downpours. Considering California's near-drought condition, I kept wishing I could figure a way to blow the constant deluge our way.

The food was something else again. Although we did eat in some of New Mexico's better restaurants, such as Andre's in Albuquerque and Coyote Cafe and La Casa Sena in Santa Fe, we were looking more for the historical background of Southwestern food, New Mexico-style.

We wanted to identify the ingredients and food preparation techniques that differentiate New Mexican cuisine from those of other Southwestern states, including California. So, rather than spending most of our time investigating New Mexico's contemporary food scene, we visited a number of Indian pueblos and talked with American Indians and museum and university authorities to learn more about the origins of this chile-spiced cuisine.

What we discovered is that traditional ingredients have remained popular throughout the centuries. Some methods of preparation have been modernized but many haven't. Those that have really have affected the end result very little.

Although basically American Indian rather than Spanish (Mexican) in origin, New Mexican home-style menus show great similarity to the foods of other Southwestern states. But seasonings, some ingredients and many of the food presentations and preparation techniques are different.

Two Dominant Ingredients

Chiles and corn are two ingredients that dominated nearly every menu we sampled. That's hardly surprising considering that chiles are the No. 1 vegetable crop in the state, according to Paul W. Bosland, assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Bosland, a recognized authority on chiles, told us with a great deal of pride that New Mexico grows more chiles than Texas and California combined. New Mexicans take their chiles very seriously. They know the best places to find the hottest--around Hatch, N.M.--and as far as most New Mexicans are concerned, the hotter the chile, the better.

A traveler unfamiliar with the local penchant for spiciness will survive a New Mexican visit better if he or she approaches any bowl of green chile stew offered with caution. I personally ran afoul of one such offering at the Santa Ana Pueblo north of Albuquerque when a gracious American Indian hostess allowed me to sample some of her green chile stew. I thought my palate was geared to hot foods since I adore spicy curries and good Sichuan dishes. One bite of her stew, however, paralyzed my vocal chords, and I broke out in a sweat. That stuff was just plain hot. But, once the shock of that first taste was over, I realized it also was very good.

The No. 1 chile grown in New Mexico is the somewhat mild Anaheim, or long green chile, so familiar to fans of California-style Southwestern cuisine. But where we usually find locally grown Anaheims in the fresh green state, in New Mexico they often are allowed to mature to a ripe red color before picking. The dehydrated red pod usually is crushed into powder and used as a flavoring or to add color to prepared dishes.

There is one other marked difference between the Anaheims grown here and those cultivated in New Mexico. The higher temperatures and different soil in New Mexico produce chiles that are hotter than the same variety of chiles grown elsewhere.

The major difficulty facing chile growers at present, according to Bosland, is that there is almost no way to grow chiles of this type with a predictable, uniform heat factor. "Right now we're working on that problem," Bosland said, "but we haven't solved it yet. One chile may be hotter than blazes while the one next to it is mild."

A Spiritual Significance

As with most of the ingredients used in the New Mexican Indian cuisine, corn has a deep spiritual significance for the cook. In her small but definitive cookbook on Pueblo and Navajo foods and culture, "Southwest Indian Cookbook," (Clear Light Publications, Weehawken, N.J., $9.95) photojournalist Marcia Keegan quotes Agnes Dill, a prominent American Indian leader from the Isleta Pueblo. According to Dill, corn, the most important of all American Indian foods, comes in six colors. Each represents a direction. White is the east, red south, blue west and yellow north. Black is up and speckled is down.

Yellow and white corn products are certainly familiar to most modern cooks, and blue corn has developed into a trendy food in recent years. Most of the other colored corns, however, tend to be used simply for decoration outside of the Southwest heartland. Blue corn products are generally in limited supply in the Los Angeles area, but you can find them in many health food stores and some upscale food shops.

Still other ways in which New Mexican foods, both traditional and contemporary, differ from similar foods in other Southwestern areas lie in the types of seasonings used and the techniques of preparation.

Over and over again, New Mexicans assured us that "the use of sour cream on these foods is Californian. We don't use it as a topping for enchiladas, tostadas and the like." Mexican oregano is a popular herb and ground comino (cumin) is often used in New Mexican cuisine and cilantro is not. In fact, except for salt, chiles, garlic and the aforementioned oregano, few spices and herbs are used in basic New Mexican cookery. Juniper berries and pinon nuts are frequently used for flavoring in stews and heartier dishes.

Although contemporary New Mexicans utilize a much broader array of spices, herbs and other ingredients that are to be found in the historical foods native to the area, they prepare many recipes familiar to Cal-Mex food lovers quite differently.

Enchiladas more often are made by stacking the filled tortillas rather than rolling them. And it's de rigueur for New Mexican cooks to top off the stack with a fried egg. Also, while Margaritas, served over ice rather than frapped, are often the drink choice of diners out for a night on the town, many traditional homes serve the modern counterpart of an earlier era's favorite fruit drink, none other than cherry-flavored Kool-Aid.

Two menus, sampled a day apart in Santa Fe, turned out to be excellent examples of the types of foods readily available to hungry diners in search of real New Mexican food.

Former Santa Fe resident Jane Butel, a cookbook author and cooking teacher who now lives in New York, demonstrated how to prepare chiles rellenos, carne adobada, enchiladas, sopaipillas and several other traditional foods for one of the meals.

An Upscale Version

In contrast, the second menu was a delightful upscale creation prepared by Culinary Institute of America graduate Kip McClerin, now chef at the historic La Casa Sena restaurant on Palace Avenue in the Sena Plaza.

Butel's menu was based on recipes from her book, "Jane Butel's Tex-Mex Cookbook" ($14.95, Harmony Books). Although the book's title may lead you to believe that it is devoted solely to Texas-type Southwestern foods, it isn't. The book really covers a wide variety of Southwestern foods, many of them decidely New Mexican.

McClerin chose to serve what he termed "home spun food," but it was far from the earthier, more traditional fare we had been sampling up to that time. He used local products, yes--blue corn, nopales, poblano and chipotle chiles (dried, smoked jalapenos), regional fruits and local cheeses. But what he did with them in no way resembled the foods we had been dining on previously.

The following recipes are from these two meals. One caveat. They are not for fat or cholesterol watchers or for anyone counting calories. They are, however, good food, New Mexican-style.

La Casa Sena Luncheon

Chilled Roasted Poblano Veloute

Grilled Chicken Breasts With Chipotle Chantilly Sauce

Blue Corn Muffins

Fried Prickly Pear Cactus Strips

Poached Apricots With Raspberry Wine Sauce

Jane Butel's New Mexican Luncheon

Chiles Rellenos

Enchiladas New Mexico-Style

Carne Adobada

Sopaipillas

Food Styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane Dinnerware and accessories from The Broadway

CHILLED ROASTED POBLANO VELOUTE

3 medium fresh poblano chiles

1 cup warm chicken stock

1 cup Gewurtztraminer wine

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups half and half

2 cups whipping cream, whipped only until frothy

Fresh whole cilantro leaves

Roast chiles under broiler, turning frequently, until skins are well blistered. Place at once in paper bag and close bag. Let stand about 10 minutes.

Peel skins from chiles, discard seeds and stems. Puree chiles, chicken stock and wine in blender. Chill.

When mixture is chilled, stir in salt, half and half and whipping cream. Serve chilled in soup bowls, garnished with cilantro leaves. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

GRILLED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH CHIPOTLE CHANTILLY SAUCE

5 whole chicken breasts, skinned and boned

Juice from 3 oranges

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

Chipotle Chantilly Sauce

Arrange chicken pieces in large shallow glass baking dish. Combine orange juice, olive oil, cumin and salt, blending well. Pour orange juice mixture over chicken breasts, turning to coat well. Cover and marinate 4 to 6 hours or overnight.

Grill chicken breasts over mesquite coals or broil in oven 15 to 20 minutes or until cooked, turning once.

To serve, split breasts in halves and serve topped with Chipotle Chantilly Sauce. Serve remaining sauce on side, if desired. Makes 10 servings.

Chipotle Chantilly Sauce

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons water

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Dash salt

1 cup melted butter or margarine

1 chipotle chile, stemmed, seeded and finely minced

1/2 cup whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks

Whip yolks, water, lemon juice and salt in top of double boiler over very hot water. Slowly add butter in steady stream while continuing to whip yolk mixture.

Whip in chile, then fold in whipped cream. Serve warm. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

BLUE CORN MUFFINS

1 cup pound butter or margarine

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

5 eggs

1 cup peeled, seeded and stemmed Anaheim chiles, chopped, or 1 (7-ounce) can chopped green chiles, drained

1 cup fresh corn kernels, cooked, or 1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed and blanched

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1 cup shredded Jack cheese

1 cup flour

1 1/2 cups blue cornmeal

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Cream together butter and sugar using electric mixer. Blend in eggs and chiles. Add corn, cheeses, flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt, blending well. Spoon batter into well-greased muffin cups, filling almost to top of each cup.

Bake at 375 degrees 25 to 30 minutes or until muffins are very lightly browned. Makes about 16 muffins.

Note: Blue cornmeal is available at health food stores and some specialty food shops.

FRIED PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS STRIPS

2 large prickly pear cactus leaves, spines removed

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

Dash salt

1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves

1 to 2 tablespoons pure chile powder

Oil for deep frying

Cut cleaned cactus leaves into 1/4- to 1/2-inch-wide strips. Combine egg, milk and salt, blending well. Mix together bread crumbs, garlic, cilantro and chile powder.

Dip cactus strips in egg mixture, then in bread crumbs, coating each strip well with crumb mixture. Heat oil to 350 degrees and deep-fry strips 1 to 2 minutes, just until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Makes about 4 servings.

POACHED APRICOTS WITH RASPBERRY WINE SAUCE

12 fresh apricots, peeled and halved

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons sugar

1 pint black raspberries or blackberries, pureed and strained

Raspberry Wine Sauce

Mint leaves

Whole black raspberries or blackberries

Poach apricots lightly in water in skillet and drain. Chill.

Whip whipping cream, sugar and pureed berries to stiff peak with electric mixer. Chill well.

At serving time, place several tablespoons of Raspberry Wine Sauce on dessert plate and arrange 3 apricot halves over sauce. Fill apricot centers with whipped cream mixture. Top with 1 to 2 mint leaves and garnish edges of plate with several whole berries. Makes 8 servings.

Note: If fresh apricots are not available, 24 canned apricot halves, well drained and chilled, may be substituted.

Raspberry Wine Sauce

1 pint fresh or frozen red raspberries

1 cup raspberry wine

1/4 cup sugar

Combine raspberries, wine and sugar in blender and puree. Strain and chill.

CHILES RELLENOS

12 large, mild green chiles with stems

1/2 pound Jack cheese

Vegetable oil or lard

Batter

Rinse chiles and drain. Pierce each chile close to stem with sharp pointed knife, wood pick or ice pick. If chile is large, pierce twice, once on each side.

Place chiles on baking sheet covered with foil and place under broiler. If using electric range, place rack so tops of chiles are 4 to 6 inches from broiler unit. If using gas range, place broiler rack in top position closest to flame. If using charcoal, do not use foil and place rack about 5 inches above heat.

Rotate chiles as skins turn amber and develop blisters. Blister uniformly. Remove chiles from baking sheet and place in bowl or clean sink and cover with cold, damp towel for 10 minutes.

Starting at stem end, peel outer skin downward, leaving stems intact. Open small slit below stem and remove seeds.

Cut cheese into long narrow strips. Insert cheese strips into chiles, using care not to split chiles. Place on paper towels and allow to dry well before battering.

Preheat 2 inches or more oil to 375 degrees in electric skillet or deep-fryer. Dip stuffed chiles into Batter and fry until golden. Drain on paper towels. Makes 4 to 6 servings. Serve with red or green chile sauces, if desired.

Note: If fresh chiles are not available, substitute 3 (4-ounce) cans of whole green chiles.

Batter

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup blue, white or yellow cornmeal

1 cup milk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Add cornmeal.

Blend milk with eggs, then combine with dry ingredients. Blend well.

Note: Sometimes more milk is needed to provide smooth batter that clings to chiles.

ENCHILADAS NEW MEXICO-STYLE

6 blue or yellow corn tortillas

Oil

1 onion, chopped

3 cups Red Chile Sauce

1/2 cup shredded Jack cheese

1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

2 eggs, lightly fried, optional

6 to 8 lettuce leaves, chopped

4 cherry tomatoes, halved

Lightly fry tortillas in small amount of oil over medium heat, then drain on paper towels. Set aside.

Cook onion just until tender in 1/2 to 1 cup Red Chile Sauce. Toss cheeses together.

To serve, spoon small amount Red Chile Sauce onto each of 2 serving plates. Place 1 tortilla on each. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons cheeses and 2 tablespoons onion mixture over each tortilla. Top with more Red Chile Sauce.

Repeat layering of tortillas, cheese, onion mixture and sauce 2 more times. Top with extra Red Chile Sauce and remaining cheeses.

Bake at 300 degrees until cheese melts. Top with fried egg. Garnish with chopped lettuce and cherry tomatoes. Makes 2 servings.

Red Chile Sauce

2 tablespoons lard or bacon drippings

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons mild ground red chile powder

2 tablespoons hot ground red chile powder

2 cups beef bouillon

1 tablespoon beef concentrate powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 garlic clove, crushed

Dash ground Mexican oregano

Dash ground cumin, optional

Melt lard in heavy saucepan over low heat. Stir in flour and cook until well mixed and lightly browned. Remove from heat and set aside.

Combine chile powders, beef bouillon and beef concentrate powder. Place saucepan with roux over medium heat and heat to bubbling. Stir in salt, garlic, oregano and cumin.

Add beef bouillon mixture slowly, stirring, and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and let simmer 10 to 15 minutes. Makes about 3 cups sauce.

Note: Sauce freezes well.

CARNE ADOBADA (Chile-Marinated Pork)

6 ounces dried red New Mexico chile pods

4 cups water

2 teaspoons salt

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tablespoons ground Mexican oregano

2 tablespoons ground cumin

5 pounds fresh pork chops, thinly sliced

Remove stems and seeds from chile pods. Crush pods and roast in large shallow pan at 300 degrees 15 minutes or until color darkens.

Measure 1 cup roasted crushed chiles (reserve any remaining crushed chiles for another use) and combine with water. Simmer mixture 30 minutes.

Turn mixture into blender container. Blend until thoroughly pureed. Strain through fine sieve. Stir in salt, garlic, oregano and cumin, mixing well.

Trim excess fat from pork chops and arrange in large flat baking dish. Cover with sauce, turning to coat both sides well. Cover dish and refrigerate 5 to 6 hours or overnight.

To cook, cover baking dish with lid or foil and bake at 325 degrees 45 minutes. Baste occasionally with sauce while cooking.

Uncover and cook 15 minutes longer or until chops are tender. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

SOPAIPILLAS (Deep Fried Bread)

4 cups sifted flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon lard or butter

1 package dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1 1/4 cups scalded milk, about

1 quart oil for deep frying

Honey

Combine flour, salt and baking powder. Cut in lard. Dissolve yeast in warm water and add mixture to 1 1/4 cups milk cooled to room temperature.

Make well in center of flour mixture, add milk mixture and work into soft dough. Add enough more liquid, if necessary, to form firm and springy dough that holds shape.

Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead 15 to 20 times. Invert bowl over dough and set aside about 10 minutes.

Heat oil in deep-fat fryer to about 400 degrees. Cut dough into 4 portions. Roll 1 portion at time to thickness of about 1/4-inch. Cut randomly into 3- to 4-inch squares.

To assure puffiness, slightly stretch each dough piece before dropping into fat, rolled or top side of dough down. Do not try to cook more than 1 or 2 at time.

With slotted spoon, hold each piece of dough down in oil, gently pressing around edges but not in middle. When lightly browned and puffy, remove sopaipillas to paper towels to drain. Serve hot with honey. Makes about 3 dozen.

Note: Do not reroll dough. Cover unused dough lightly with towel until ready to roll and cut.

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