Southwestern food is an indigenous regional cuisine.
It has evolved over a long period of time, and has been
molded and shaped by a variety of influences,
including Native American, Hispanic, Mexican, Tex-Mex,
and the neighboring Cajun and Creole cuisines.
It is characterized by straightforward cooking techniques
and defined by bold, strong flavors.
---- Mark Miller, author
Coyote Cafe cookbook, 1989
I'm sure that battles and turf wars have been waged over how to prepare some of New Mexico's better known food specialties:
I've even had disputes with people over how to prepare a good pot of rice to go along with New Mexico cuisine (I always prepare mine with short grain rice, adding oregano, cumin, pinon nuts, salt, and green chile powder).
I love cooking for people, but when New Mexico fare is on the stove, there is bound to be discussion, analysis, critique, and at times, downright criticism. This might include a comment such as "... here is how I would do it ..." to "... my mother/grandmother always ..." or "... I can't believe that some people ..."
Curiously, this isn't always fueled by Native New Mexicans. Rather, there is something about making local cuisine that just stirs things up ..... more than any discussion of religion or politics can ever do. Now surely, this is not unique to New Mexican cooking, but this level of dialog never arose when I was cooking for friends and guests in California.
My word, the Official State Question, adopted by the New Mexico state legislature in 1999 is "Red or Green," referring to the mixed preference people feel over whether red or green chile is better. This issue is so important that this is the first question diners are asked when they order a meal (I will point out that I have an opinion about which is better---red or green---but like many food matters, it's best to keep opinions to oneself).
Food in the political sphere of New Mexico doesn't end with chile. The official state cookie---seriously, do all states have one---is the biscochito (adopted by the New Mexico Legislature in 1989). Chile, along with frijoles (beans, folks), was adopted as one of New Mexico's two official state vegetables in 1965.
Is it that our legislature has nothing better to do with their time than discuss food? Hardly. Food in New Mexico is big business. During the months of June and July, New Mexico supplies more than 50% of onions consumed in the United States. New Mexico is the oldest wine making region in the country, as the first grapevines were planted here in in 1629 in Senecu, a Piro Indian pueblo south of Socorro. Wine was such a popular beverage, that by 1884, New Mexico was fifth in the nation in its production. Even now, New Mexico now has 42 wineries, producing almost 700,000 gallons of wine per year.
A peculiarly New Mexican product----shipped to countries throughout the world----is the pinon nut. Native to the foothills of rough lands, the pinon crop in good years---the trees bear heavily only once every four or five years---has a monetary value running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And don't even get me started on pecans. Though they are native to the Mississippi River Valley, pecans arrived in New Mexico around the turn of the 20th century. Small pecan acreages are found in Quay, Curry, DeBaca, and Valencia Counties, but the New Mexico pecan industry is largely centered in the southern counties. 70% of the industry is in the Mesilla Valley and you can't go more than 10 feet in Mesilla or Dona Ana without running into an orchard.
Add to the above our production of olives, balsamic vinegar, chiles, cotton, garlic, apples and a myriad of vegetables----in a state with comparatively low volumes of surface water---and you can see why food is so important to the New Mexico economy and lifestyle.
But enough of that. How do you actually prepare and eat the foods that make up New Mexico history and lifestyle? Well, we're back to differences of opinion, but most cooks agree that it all starts with the chile.
Chiles crave warm, dry weather and warm soil. Enter New mexico; especially southern New Mexico. What oranges are to Florida; potatoes to Idaho; flamenco to Spain; pasta to Italy; ships to sea .... oh, you get it. New Mexicans love chile and it plays a huge part here, be it consumed, dried and hung on a gate, adorned on a mug, or served with just about anything you can think of eating (yes, even pancakes).
According to USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service, New Mexico accounts for more than 37 percent of the chile grown in the U.S. Admitedly, the industry is in steep decline---which is sad, and the reasons complex---but 77% to 3/4 of consumers surveyed say that New Mexico-grown chile is better than chile grown in other regions. And they're right (see, I told you there is a lot of opinion surrounding foods of New Mexico).
Chile's (did you notice the spelling) arrive on the scene in New Mexico by mid-August. The aroma of roasting chile dominates in New Mexico until at least mid-November. If you talk to anyone in New Mexico, they are convinced they know which orchard produces the best chile; who can roast them better than anyone else; and which types can be successfully frozen, versus consumed immediately.
Aside from the ritual of roasting chile, they are readily available in most grocery stores in New Mexico, year-round. After November, most of those chiles come from Mexico, but if bought before February, they can still be plump and flavorful.
If you're buying green chile at the store or farmers market, my advice for preparation is as follows:
Have I really focused so much on chile thus far? That's New Mexico for you. We can talk chile all day long, for many days in a row.
But hey! There are so many other ingredients that go into New Mexico cooking. Where to go next? Ah, how about Posole! Stay tuned for the recipe and photos.