Hot Stuff – Chiles

peppers sMy mouth is on fire!

My first bite of adovada, pork cooked slowly in a sauce of red chilies, leaves me gasping. I’m trying this New Mexican classic at a 40 year old Santa Fe restaurant, The Shed, which specializes in local cuisine. This warning should be on the menu:  Do not order unless you have an asbestos tongue!
adovada sNew Mexico is all about food….and art….and music…and history….but mostly about food! And in New Mexico, food begins and ends with chilies or chiles. Huge ristras (bundled chains of red chilies) decorate the doorways of homes, drying in the sun. People eat chilies at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and chilies are incorporated into everything from sauces and condiments to honey, jams and even marmalade!

chiles drying by the door

ristra – chilies drying by the door

At the Inn of the Governors in Santa Fe, dinner is all about chilies. My Del Charro margarita in the eponymous restaurant, has a classic rim of salt but this time augmented with dried chilies. And my chile rellenos is a huge, beer-battered chili pepper stuffed with black bean and corn relish, topped with a chipotle sauce. By the way, that Margarita nearly laid me out – I wasn’t counting on the effect of alcohol at 7000 feet of altitude!

drink

In New Mexico, the waiter will invariably ask when you order anything, “Red or green?” He wants to know which chili sauce you prefer (the green is a little hotter). The local will often reply, “Christmas.” That means both.

Everything I know about chilies, I learned from Jim Garcia. Jim is manager at Sadie’s, a family owned Albuquerque landmark that has been around since 1962. He gave us a Chilies 101 session along with a poquito de todo – a little of everything – to taste. And in deference to Northern taste buds, he went easy on the Scovilles. (Scoville is the rating system created to rank the heat of chilies).

The Anaheim chili was introduced by the Spaniards who actually brought the seeds from Trinidad. They soon discovered that altitude changed the character of the pepper. Curiously, green and red chilies have the same degree of heat, but red ones are a little sweeter as they are basically more ripe (go on, see if you can find the sugar, I dare you!).

testing pepper

We learned that the heat is in the veins of the chili, not, as I have always believed, in the seeds or skin. Before he buys a batch, Jim splits one and runs his tongue along the vein to test its heat. The best chilies are grown in New Mexico, so he drives to the farms to ensure they get the best available. They have some clout, they bought 80 tons last year!

chiles

The green chilies are blistered roasted. Jim demonstrates this process in miniature and the scent of roasted chilies quickly permeates the air. If I hadn’t eaten un poquito de todo, it would have sent my taste buds reeling. The blackened skin quickly peels off and the seeds are easily removed in water; the flesh is chopped and blended with garlic, lime juice and salt for green sauce.

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In the late fall, the unpicked chilies have turned red on the vine and these are harvested to dry in the air. “Some kiln dry them but they just don’t have the same flavour,” says Jim. These are then pounded – seeds and all – and made into red sauce.

Now here’s the most important lesson: Water and alcohol only increase the burn of chilies in the mouth. The only real antidote is dairy – milk, yogurt, sour cream, cheese.

Chilies and milk shakes – hmmm.

FYI: You can buy Sadie’s chile sauce and salsa in bottles to take home.

Want a great chili recipe? Check out this one from Macaw Lodge.

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