Tasting New Mexico: a love letter

Editor’s note: Bill Jamison passed away in March 2015. He will be missed.

Author’s note: Almost 8 years ago, we sat down with Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison to talk about their then new cookbook Chicken on the Grill: 100 Surefire Ways to Grill Perfect Chicken Every Time. It was a beautiful day and we sat in their very Santa Fe courtyard and talked food. We planned to do that again, this time to talk about their new cookbook, Tasting New Mexico: Recipes Celebrating 100 Years of Distinctive Home Cooking. The book was released by Museum of New Mexico Press to coincide with New Mexico’s 2012 statehood Centennial. The weather didn’t cooperate this time, so we talked in their comfortable living room on this chilly, rainy May afternoon.

New Mexico food photo/ Sharon Stewart

The cover of Tasting New Mexico,  photo/Sharon Stewart

If you’re a food aficionado, talking to Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison is an exciting experience. They love food: eating it, researching it, talking about it and in Cheryl’s case, cooking it* and, of course, writing about it. Tasting New Mexico is the 13thcookbook they’ve collaborated on. Besides being an incredible resource on the foods of the region, the book is lavishly illustrated with both historical photographs and contemporary ones by Sharon Stewart making it is a feast for the eyes. Readers will feel like they’ve been invited to the kitchens, farms and fairs of New Mexico.

The Jamisons aren’t strangers to writing about New Mexican food. Their 1996 work, The Border Cookbook: Authentic Home Cooking of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico, won the James Beard Foundation’s Award for Excellence and was a finalist for a Julia Child Award. Cheryl is the State Tourism Department’s Culinary Liaison and Contributing Culinary Editor at New Mexico Magazine.

They are fans of the State’s unique cuisine and the history and culture that are integral parts of it. “I could eat it three meals a day,” says Cheryl when asked about testing recipes for their latest book. Tasting New Mexico,” says Cheryl, is “our love letter to our adopted state.”  Singly and together, they’ve lived in the Land of Enchantment for over 30 years. “We love this place,” says, Cheryl. “One of the things that attracted us in the first place (and we still love) are the traditional foods and how they evolved in contemporary ways.”

The book is way more than a cookbook. Even people like me, who don’t usually set foot in the kitchen, will enjoy it. The Jamisons don’t just give you recipes. They give you the cultural and historical context for the local foods and the recipes, introducing you to some interesting people on the way. Throughout the book, readers will discover sidebars loaded with information. They have used this approach their cookbooks since the beginning. No matter what the subject, whether it’s BBQ, southern food, breakfast food, New Mexican food or chicken, their books include a lot about the history and culture of the food they’re writing about. ”It’s the type of cookbook,” says Bill, “we enjoy doing and reading.”

New Mexico food

Bill Jamison and Cheryl Alters Jamison, photo Mary Jablonsky

New Mexico’s cuisine differs from Northern Mexican, Tex-Mex and the Mexican food found in Colorado, Arizona and California. One reason is that the State has two distinct cuisines, Native American and Hispanic. The foods and cooking traditions of each culture has influenced the other. Cheryl points out that many that came to the New World (mostly those that settled on the east coast) were consciously escaping from their cultures. The Spaniards who came to Mexico and then the southwest celebrated their culture and traditions, including culinary ones. They embraced and incorporated the foods that the Native Americans had been growing and eating in New Mexico for hundreds of years. “To meld their culture with that of the Native Americans,” she says, “was truly an amazing thing. It doesn’t exist in other parts of America.” Another thing unique to New Mexico, according to the Jamisons, is the way chile peppers are used. The Spaniards brought chiles they’d discovered in the New World with them when they came north.

In New Mexico says Cheryl, there’s a robustness to the food not found in other border cuisines. But, she says, it’s more than that. ”It’s a combination of the chile with other elemental ingredients,” she shares. “It’s certainly a testament to the fact that you can make a lot from a single, humble ingredient.”

Another difference is that the chile is an integral part of the dishes; unlike the foods of our southwestern neighbors where it’s added at the end or used in salsas. The types of chiles found here is also an important factor. The state produces many varieties of chile, from the famous Hatch variety to local versions such as Chimayó. Each is different, in part according to the Jamisons, because of the different soil characteristics in each area. The state boasts a chile research facility located in Las Cruces in the southern part of the state. New Mexico State University’s The Chile Pepper Institute, working hand to hand with NMSU’s Chile Breeding and Genetics Program, has been researching chile and developing new chile varietires since 1992. After all, it’s the official State Vegetable and a big generator of cash for New Mexico farmers.

Another difference is rice has not traditionally been part of New Mexican cuisine. The starches that most appear are corn-based. Posole, a corn stew made with whole preserved corn kernels, similar to hominy, is commonly found on New Mexican tables. Less common are chicos, corn that is preserved by slow-roasting it in hornos (the outdoor clay ovens that Native Americans adopted for baking). Chicos are rarely found in restaurants. If you want to try them, head for JoAnne’s Ranchos Casados in Española, north of Santa Fe where Orno {sic} Chicos Soup is on the menu. Or you can buy them at the Santa Fe Farmers Market or the Santa Fe Cooking School and prepare them at home.

Blue corn is often used in New Mexican cooking. You can find it in tortillas, pancakes and other dishes. Stacked blue corn enchiladas still appear on New Mexican restaurant menus. According to Cheryl, one reason they tend to be stacked is they’re grainier than the yellow corn or flour versions and therefore, more difficult to roll. “It’s easier to stack enchiladas,” Bill points out. “Unless you want to have a combination plate and the combination plate is a Tex-Mex thing.” Though these days, you’ll find them on NM menus.

In the local cuisine, pinto beans are cooked whole and not refried and coriander, the dried seed from the cilantro plant are used rather than the fresh leaves and stems; dried oregano is also common.

Azufran, the dried stamen of the native safflower plant, was deemed an acceptable substitute for the prized saffron. It is not seen much today, but devoted culinarians can discover it at the Santa Fe Farmers Market and on the shelves of the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Another herb that was once in wide-spread use in New Mexican cooking, but found less often now, is mint. Some home cooks still use these as their grandmothers did and you’ll find it in some of the Jamison’s recipes.

New Mexico food: peppera at Cervantes Enterprises, photo Cheryl Alters Jamison

Cayennes being processed at Cervantes Enterprises,Vado, NM photo/Cheryl Alters Jamison

While they researched the book they met people from all around the state; some even became friends. One of the most interesting people they interviewed was Emma Jean Cervantes, who Bill calls The Chile Queen. The sidebar on page 28 in the book notes The Chile Pepper Institute gave her the title “First Lady of Chile.” This intrepid woman from the Mesilla Valley in southern New Mexico took over the family’s chile business. Despite the challenges of being a woman in a virtually all male world, she’s turned her family’s business, Cervantes Enterprises, into the largest chile processor in the state.

The Suazos family from Acoma Pueblo has become the Jamison’s friends. You’ll find Tweety’s fruit pie recipe in the book’s dessert section. Tweety and her husband, Norm invited Bill and Cheryl to come watch her bake the pies she created for the 2011 Inauguration Ceremony for the new Pueblo Governor. Cheryl measured the ingredients for the recipe as Tweety cooks the old fashioned way, by the handful.

New Mexico food: Pie baking  photo/Cheryl Alters Jamison

Aleta “Tweety” Suazos of Acoma Pueblo making Feast Day Fruit Pies, photo/Cheryl Alters Jamison

The book offers recipes from New Mexican cooks they’ve encountered in their travels and research, but most recipes were devised by Cheryl calling on her knowledge of traditional regional dishes and foods. Bill says that they went back to the first New Mexican cookbooks which appeared in the early 20th century.  Any dish they found there was a candidate for the book. “One of the fun parts of putting the book together was getting the balance between  the dishes that people expect in a book and the ones that are going to be a surprise to people,” says Cheryl. They included recipes from all regions of the state. Sometimes there are recipes for both the southern and northern versions of a dish. New Mexican cooking is regional. Chile Rellenos Balls are a great example. If you’ve never heard of them, you’re not alone. They are only found in Albuquerque’s South Valley down to Socorro, but now you can make them at home. If you want to create the book’s recipes in your own kitchen and you don’t live in New Mexico where the local ingredients are more common, there is a section of Culinary Resources at the back of the book.

If you’re curious about the history and culture of New Mexico’s distinct cuisine along with some fun local food facts, you’ll love Tasting New Mexico. It’s a hymn to the local culinary traditions. Cheryl Jamison says, “New Mexico’s food is something to celebrate.” Buy the book and find out why.


In Spanish quelites refers to tender greens, often wild varieties, but in New Mexico it’s become the name for a type of foraged spinach known in English as lamb’s-quarters. It’s easy to spot the spiky-shaped leaf on gangly stems among the weeds in your yard or garden, but until you’re sure what to look for, ask about it at a farmers’ market or substitute regular spinach. As a dish, the greens are often rounded out with a large handful of universally popular pinto beans to add heft. During Lent, this combination often becomes a meatless main dish, sometimes with sliced hard-boiled egg placed on top.

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil or bacon drippings
1/3 cup minced white onion
1 teaspoon crushed dried New Mexican red chile, with some seeds included
1½ pounds fresh lamb’s-quarters leaves or spinach leaves, still damp from cleaning, or 12 ounces thawed frozen spinach
1 to 1½ cups drained cooked whole pinto beans
Vinegar, optional

1.  Warm the oil over medium heat in a high-sided skillet or Dutch oven. Stir in the onion and sauté several minutes, until translucent. Stir in the chile and cook for 30 seconds. Add the lamb’s-quarters. Cover, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook for about for 5 minutes, until the greens are well-wilted but still deep green.

2.  Stir in pinto beans and heat through. Add salt. If necessary, cook the mixture for another 1 or 2 minutes uncovered to reduce any accumulated liquid.

3. Transfer the quelites to a serving dish. Serve hot, accompanied if you wish by vinegar.

Variations: Garbanzo beans, once common in New Mexican cooking, can substitute for the pintos. If you want to take the dish back to its most elemental form, you can also leave out the beans entirely. If you like the idea of adding a little meat, start by frying up about four ounces of chorizo, which may eliminate the need for any oil at all.

This recipe is from Tasting New Mexico © Cheryl Alters Jamison & Bill Jamison 2012, Museum of New Mexico Press

Author’s notes:
*Bill who does most of the research, organizing and editing takes over cooking chores when outdoor cooking and BBQ are involved.
You can find out more about the Jamisons on their website. Read Cheryl Alters Jamison’s
New Mexico Magazine blog Tasting New Mexico.
Author’s note: We received a copy of the book from the Museum Of New Mexico Press.

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2 Responses to “Tasting New Mexico: a love letter”

  1. IanH
    November 8, 2019 at 9:39 pm #

    I’ve never visited New Mexico, so can’t comment on the authenticity of the recipes in this book, but after seeing it on the shelves in my local library (in Canada) I lugged it home, and started cooking from it. I’ve tried half-a-dozen recipes, and if the rest are as good, this book should be on every foodie’s shelf. My favorite so far: the “Ensalada de col”-plain, simple to prepare, and utterly delicious.

    • Billie Frank
      November 8, 2019 at 9:56 pm #

      As I understand it, some of the recipes come from families who go back four hundred years in New Mexico others are Cheryl Alters Jamison’s interpretations of traditional NM dished. Happy cooking! Interesting to know the book made it to the shelves of a Canadian library.

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