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Flash in the Pan

Winter heat



Red and green chile are two manifestations of the same pepper that together form the backbone of New Mexican cuisine. Both colors, and their accompanying exceptional flavors, are worth discussion and praise. But only one of these, red, is widely available outside of the Southwest. Red chile is not only easy to get, but is cheap and easy to prepare.

Red was the original chile—the chile that fed this region year-round for centuries. The pods are harvested after turning a deep shade of red, and sun-dried. Red chile is often stored decoratively in beautifully strung ristras, though for practical purposes, storing red chile in powder form makes the most sense. Powder takes less space and the storage conditions can be better managed. Cooking red chile from powder is also more convenient than grinding up whole pods.

Green chile, by contrast, is harvested before it's fully mature, in late summer, and flame-roasted. The only way to store green chile is to freeze it, which wasn't an option until recent decades. Before the widespread availability of freezers, green chile was primarily a seasonal delicacy, and to this day, the difficulty and expense of shipping frozen green chile makes it much harder to obtain outside of the Southwest.

Red chile is a forgiving dish, leaving plenty of room for creativity. At the very least, it requires nothing but oil, water and salt to bring out the flavor in a sauce. But onions, garlic, butter, chicken stock, oregano and pumpkin seeds really help. I use a clean coffee grinder for the seeds, which gets them to a peanut butter-like consistency.

Another optional ingredient—and I emphasize the word optional in hopes of avoiding retribution—is cumin. Like it or not, some people put cumin in their red chile, which for many New Mexicans is a sign that they have no idea what is going on, at best. Reaction from the New Mexican anti-cumin coalition can be swift and severe.

Even if you like spicy food, I recommend using the mildest red chile you can get. Many people confuse chile heat with flavor, but they're not the same thing. In fact, too much heat can make it hard to taste the sweet, acrid flavor of the chile. If you require a certain level of heat, keep some hot chile powder available and adjust for taste. It's much easier to add heat than remove it.


For a quart of basic red chile sauce, start with 2 tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a pan on low/medium. When the oil is hot, add 1 medium onion, minced. The finer the onion is chopped, the smoother the sauce will be. I'll often grate the onion into the pan as the oil is heating, which tear-gasses the entire kitchen but gets the onion very fine. (Some people use onion powder for a smoother sauce, but I don't mind a few small bumps in exchange for fresh onion.)

Cook the onion slowly until it sweats and caramelizes. Then remove the pan from heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of ground pumpkin seeds, 1 tablespoon of oregano and a sprinkling of garlic salt. Then, add 1 cup of mild red chile powder, and mix it thoroughly with the other ingredients.

Add 3 cups of water, a cup at a time, stirring carefully to hydrate everything. You want the chile about the consistency of a coconut curry or turkey gravy. Add more water, if necessary, a little at a time until it thickens properly. Return briefly to the heat until it reaches a simmer. If you added too much water you can cook it longer in order to thicken it, but I prefer to heat my red chile as minimally as possible. It will turn darker, and can get more bitter, with prolonged cooking. It can also dry out and burn if you're not careful.

There are two basic ways of using red chile. One is as a condiment, served atop or on the side of some finished product, like scrambled eggs, a hamburger, fries, fish or anything savory.

Alternatively, red chile can be used as an ingredient. Chopped meat simmered in red chile is called carne adovada. Shrimp simmered in a chile and tomato red sauce is the Mexican dish camarones diablo, or devil shrimp. You can simmer beans in red chile, or use it as a base for stew. But cook the beans or stew first, and then add the red chile at the end and simmer briefly.

The Spanish verb "enchilar" means to coat with chile, and I would be remiss not to mention the most famous conjugation of that word, enchiladas, the lasagna of the Southwest. Corn tortillas are covered in chile—enchiladan, as it were—and these lathered tortillas are layered along with cheese and/or meat, and baked at 300 degrees until warm and delicious.

Last but not least, a little red chile in chocolate cake, brownies or pots de crème will add gravitas, without taking these desserts too far from the realm of sweetness.

Once a taste for red chile gets into your bones, it can be hard to remove. Red chile is a flavor that is almost never out of place, and warm as the desert sun.


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