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Red, Green, or Christmas?


From vacationing golfers to local policemen, every person in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is at some point faced with the same question: red or green? Meaning, would you like sauce made from red chile peppers or green? For both, the answer is simply Christmas.

To the uninitiated, New Mexico seems pepper-crazed, with chiles in everything from sauces to stews, marinades, and tamales. The pepper is even the official state vegetable (although technically, it’s a fruit), and every autumn, the aroma of roasting chiles fills the streets of Santa Fe.

Chile history runs deep through the Southwest, with indigenous tribes growing the peppers for centuries. In 1913, scientists first introduced the New Mexico No. 9 variety, often called the Anaheim, and it remains the most popular strain today. These peppers are mildly spicy, green in color, and change to red as they ripen.

For the most part, though, chiles remained a regional secret -- until chef Mark Miller arrived in Santa Fe. A onetime anthropology student, Miller was one of the first people from outside New Mexico to recognize the pepper’s allure. Miller opened the first Coyote Cafe restaurant in Santa Fe in 1987, with other cities soon to follow, and his endless marketing savvy, which included cookbooks and salsa products, eventually expanded the concept of Southwest cuisine around the world.

Today, most of New Mexico’s chile peppers are grown in the south-central Hatch region, while the northern higher-elevation villages specialize in boutique heirloom varieties. Much like wines do, peppers’ goût de terroir varies from region to region. For example, Santa Fe’s downtown Plaza Café (505-982-1664, www.thefamousplazacafe.com) serves its huevos rancheros with a deep, dusky red sauce from peppers grown in Bernalillo, a small town 50 miles to the southwest. But the rib-eye steak at Mark Miller’s excellent new restaurant, Red Sage (505-819- 2056, www.buffalothunderresort.com/dining), features a sharp savory chile rub that hails from Chimayó, 30 miles to the north.

Fresh green peppers are available only during the fall harvest months, but stores sell dried chile pods and powder year-round. You can even drive up into the villages and buy chiles direct from the farmers. Once you make your purchase, chef Rocky Durham from the Santa Fe School of Cooking (800-982-4688, www.santafeschoolofcooking.com) offers this quick and dirty primer on making your own basic chile sauces. Feel free to experiment and embellish at will.

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RED
Sauté 1/2 cup of diced onion in oil; then add two to three tablespoons minced garlic. Cook until onion starts to caramelize. Add in 1/2 to 1 cup ground red chili powder and stir while adding 2 1/2 cups water or chicken stock. Add a pinch each of dry Mexican oregano and roasted cumin seeds and a few slivers of cinnamon stick. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring mixture to a boil; then simmer for 20 minutes or so.

GREEN
Roast green chiles over high heat; then set aside in a ziplock bag or in a bowl under Saran Wrap for five to 10 minutes. Peel and chop and set aside. Sauté 1 cup chopped onion; then add two to three tablespoons minced garlic and cook until soft. Add roasted green chiles, 1 1/2 cups water or chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer for about 15 minutes.


WHERE TO BUY YOUR CHILES


Just about any supermarket, farmers market, or gift shop in Santa Fe sells peppers. However, the Santa Fe School of Cooking is our pick for the best place to shop anything and everything relating to chiles. If you aren’t traveling to Santa Fe anytime soon, these online chile-pepper stores also offer a good selection:

HATCH CHILE EXPRESS
,
(800) 292-4454,
www.hatch-chile.com

HOT CHILE
,
(800) 467-4468,
www.hotchile.com

LÉONAS RESTAURANTE DE CHIMAYÓ
,
(888) 561-5569,
www.leonasrestaurante.com

NEW MEXICAN CONNECTION
,
(800) 933-2736,
www.nmcchile.com