Were chiles always in New Mexico?

The “official” New Mexico State question is “red or green?” This question, referring to the color of the chile you want with your food, is asked in restaurants all over the state, But there’s a question before that. Were chiles, New Mexico’s largest agricultural crop, always here? If not, where did they come from and how did they get here?

Red Chiles at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, photo Steve Collins

According to the New Mexico Tourism Department’s website, chiles originated in Brazil as a wild plant with small round fruits. Between birds and people trading, chiles spread throughout South and Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico. It’s possible they came as far north as New Mexico brought by indigenous people on trade-routes. From evidence found in Ecuador, archaeologists estimate that varieties of capsicum (the botanical name for chile) have been domesticated since 7500BC. Chiles were even used by some as currency. However, the Spanish were responsible for the chile spread around the globe. According to Jack Weatherford in his book Indian Givers, how the Indians of the Americas transformed the World, this was just the beginning of the contribution of native people of the Americas to cuisines of the world.

Lois Ellen Frank in her beautifully researched and presented book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, tells us chiles were not cultivated in New Mexico until the Spanish came north. Before that, the main foods cultivated in this area were squash, beans and corn.

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

Fabian Garcia, early 20th century horticulturist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, is credited for pioneering the research that led to the hardy varieties of chiles cultivated in New Mexico today. The best known are Big Jim, Joe E. Parker, Sandia and Española Improved. Hatch and Chimayó are known for their chile.

What’s your answer to the New Mexico State question? Red of green? We’d love to know.

If you answered green, you’ll love this apple pie recipe.

Green Chile Apple Pie with Cheddar Crust

Freshly harvested chiles, photo Steve Collins

I like this because it uses two of my favorite New Mexico foods: apples and green chile. Try to get local apples from the orchard or the farmers market; that’s the best. For green chile, look in the freezer case at your supermarket. If you’re not in an area where you can find green chile in the supermarket, Hatch Chile Express ships roasted and frozen chiles. This recipe makes a ten inch pie.

Crust

1¾ cup all purpose flour
9 tablespoons well chilled butter (or a mixture of 2/3 butter and 1/3 lard or Crisco), cut into ¼-inch pieces
¼ cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/3 cup ice water

Put the flour in the bowl of the food processor. Add the butter and cheddar and pulse until you have a coarse consistency. While the processor is running, drizzle in just enough water for the pastry to hold together. Turn out onto a board and form into two balls. Wrap in cling wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Filling
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 cups apples, peeled, cored and sliced
½ cup green chile, roasted, peeled, seeds removed and diced

Preheat the oven to 375˚.

In a large bowl, thoroughly mix the sugar, flour and cinnamon. Add the sliced apples and diced green chiles. Toss so that the apples and chiles are well coated. Roll out the bottom crust to quarter-inch thickness, put into the bottom of a ten inch pie plate and put the filling in. Roll out the top crust and cover the filling with it. Crimp the top and bottom together and cut off any excess. Pierce two or three ventilation holes in the top crust. Put in the oven and bake until top is golden brown and filling is bubbling (about 45 minutes).

For more on chile in New Mexico:
Oh The Places You’ll Go
New Mexican chile – Red or green?

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24 Responses to “Were chiles always in New Mexico?”

  1. Jeremy B
    April 14, 2019 at 12:14 pm #

    They look delicious but I am a wimp when it comes to hot stuff!

    • Steve Collins
      April 14, 2019 at 12:25 pm #

      Hi Jeremy - I guess the heat is relative. I like heat and find that as long as the flavor isn’t overpowered by the heat the pleasure of the released endorphins makes it worthwhile. I don’t know what I would do now if I had to go too long without a chile fix.

      • Jeremy B
        May 4, 2019 at 2:42 pm #

        I actually like a little spicy. I love pepper and a little bit a kick to things. I just don’t like hot.

        • Steve Collins
          May 4, 2019 at 9:14 pm #

          Hi Jeremy, I think it would take you about 15 minutes to get addicted to chiles here. There is some heat but it’s really more about the flavor.

    • Billie Frank
      April 14, 2019 at 8:31 pm #

      I used to be a wimp, too. After a few years here, my taste buds toughened up- yours would, too.

  2. Abby
    April 15, 2019 at 7:55 am #

    Ohh, the chile roaster! My answer to red or green is: whichever one is hotter!

    • Billie Frank
      April 15, 2019 at 1:25 pm #

      You’ll just have to come home late summer. Have you tried Sadie’s in ABQ or Horseman’s Haven in Santa Fe? They have the hottest chile I’ve ever not eaten.

    • Steve Collins
      April 15, 2019 at 1:33 pm #

      Hi Abby, Usually the green is hotter. But two pods off the same plant can have different heat. The hottest I’ve tasted were green and roasted from the Sandia variety but it’s really like tasting wine; each pepper has some unique characteristics. If you get here in the fall there are some interesting heritage varieties still being grown on small family farms. Steve

  3. Yummm!
    April 15, 2019 at 12:06 pm #

    Wow - can’t wait to try this recipe! Answer: hot green :)

    • Billie Frank
      April 15, 2019 at 1:24 pm #

      Let us know how it turns out. If you want it hotter- the chef says use a hotter chile or more of them.

  4. Abby
    April 16, 2019 at 9:40 am #

    I eat Sadie’s “hot” by the spoonful and think the “not as hot” is for sissies. I was just out with some hometown friends on Thursday night and have promised a long weekend in Santa Fe. I’ll keep you posted!

    • Billie Frank
      April 17, 2019 at 1:51 pm #

      Years ago, when we were out here on a trip. we waited a long time on a Saturday night for a table at Sadie’s. They asked if I wanted “mild or hot” green. I, with a very gringo palate, asked for mild. It was so bleeping hot that I couldn’t even eat it with sour cream. I’ve since tasted their hot red salsa and it’s way too hot for me.

  5. Leslie (Downtown Traveler)
    April 19, 2019 at 5:44 pm #

    You are a chile expert! I like an occasional burst of heat now and again, but I think a chile apple pie might be a bit much for my taste buds ;) PS- In New Zealand, they call green peppers “capsicum.”

    • Steve Collins
      April 19, 2019 at 7:36 pm #

      Thanks, Leslie. I’ll respect your judgement on this, considering that I almost blew my lid off once with a chocolate covered habanero. I don’t know if I want to repeat that soon. It’s good to be aware of your comfort zone.

  6. Mark
    July 18, 2019 at 10:43 pm #

    My problem with chillies and other really hot food (e.g. Thai green chilli) is that, not only does it set your mouth on fire, but also, you are then unable to taste whatever else you’re eating, which all seems to be a bit of a waste.

    • Steve Collins
      July 19, 2019 at 8:16 am #

      Hi Mark, I agree the heat shouldn’t overpower the flavor. It works best when all elements are in balance with a satisfying sensation of heat to finish. Steve

  7. Patrick | College Degree Online
    July 22, 2019 at 12:08 am #

    There is a lot of mystery and misinformation about the green chile from New Mexico, yet this is the mainstay of southwestern food.

    Green chiles grow up like any other varietals you see in the produce section of the supermarket. The huge difference with the green chile from New Mexico is the flavor. Take any two green chiles and you won’t be able to tell the difference until you taste them. And it isn’t just the heat.

    Green chile from New Mexico is like grapes from Napa Valley. Sure, you can grow grapes mostly anywhere, but Napa has the right soil, the proper temp, the ideal amount of sunshine. Just like southern New Mexico, this region is perfect for growing green chile and you can absolutely taste the difference.

    Patrick

    • Steve Collins
      July 23, 2019 at 9:34 am #

      Patrick, Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I love chiles. You’re absolutely correct. Heat is not the only factor in chiles. There’s a tremendous amount of subtlety in flavor. Steve

  8. Ian Jones
    August 17, 2019 at 7:45 am #

    I certainly agree with the comments about the flavour of chiles. It’s not often something that people consider, but your choice of chile can noticeably affect the dynamics of a dish, not just the heat. In my opinion, this is why fresh chiles are always the best option; with dried or ground varieties I usually find that the subtleties of flavour are lost. I very much enjoyed your recipe for apple and chile pie; I’d never made anything similar before but the combination of flavours was fantastic. The great thing was that the chiles weren’t included purely for their heat. They really offset the sharpness of the apple and finished the dish perfectly.

    • Steve Collins
      August 18, 2019 at 4:35 pm #

      Hi, Ian - Thanks for the comment. I agree. Fresh is best. Glad you enjoyed the pie. : P

  9. Brendan
    August 24, 2019 at 2:05 pm #

    Who’d have thought, apples with chiles. Well I tried it and it works. Nice one, thank you.

    • Billie Frank
      August 24, 2019 at 3:16 pm #

      It is amazingly delicious. Did you try it with this pie recipe?

  10. Abbas
    October 22, 2019 at 1:46 am #

    That’s so interesting actually. I am taking this course called Anthropology of Food at college, and we’re studying the emergence of different foods in different places. Did you also know that lemons were not first found in California? They actually originated in Spain. Also, thanks for sharing the recipe. I’m going to try it out. New Mexican food is the best. Gotta love them spices!

    • Steve Collins
      October 22, 2019 at 7:14 am #

      The arrival of the Spanish in the Americas changed foods all over the world. As you mentioned they brought citrus fruits. They also introduced vine stock for grape growing. It wasn’t just the food of the America’s that the Spanish and Portugese introduced to the rest of the world Thanks for your comment!

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