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Land of Enchantment

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altEven before we stepped from the jetway into the gate last month, it was obvious that we were in the Albuquerque airport. The dry cold air, unusual architecture and "ski" clothing were visual clues, but the delicious smell of roasted red and green chiles is what confirmed we were in the Land of Enchantment. The aroma immediately brought to mind the posole, stuffed sopapillas, Navajo tacos, green chile chicken enchiladas and chile rellanos of my childhood. It is New Mexico cuisine. In New Mexico, chiles are more than just a condiment or a seasoning. They are the state's largest agricultural crop. They are consumed at every meal, celebrated in songs and at festivals and are the subject of the question "Red or Green?" a phrase estimated to be uttered 175,000 to 200,000 times a day at eateries throughout the state. When you order enchiladas, chili, tacos or burritos at Taco Bell and even burgers at McDonald's, you have the option to add red or green chile. Sometimes the red is hotter, sometimes the green. Be sure to ask when ordering. Don't know what to choose? Ask for a Christmas plate and you will get both.

Green chiles are the fleshy, immature stage of the New Mexico reds. Varieties with names such as Anaheim, Big Jim and Sandia range from mild to hot and usually become more intense as they age to red and are roasted and dried in ristras before they are ground for chile powder. In New Mexico you can get green chile in cans, fresh, frozen, ground as a powder and in green salsas.

Where I grew up, salsa verde was made with green chiles. Imagine my confusion when I moved to Texas and discovered that salsa verde was made with tomatillos. I knew I was back with my family when my sister asked my mom if she had any green chile stashed in the freezer that could be used for breakfast tacos the next morning. Want a chance to really clear your sinuses? Visit southern New Mexico in the fall during the harvesting and roasting of thousands of chiles. Hatch hosts a chile festival and Las Cruces celebrates with the annual Whole Enchilada Festival in October.

Other contributions from Spanish, Native American, Mexican and European cultures have resulted in the use of corn (in many forms), beans, squash, lard, flour and various spices such as cumin and anise in creating unique dishes that are even different from their close relations in Texas and Arizona.

During our quick holiday visit, we saw lots of great snow, but didn't really have a chance to eat much of the local cuisine. On our return trip to the airport, however, we had time for lunch before we boarded the plane and we quickly headed for the food stand with the delicious smell of roasted chiles wafting down the hallway. I ordered their self-proclaimed, world-famous green chile chicken stew. Anticipating  a wonderful treat, I was also surprised and delighted to discover that their stew was just a version of Hopkins County Stew with green chiles added. I guess it really is world famous, no matter where you find it.

New Mexico-Style Posole
A pork stew made with posole, a hard kernel corn that is soaked in lime, rinsed and boiled until it swells. Although milder in taste, hominy is a good substitute for the posole. Posole is usually served on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day for good luck. In Northern New Mexico it is often made with green chile, and in the South with red chile. This recipe calls for both.
3 tablespoons oil
3 pounds boneless pork, cubed
2 medium white onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 (29 oz.) cans of white or yellow hominy, drained
4 cups water
2 ( 4 oz.) cans diced green chiles, undrained
1 (10 oz.) can red enchilada sauce
1 (16 oz.) can diced tomates
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
Heat oil in a large stockpot. Add pork, onion and garlic and cook until pork is browned and onion and garlic are softened. Drain off excess grease. Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Cook over low to medium heat about 2 hours, stirring occasionally. After 2 hours, add more water if needed. Adjust seasonings to taste and simmer another 2 hours. Serves 8 to 10.

The State Cookie of New Mexico, biscochitos are made for the holidays and for special occasions. They are flaky like a piecrust and melt in your mouth like a shortbread cookie. The anise and wine are contributions from Spain. You can use shortening instead of lard, but they won't be as good.
1 pound lard
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons anise seed (slightly crushed)
1/2 cup sweet table wine
6 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar mixed with cinnamon for dredging
Cream lard until it is fluffy. Add sugar slowly, gradually, beating well. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each. Mix in the anise seed. In a separate bowl, blend the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients and wine alternately in two batches to make a soft but workable dough. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Gently roll out the dough to a 1/8 inch thickness. Cut the dough into diamonds, place on un-greased cookie sheets and bake for 10-15 minutes or until cookies are pale blond on top and light brown on the bottom. Dredge in cinnamon sugar mixture while still warm. Makes about 4-5 dozen cookies.
Recipes for:
Navajo Tacos - www.whatscookingamerica.net/History/
Stuffed Sopapillas - www.city-data.com/forum/new-mexico/3926-new-mexico-recipes-10.html
For the past 20 years, Cindy Welch has been involved with all aspects of cooking, including formal culinary training, experience as food service director for First Baptist Church of Euless, a personal chef and owner of Cindy’s Casa Cuisine. Cindy’s favorite hobby is
“providing delicious food for the people of Sulphur Springs.”
Her columns cover all aspects of the cooking experience.



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