Red chile: a New Mexico tradition

New Mexicans love their chile. The unofficial state question is “Red or green?” It refers to the color of the chile you want your food smothered in. It’s asked three meals a day at New Mexican restaurants all over the state. For some reason it seems that you hear much more about green. In late summer and early fall, the heady aroma of roasting green chiles perfumes the air around Santa Fe. Just about every eatery has a green chile cheeseburger on the menu; even the national burger chains offer theses. Red chile cheeseburgers are seldom found, lthough, if you opt for a tortilla burger, you can get it smothered in red (or green). Is red child overlooked? Not in traditional New Mexican kitchens where it is king year-round.

Fresh chiles at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, photo Steve Collins

Fresh chiles at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, photo/Steve Collins

While green chile was very seasonal until the invention of both commercial and home freezers,, red chile, dried and stored for year r-round use has been a staple of the New Mexican diet from the day the Spanish arrived. According to Kelly Urig, the “The Chile Chica,” in her book, New Mexico Chiles, History Legend and Lore, because of a shorter growing season for land race chiles (the first varieties grown in the state), red chile is more common in Northern, NM.

New Mexico’s unique terroir

Sweet Italian Jimmy Nardello peppers simply sauteed in olive oil at Cafe Pasqual's, photo Kelly Urig

Sweet Italian Jimmy Nardello peppers simply sauteed in olive oil at Cafe Pasqual’s, photo/Kelly Urig

The soil is different everywhere in New Mexico. The local Chimayó Red, grown in the sleepy colonial hamlet of the same name, is prized in Northern New Mexico. It will taste different than chiles harvested in nearby Velarde, a short 11 miles, as the crow flies, northwest. Urig and other chile lovers call it “terroir,” a term more often associated with French wine country than the high desert. It refers to the characteristics of the land and growing conditions that create a unique local crop. Every area grows its own distinctive chile. the flavor decided by the seed, soil conditions, the amount of water and the summer’s weather pattern. Two chiles grown next to each other can have different spice levels and flavor profiles. It makes cooking with them interesting!

Go to local county fairs or the State Fair in Albuquerque in September and you’ll find red chile contests to determine who has the best. It’s subjective but someone gets bragging rights for a year (and often beyond).

What’s a ristra?

Ristras and pumpkins at Rancho de Chimayo, photo Steve Collins

Ristras and pumpkins at Rancho de Chimayo Restaurante in Chimayo, NM, photo/Steve Collins

Ristras, the strings of dried red chiles that you see hanging all over Northern New Mexico, are a centuries-old preserving method. After the harvest the red chiles are strung and hung out to dry in the sun either on the roof or hanging from the eaves. Once dry, the strings are doubled back on themselves to save space. The result is a beautiful, ingenious and functional storage method.

Joan Medina of Lowlow's Lowrider Art Place, Chimayo, NM demonstrating how to string a ristra photo Steve Collins

Joan Medina of Lowlow’s Lowrider Art Place, Chimayo, NM demonstrating how to string a ristra photo/Steve Collins

Historically, the ristras were then hung in kitchens and storage rooms for later use. When a cook needed chile, they would pluck them from the string. Red chile is used dry. It’s often crushed into flakes called “chili caribe” (also the name for a paste made of chile and water and used in sauce) or ground into powder (chile colorado).

Some cooks pick a dried chile pod or two from the ristra and grind them fresh; some cooks dry, grind and store during harvest whike others buy it already ground. Noted cookbook writer and Santa Fe resident Deborah Madison nailed the unique flavor of red chile. She called it “piquant without being overbearingly hot, with a bite that offsets the complexity of its distinctive chile flavor.”

Cooking with red chile

Red chile is the star of this carne adovada, a traditional Northern New Mexic o dish at Ranchos Plaza Grill in Randho de Taos photo Steve Collins

Carne adovada at Ranchos Plaza Grill in Randho de Taos photo/Steve Collins

Traditional New Mexican cooks have their own red chile recipe often passed down through generations. While each has similar characteristics, each will be a bit different. Go to two different New Mexican restaurants and the red chile will taste different. Often food is smothered in chile – red, green or both (called “Christmas”).

“My family is the only one I know that makes their red chile from fresh red chiles pods rather than dried,” says the Chile Chica. She notes that there’s a difference in depth of flavor cooking with fresh red chiles. “When you make red chile from dry pods,” she notes, “the flavor is more smoky and bold,” she adds that fresh red chiles have a definite sweetness to them as the sugars are still in the pod. There’s a very short window of time once the chile plants turn red to use them fresh: a day or two at most before the skin toughens and dries. Urig’s family flocks to Berridge Family Farms (which has been in her family for generations) in the Hatch Valley every two years for “Berridge Family Chile Day,” an intense day spent picking, preparing and cooking. And they’re not just cooking them; her book outlines an eight-step process. For her family the event is “as big as Christmas Eve.” Everyone shows up toting empty gallon containers which are filled to the brim with cooked red chile for the return trip home. Once home they are put into air-tight quart containers and frozen for later use.

The best red chile

Red chile art: a red chile-topped vintage VW bus spotted in Las Cruces, NM, photo Kelly Urig

A chile-topped vintage VW bus spotted in Las Cruces, NM, photo Kelly Urig

Chiles are a hot button issue in New Mexico. Everyone thinks theirs are the best. As Madison points out “It’s a taste and smell people have grown up with—their version of Proust’s madeleine [sic] or an Italian mother’s cooking.” Whenever you eat a bite of New Mexico red (or green) you’re experiencing a food that has been an essential part of the fabric of the Land of Enchantment for generations.

Read more about New Mexico chiles:



12 Responses to “Red chile: a New Mexico tradition”

  1. The GypsyNesters
    September 14, 2019 at 4:33 pm #

    Definitely like red chili, but have to come down on the green side as our favorite. Hard to find the good stuff outside of New Mexico though.
    The GypsyNesters recently posted..Blessed Blood, Beer, and Blind Donkeys in Bruges, BelgiumMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 14, 2019 at 10:57 pm #

      Recently I’ve developed a liking for carne adovada. That and posole are the foods I like with red. For smothering I’m a green fan.

  2. Betsy Wuebker
    September 14, 2019 at 6:11 pm #

    Last year here in Fiji, Pete strung a ristra of chiles from their garden to greet the returning homeowners we house sat for. I never knew there was a name for it. After one too many margaritas, I’ll be verbally stumbling over its pronunciation, too. We are missing southwest and Mexican food. :-)
    Betsy Wuebker recently posted..Travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina: 10 Things We LearnedMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 14, 2019 at 10:55 pm #

      Fun that Pete strung them. Interestingly, while Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico has a lot of New Mexican restaurants, not much Tex-Mex, but some funky regional Mexican places if you know where to look.

  3. Paula McInerney
    September 15, 2019 at 12:03 am #

    I love chills and the hotter the better. I must try both the red and the green New Mexico chills.
    Paula McInerney recently posted..When you Don’t Want to Leave: Tallwood, MollymookMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 15, 2019 at 2:18 pm #

      You’d love Horseman Haven the place reported to have the hottest chile in town. Their level 2 green will burn your tonsils out if you still have them.

  4. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    September 16, 2019 at 7:08 am #

    We love our peppers and your short course on how the taste of the chiles are affected by the soils and other factors during their growth was very interesting. Someday I’d really like to sample my way through New Mexico’s cuisine and become a chile connoisseur - not a hardship at all!
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go recently posted..A River Runs Through It: TaviraMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 16, 2019 at 4:16 pm #

      Come visit late next summer and you can eat fresh-roasted green chiles to your heart’s content. While it’s around all year thanks to freezing techniques, IMO it’s the best fresh out of the roaster. Red is around all year.

  5. Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    September 16, 2019 at 4:02 pm #

    When I visited New Mexico, I saw red-chile ristras strings everywhere. And I remember ordering Mexican food with Christmas sauces (is that right?) if I wanted both red and green, which I did.

    • Billie Frank
      September 16, 2019 at 4:17 pm #

      Christmas is right- but it’s NM food that uses it. While spicy, Mexican isn’t chile-based in the same way NM is.

  6. Rossana
    September 20, 2019 at 7:57 pm #

    Love chiles and would love to visit New Mexico for the taste and site of the ristras!
    Rossana recently posted..Family Move With Kids? 10 Tips For a Tantrum-Free Transition #theredpinMy Profile

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