Chile is synonymous with New Mexico. It is the core component of our culinary tradition and one of the state’s biggest crops. In New Mexico chile is available for every meal; as a main dish, a side dish, a soup, a dessert or, possibly, as a beverage.
For those who wonder if there is a limit to what we will pair with chile. No. No, there is not. There’s green chile butter, green chile brittle, red chile wine, red chile chocolate, green chile fettucine with blackened chicken, green chile cheese bread, red chile hot chocolate, red chile potato chips, green chile chicken soup…you get the idea. We are downright “Forrest Gump” about the palatable potential of green chile. What is not to like? The spiciness provokes the release of endorphins, which induces the “chile high.” Fortunately, as addictions go, chile is a good one. It is high in vitamin C. Red chile is high in vitamin A.
Chile, which originated near Bolivia, is technically a fruit. It is a member of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes and eggplant. Spanish settlers brought chile into the region when they arrived in the late 1500s. Over the centuries, horticulturalists have transformed the chile from an unpredictable assortment of shapes, sizes and heat levels to today’s uniform pods and reliable heat.
What hasn’t changed? The time and labor involved in harvesting and processing the pods. The value of chile quadruples between harvest and purchase due to the amount of labor involved. Green chile is roasted, peeled, and frozen. Chopped chile is usually de-seeded. Hand harvesting accounts for 40 to 60 percent of the total farm costs. Growers pay a minimum of $5.15 per hour, while foreign competitors pay as little as $1 a day. The New Mexico Chile Pepper Task Force identified mechanical harvesting as key to the survival of the industry.
New Mexico has been at the forefront of agricultural research related to peppers since 1888. Dr. Fabian Garcia was a horticulturalist at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in Las Cruces (NMSU). He invested more than a decade developing a standardized chile pod. When he released “New Mexico 9” in the early 1900s, it was the first chile cultivar with a dependable pod size and heat level. It became so prevalent in California that it became known as the “Anaheim” pepper, a popular, albeit mild, variety to this day.
The New Mexico Chile Institute continues to pioneer research into the productivity and piquancy of peppers, solidifying New Mexico’s reputation as pepper connoisseurs. They partner with farmers throughout the state to research more cost efficient harvesting techniques and to develop new chile varieties based on desirable traits, like yield, size, spiciness, disease resistance, drought resistance, pest resistance, etc.
Three Sisters Agricultural Tradition
In addition to the regional preoccupation with chile, the “three sisters” of Native American agricultural tradition, corn, beans, and squash, continue to play a central role in the day-to-day diet of New Mexicans. These three vegetables were crucial to emerging agrarian societies throughout North America. Not only did these crops provide reliable sources of nutrition, the planting technique reflects agricultural evolution. It was one of the earliest forms of companion planting, which serves as the basis for inter-cropping systems currently used worldwide to increase crop yields.
Each of the “three sisters” supports and benefits the others. Corn grows well in rows, but it takes a lot of space and only produces once per year. Beans require a support system and they produce well when they have something to climb. As the corn grows, beans wind around the stalks. There is enough room between the rows of corn to plant squash. The larges leaves of the squash plant create a dome tent. This serves as a natural mulch, inhibiting weed growth, reducing soil temperature and slowing the rate of water evaporation. Both squash and corn require soil with high nitrogen content to thrive. Beans convert the sun’s energy into nitrogen-filled nodules that grow on the roots of the plant, which essentially provides Miracle Grow to the other two “sisters”.
The soup recipe below draws upon two of the three sisters, corn and squash, with a generous addition of New Mexico’s favorite fruit….green chile. Adding squash to this recipe is completely optional. It is delicious as a simple corn chowder; however, I look for ways to use zucchini in the summer due to the overwhelming amount coming out of my garden.
Green Chile Corn Chowder
- 2 ¼ cup potatoes, cubed
- 1 cup chopped zucchini (optional)
- ½ onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 15 oz. corn
- 8 oz. green chile
- 2 ½ cups of water
- 2/3 cup milk or ½ & ½
- ¼ teaspoon liquid smoke
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- 1 tablespoon chicken base
- ½ teaspoon chopped parsley
Mix 1 tablespoon of corn starch with ¼ cup of warm water. Add to soup to thicken to your preferred consistency.
More Options: Top with shredded cheese. Sharp cheeses are particularly good. Fried corn tortilla chips are also delicious.
- Sauté the onion in the olive oil until translucent
- Add water, milk (or ½ & ½, almond milk, etc.), liquid smoke, white pepper, parsley, chicken base, green chile and potatoes.
- When the potatoes start becoming tender, add the corn and zucchini.
- Add 1/3 of the corn starch mixture and stir well. Stir in another 1/3 once you notice the soup thickening a little. The remaining corn starch can be added as needed to achieve desired consistency. You might not want to use all of it.
- Cook at low heat until the potatoes and zucchini are tender. It can be eaten immediately, but the chile infuses the soup with more flavor if you have time to refrigerate it overnight.
Please leave your recipe modifications, or any questions that you may have, in the comments.