Savor New Mexico chiles now

Bring home this region's classic flavors with our recipes for roasted stuffed chiles, chile-chicken enchiladas, and red-chile pork stew
Amy Traverso

RECIPES:

Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas
Like all good New Mexico food, this is simple, earthy, and delicious. Its heat depends on the chiles; go with Anaheims if you scorch easily.

Carne Adovada (Red Chile and Pork Stew)
Pure ground dried red chiles are the star of this simple stew.

Green Chiles Stuffed with Almonds and Raisins
This dish softens the chiles' heat with raisins, nuts, spices, and a slightly sweet tomato sauce.

To experience chile season in New Mexico, you could head to the Hatch Valley, near Las Cruces. The world's single-largest chile crop ― about 18,000 acres ― is grown in the fertile valleys of southern New Mexico, and the annual Hatch Chile Festival draws about 30,000 heat-seekers every Labor Day weekend.

But there's another world of chiles along the northern backroads near Santa Fe. It's a quieter, more homespun scene. The farms are smaller, the season shorter. Even the chiles are different.

To get a taste, start at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Here, chile roasters fill the air with their signature sweet smoke.

As the drums turn over propane burners, fresh green chiles tumble around inside, their skins blackening, flaking off, and falling like snow through the open metal mesh of the drum. The chiles are then gathered up, bagged, and sold.

At the market, you can find northern chile varieties like Chimayo and Española, both named after the areas where they're grown. But how, exactly, are these chiles different from ones raised in the south?

 

 

Northern farmers are known for their "landrace" chiles (a term for plants that evolve to fit their environment). Descended from specimens brought to New Mexico by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, northern chiles tend to be smaller, skinnier, and more twisted than the southern type, and they have square shoulders at the stem end. The flavor is intense, with flowery aromas and varying heat levels.

Meanwhile, southern chiles such as Sandia and NuMex Big Jim are bred for greater yield and consistent flavor, and they're fleshier, smoother, and easier to peel.

"The difference between a Hatch chile and a Chimayo chile is like the difference between a bell pepper and a poblano," says Margaret Campos, who, with mother Eremita, runs Algo Nativo farm on a sliver of land along the Rio Grande near Embudo. "Native New Mexico chiles grow a little crooked. They don't have as much meat, and they don't hold up to commercial peeling. But the flavor!"

Like all green New Mexico chiles, these northern breeds turn bright red when allowed to fully ripen. Since red chiles are usually sold whole, ground into powder, or woven into decorative ristras, they don't need to be peeled, which eliminates the main challenge of cooking with them. When green, the chiles have a sharp freshness; as they ripen, they mellow and deepen in flavor, inspiring even Hatch enthusiasts to head north for red chile.

Eremita Campos and daughter Margaret preach the gospel of northern chiles at their farmstead cooking school, Comida de Campos. You can take classes there on how to make New Mexico foods like tamales. Or you can stock up on their produce at the Pojoaque Valley Farmers' Market.

But even in Chimayo, not everyone is as impassioned. "I think the difference is up here," town native Leona Medina-Tiede says, tapping her head. She's standing at the counter of her eponymous restaurant in a rambling shack next to Chimayo's renowned shrine, El Santuario de Chimayo. Medina-Tiede serves some of the state's best food, but she doesn't seek out local chiles for her stews and sauces. "The chile in the south is bigger and meatier, and the skin slides right off," she says. "My mom used to grow Chimayo chile. There were 11 kids, and we'd run out [of it] in the winter. Then she switched to Hatch chile, and it was just as good."

Back at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, Matt Romero, an affable former chef, touts his solution to the great chile debate: breeding northern chiles with southerns. At Romero Farms, in Dixon, he grows a variety called Alcalde Improved ― landrace chiles from the Española Valley crossed with southern Sandias.

"My chiles have nice, big, thick shoulders," Romero says. "The flavor is incredible, with quite a bit of heat. Describing it is like trying to describe sex. Words are just sometimes not adequate."

 

 

COOKING WITH CHILES

The recipes above are best when made with New Mexico chiles, preferably northern varieties such as Chimayo. Anaheim chiles, which are a New Mexico variety, are widely available throughout the West and make a fine substitute for northern green chiles ― roast them over a stovetop burner or under a broiler to blacken the skins. (And if you're sensitive to chiles, wear gloves when handling.) Canned green chiles just don't cut it here.

Ground dried red chiles are used to both season and thicken sauces (don't be intimidated by the large quantities called for; this ingredient is nothing like cayenne or supermarket "chili powder," which is a blend of several seasonings). The ground chiles are sold according to heat level (from mild and sweet to quite spicy), so be sure to buy a batch that suits your taste. Look for it in Latin markets and gourmet stores, or read below, for mail-order sources.

 

 

FINDING NEW MEXICO CHILES

How to get chiles in all forms, from mail-order options to fresh-roasted at farmers' markets to piquant local cuisine.

WHERE TO BUY

The Chile Shop Good source for ground dried red chiles. INFO: From $5.50 for 8 oz.; Santa Fe; 505/983-6080.

Chimayo to Go Sells ground dried red Chimayo chiles grown in southern New Mexico. INFO: $5.25 for 8 oz.; 800/683-9628.

Native Seeds/SEARCH Grow northern New Mexico chiles from heirloom seeds. INFO: 866/622-5561.

New Mexican Connection We couldn't find a reliable mail-order source for roasted northern green chiles, but we did find good roasted Sandia chiles here. INFO: $56 for 5 lbs., including shipping; 800/933-2736.

Pojoaque Valley Farmers' Market Margaret and Eremita Campos sell their produce here. INFO: 3-7 Wed and 8-2 Sat while weather permits; Pojoaque; 505/455-5068.

Santa Fe Farmers Market The best place to find northern New Mexico chiles, both fresh and dried. INFO: Various locations and hours; contact 505/983-4098.

WHERE TO EAT

Comida de Campos Lessons in classic New Mexico cooking. INFO: $75 per class, by reservation; Embudo; 505/852-0017.

Hatch Chile Festival Southern New Mexico's big chile blowout. INFO: 10-5 Sep 1-2; 505/267-5050.

Leona's Restaurante We can't visit New Mexico without a stop for Leona Medina-Tiede's superlative carne adovada. INFO: $; lunch only, closed Tue-Wed; Chimayo; 888/561-5569.

Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta A weeklong celebration of wine and local food. INFO: Sep 26-30; from $50, by reservation; 505/438-8060.