A note to readers: In New Mexico we refer to our peppers as “chile” or “chiles.” According to The Associated Press Stylebook, it should be spelled “chili” and “chilies.” As a New Mexican, I choose to ignore AP style guides and will refer to chile based on regional conventions.
New Mexicans love chile. It is the signature ingredient in our most popular dishes. Chile can be used fresh, roasted or dried. They are used as a seasoning, most commonly as a ground powder. Chile is delicious in sweet and savory dishes. Green chile is high in vitamin C. Red chile is a potent source of vitamin A. They are not different varieties. Green chile is the immature fruit of the chile plant. Chile turns red when the pod is fully ripe and the piquancy of both increases the tactile sensitivity of the mouth. It is addictive. The burning sensation that accompanies the hotter varieties induces a flood of endorphins, creating a mildly euphoric sensation. The heat of the chile, green or red, is based on the variety.
The affinity for chile pre-dates European arrival. The ancient Puebloans grew peppers and each strain grows best in its heritage soil. For example, Acoma Pueblo chile is mild, with a flavorful pungency, Isleta chile develops a sweet, fruity flavor as it turns red, and the Zia chile becomes bitter-sweet as it ripens. Ancient Puebloan varieties should not be confused with the chile grown in Pueblo, Colorado, because the two are not related. Whereas Pueblo, Colorado is well known for a variety of the guajillo chile, also known as the mirasol pepper, they are genetically distinct from New Mexico chile.
Appreciation for the culinary versatility of this staple ingredient extends beyond our borders. Every year when the chile starts to ripen, visitors from throughout the country make autumn pilgrimages to agricultural communities throughout the state, with Hatch being the most well-known chile destination. Hatch has done a brilliant job marketing themselves as the chile capital of the world, with many people perceiving Hatch as a variety rather than a place. That is to say farmers in Hatch grow numerous strains of chile, from mild to wild. However, New Mexico’s chile crops extend beyond Hatch. For example, there are strong chile traditions in many communities along the Rio Grande, like Chimayo, Española, Corrales, and from Bosque Farms to Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.
Most of New Mexico’s popular chile varieties are derived from the genetic base of cultivars developed at New Mexico State University (NMSU). NMSU has the longest continuous program focused on chile improvement in the world. It began with the work of pioneer horticulturalist Dr. Fabian Garcia in 1894. Dr. Garcia started selective breeding using 14 lineages of ‘Pasilla’, ‘Colorado’, and ‘Negro’ cultivars gathered from New Mexico and Southern Colorado’s Hispano and Pueblo communities. His work yielded a chile pod known as New Mexico No. 9, released in 1913, better known to the world today as the Anaheim pepper. Popular chile varieties genetically related to New Mexico No. 9 include Big Jim, Sandia, Joe E. Parker, New Mexico 6-4, Barker, and Lumbre. Dr. Garcia’s work continues today at the New Mexico Chile Institute.
There are still a few regions producing heirloom chiles, unrelated to New Mexico No. 9. These varieties are called landraces, a term referring to plants and animals that have developed primarily through natural selection rather than human-induced breeding. Landraces are common in northern New Mexico, with Chimayó’s red chile being the most treasured and the most expensive.
Chimayó chile is grown from seed that has been passed down through generations of farmers in the valley. Seed supply is limited. In fact, this heirloom variety almost went extinct several years ago. A handful of diligent farmers preserved the strain by saving and sorting their seeds. The chile pods are smaller than other varieties, which makes them more difficult and time consuming to process. However, it is worth it. Chimayó heirloom red chile has a unique, rich, earthy flavor, with a more complex, subtle heat than other varieties.
I turned to my neighbor, Jonathan Perno, executive chef at Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm, for a recipe that highlights the delectable flavor of Chimayó red chile. The James Beard Foundation has repeatedly nominated Jonathan for the Best Chef Southwest honor. As an advocate of the Farm to Table philosophy and the Slow Food Movement, he has an appreciation for the unique characteristics associated with heirloom varieties and the skill to highlight those characteristics while creating culinary masterpieces. The restaurant at Los Poblanos, Campo, utilizes Chimayó chile for all of their red chile dishes.
New Mexican Red Chile
Yield: 4 quarts (freezes well)
- 1 bag dried hot New Mexican red chile (32 oz, 2 pounds)
- 2 tsp. cocoa powder
- 1 ½ tablespoon dried oregano
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 ½ large onion, minced
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- Juice of half a lemon
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- De-stem and seed the red chiles.
- Rinse the pods. Drain and place on a baking sheet.
- Roast pods until slightly dried and toasted.
- Soak in a large bowl for 20 minutes.
- Once the pods are soft, place them in a blender with some of the soaking liquid. Blend until smooth. Strain into a large stock pot. Make sure to press all the liquid out of the blended chile. Save the pulp in a separate bowl.
- Place stock pot on stove over medium high heat.
- Place the pulp back into the blender with a little of the soaking liquid. Strain into the stock pot. Save the pulp in a freezer bag and freeze. Use the chile pulp in refried beans or for marinating meat.
- Add all of the remaining ingredients to the stock pot. Stir until well blended. Once it comes to a boil, simmer for 30-40 minutes. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
- Cool in an ice bath. Use immediately or pour into freezer bags and freeze for later consumption. Store frozen chile for up to 6 months.
Please leave your recipe modifications, or any questions that you may have, in the comments.
4803 Rio Grande Blvd N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM 87107
Set among 25 acres of lavender fields, enormous cottonwood trees and lush formal gardens, Los Poblanos is one of the most magnificent historic properties in the Southwest. The property was designed in 1932 by the region’s foremost architect, John Gaw Meem, the “Father of Santa Fe Style”, Los Poblanos combines 50 guest rooms, a working organic farm and world class cuisine. It is the ideal setting for meetings and special events. The natural beauty, comfort and privacy of Los Poblanos provides their guests with a memorable experience in a truly relaxing environment.
Campo is a casual fine-dining experience featuring the purest field-to-fork menu in the Southwest. Located at Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm, their Rio Grande Valley Cuisine is rooted in seasonal organic ingredients from their fields, as well as from longstanding relationships with local farmers and herdsman.
To make a reservation: 505-338-1615
The Los Poblanos Farm Shop takes pride in hand-crafting quality, meaningful products. The shop features artisan lavender products created from the organic lavender grown in the fields outside the shop and distilled on the farm, including culinary lavender, as well as a variety of products made by other local businesses.
Contact the Farm Shop: (505) 938-2192
If you live in an area where red chile is hard to find, you can order from the Hatch Chile Store. They ship ristras, red chile pods and red chile flakes nationwide. They have mild to hot varieties available.