Does your state have an Official Question? New Mexico does, and the question is – “red or green?” If you have visited NM, and have eaten in a New Mexican restaurant, then you know what this means. New Mexican cuisine has a sidekick and it is commonly called chili, (or chile, both spellings are correct). No matter what you are ordering, from burritos to fajitas and enchiladas we smother it with red or green chili, sometimes both, (that is called Christmas). Then comes the following question from out of towners – “which is hotter?” Well that really depends on which restaurant and what day it is, as the hotness is always variable.
What many people find fascinating is that red and green chili come from the same plant. Chili grows from a small white flower into a large green pod and it is then harvested for green chili. But left on the vine it will turn deep red and then it is picked, strung into ristras and left to dry in the sun. This ristra hanging is a very typical site to see all over New Mexico in the fall. It is an industry in itself and besides the utilitarian ristra that abuela, (latina grandma), has on her porch, there are decorator ristras in all shapes and sizes made from all kinds of chilis.
In my childhood the smell of burning leaves was the scent of autumn. In New Mexico the scent is chili roasting. People used to roast it themselves in the backyard on a grill, and some still do it that way just to have their home fill with the scent, but what is more common is to trek down to the local farmers market or neighborhood grocery to purchase a large 40 lb burlap sack of green chili. We then take it outside where someone is operating a large barrel shaped steel cage that is outfitted with a motor and pulley to roll the cage in place with a set of burners hooked up to propane. This set up looks and sounds a lot like the burners on a hot air balloon and it burns the skins of the chili until they are black. It is a mezzmerizing experience. When done it is all chuted into a plastic bag that is promptly knotted at the top, thrown into your car, and taken home. After letting it steam for 40 minutes you can either peel and pack it, or just pack it into qt size zip lock bags to frozen and later thawed and peeled as needed. Depending on the size of your family and chili needs this 40 lb sack should just about last until next fall. This is our autumn ritual – and it starts in August. You may buy a dried ristra anytime of year as well as the dried red chili, whole in a bag, coarsely ground, or powdered fine.
The absolute best recipe for abuela style green and red chili and all other New Mexico meals can be found in an amazing cookbook put out by our electric company. Here is the link. All proceeds go to charity. I mean it…this cookbook is the best for authentic New Mexican recipes.
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Sarah Dolk, Adobe Nido Bed & Breakfast
Expert on Destination Albuquerque and Central New Mexico!