Hi, everyone. I spent the last few days in New Mexico and I had a great time. I’ve had New Mexico on my list of places I want to visit but I never quite made it there until now. It’s an incredible place—funky, beautiful, mystical, historic, educational, and awe-inspiring. And for foodies, it’s a place where cuisine is an experience unto itself.
Let’s have a taste of the Southwest…
I learned on this trip that what differentiates New Mexican cuisine from Mexican cuisine is largely the chiles used. New Mexican uses a lot of red and green chiles that are indigenous to the Southwest. In fact, green chiles are a staple in the Southwest. They are used in or on just about everything (even beer!). Mexican food favors jalapeño peppers (as well as poblanos) and vegetables, pork, chicken, or fish as the main ingredients.
Tex-Mex, as we know it today, is a 20th-century invention and the so-called “Tex-Mex chili” was a combo of cowboy and ranch food and Mexican dishes that includes beef, something that wasn’t very common in Mexican foods. I’m not sure that I even want to address Cali-Mex. I’m not an expert on any of these cuisines, but they have their origins south of the present-day border with Mexico and also with the Spanish, who colonized Mexico and parts of the Southwest. Then, like all cuisines, it evolved based on region, the cultural background and traditions of the inhabitants of that region and their economic status, and locally available products. If you want a better explanation than the one I just gave (and I don’t blame you if you do), here are a couple of sites that might help:
The fun thing about traveling (for foodies, anyway) is tasting the local cuisine and eating where the locals eat (or, at least, the places that aren’t too scary). Unless I need a quick, cheap lunch, I try really hard to avoid the ubiquitous fast-food joints. The same burger you can get in a McDonald’s in New York is the same burger you can get at a McDonald’s in Fort Lauderdale, Sacramento, Bangor, or Minnetonka, Minnesota. When I travel, I want new and different culinary experiences. (I was in California once taking one of those touristy bus tours and the guide offered to take my friend and me to Nathan’s for lunch. I explained that I live in Brooklyn, about 5 minutes from the original Nathan’s in Coney Island, and going to Nathan’s in Hollywood held no appeal for me. Aside from the fact that I don’t eat hot dogs, that would have been a ridiculous thing for me to do. Pink’s, on the other hand, would have made far more sense for me…if I ate hot dogs, that is.)
I visited Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos and here are a few examples of the fun and delicious food I sampled.
The “Weird Sandwich” at O’Neill’s Pub in Albuquerque. This has absolutely nothing to do with traditional Southwestern cuisine, but it was an interesting experience I wanted to share. The Weird Sandwich is always a vegetarian offering and it changes daily. On the day I went, it was a tweaked turkey Jack sandwich: Monterey jack cheese and green chiles on sourdough toast, and instead of turkey…apples! I know, it sounds strange but I have to say that it was rather tasty. Weird but tasty. While I was there, I also tried the Ace Pear Cider and thought it was simply delicious. Crisp and refreshing, sweet but not cloying. I’m going to have to try and find it locally.
While in Albuquerque, I also ate at the Frontier diner. The Frontier has been a staple of the area since 1971 and is particularly popular with students at the University of New Mexico, which is right across the street. It has good food at good prices, served with a generous portion of Americana for ambience (lots of John Wayne-related stuff). What really struck me was the size of the diner—it had three huge rooms that seemed to go on forever, something quite unheard of in New York.
In Taos, I ate at Orlando’s New Mexican Cafe. It’s a wonderful little restaurant that has charming Mexican decor and really great food at reasonable prices. I had a vegetarian burrito with a side of beans and posole. Everything tasted great, but what I was really taken with was their salsa caribe. It’s a chile sauce that is thicker and denser than typical salsas. It had a rich, deep roasted chile flavor and a fabulous smoky aroma. I highly recommend it. It’s pretty hot, so if that’s an issue for you, ask for it on the side. Orlando’s doesn’t have a web site but they’re located at 1114 Don Juan Valdez Lane.
My absolute favorite food experience in New Mexico, however, was Wanda’s Blue Corn Fry Bread at the Taos Pueblo. Entering the pueblo was magical. Ancient adobe structures stand as a living museum to the region’s Taos Indians. There are approximately 2,500 Taos Indians on tribal rolls, and most live outside the Pueblo. About 70 people (some 10-15 families) still live within the Pueblo’s walls and many of them sell their wares, from pottery to jewelry to food. Because it’s so traditional, electricity and running water are not allowed within the Pueblo walls. So it’s quiet—you don’t hear TVs or radios. I did hear two older Puebloan men singing a traditional song while beating on a large drum, which only added to the historic atmosphere.
Wanda has a table set up in the center of the Pueblo, where she makes blue corn fry bread. Essentially, these are just fried dough pancakes. I drizzled some honey on mine, then sprinkled on some cinnamon. My reaction? Oh. My. God. It was awesome!! It was fluffy and crispy at the same time. Light but filling enough to hold me over till dinner. It was so divine that I was still thinking about it long after I’d finished it. I’ve had similar fried dough before—in fact, I have my mother’s version, called Scarpette, in my cookbook—but something made these quite different. I don’t know if it was the blue corn or what, but you have to try them. They are worth the $10 admission price to the Pueblo, money that goes to the tribe. And, even better, you get to visit the oldest continuously occupied community in the United States and learn something about Southwestern history and culture. The fry bread is the icing on the cake.
I picked up a beautiful ristra while in Taos and I can’t wait to hang it in my kitchen. Ristras are those strands of chile peppers that people hang from ropes inside or outside of their homes. You can find them all over New Mexico, from touristy stores in the plazas to roadside stands. Just be sure you know whether you’re getting treated or untreated chiles. Untreated chiles are just dried chiles that you can use in your cooking. Treated ristras are sprayed with polyurethane or some other coating to preserve them. These are to be used for decorative purposes only. The original purpose of ristras was culinary, but they’re so beautiful that people began wanting them as accents to their homes. So, to keep them from molding or crumbling too easily, they are treated.
I leave you with the 2008 winner of the Chili Verde World Cookoff, Gambler’s Chili by Lauren Ray. Have a great week, everyone.
2 lbs. pork tenderloin, cubed
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
14 oz. Swanson chicken broth
10 oz can or bottle of green salsa
2 1/2 cups diced green chiles
Spice Mix Ingredients:
3 tsp garlic (minced or mashed)
2 ½ Tbsp chicken base (bouillon)
1 tsp celery salt
1 Tbsp flour
2 tsp oregano
1 Tbsp cumin
3 Tbsp diced jalapeno pepper
1 Tbsp dried cilantro (Pendries powder or 3 Tbsp fresh finely chopped)
1 Tbsp green chili powder
*Salt Salt to taste
Cook additional 15-20 minutes
1. Brown pork and drain
2. Add onion & chicken broth, then simmer 1 hour, stirring often to avoid sticking
3. Add spice mix and green chili salsa, then simmer 1 hour
4. Add diced green chiles, then add salt and tabasco to taste
5. Simmer another hour and serve.
Preparation time: about 1/2 hour
Cooking time: 3 hours
Makes: 2 1/2 quarts
Serves: about 10
[Photos: Green chili--www.chiligifts.com; Taos Publo--Jerry Driendl, from www.taospueblo.com; ristra--www.thechileshop.com.]