New Mexico Chile

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by Nancy Gerlach, Food Editor Emeritus 

Fresh New Mexican Chiles


  • Chile Colorado (Basic Red Chile Sauce)

  • Posole (Red Chile, Pork, and Dried Corn Stew)

  • Green Chile Sauce

  • Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas with Green Chile Sauce

  • Calabacitas (Squash and Corn with Green Chile)

Fall in New Mexico is glorious! The monsoons have passed, leaving the state green and wild flowers blooming, the days are mild, the nights cool, and the morning sky is filled with brightly colored hot air balloons. Best of all, it’s New Mexico chile harvest time–the tastiest time of the year! The beginning of fall heralds the arrival of the chile roasters on street corners and in front of grocery stores announcing the new chile crop is here. The aroma of roasting chiles fills the air until the first frost when the green chile turns red. Toward the end of September the new, bright red ristras can be seen hanging from balconies and porches, and red chile pods are spread on roof tops to dry.

Chile is so important to New Mexico that it’s been declared the state vegetable, even though it’s really a fruit. This is a fairly mild type of long green chile that turns red in the fall and is used in both the green and red states–the green being the immature pods and the red the mature. They belong to a pod type of chile that is grown in the northern states of Mexico, especially around Chihuahua, and is imported into the U.S. It’s also grown extensively in New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Formerly called an ‘Anaheim’ chile because it was transplanted to California in the early 1900s, the history of this chile in New Mexico dates back to the 1500s. Most people credit Juan de Oñate, the Spaniard who founded Santa Fe in 1609, with bringing cultivated chiles into the area, but it may have been Antonio Espejo who introduced them to the Pueblo Indians during his earlier expedition of 1582. Whenever the Spanish explored new territories, they always included farmers that could be established along the way to plant crops that would insure there would be food available when they returned along the routes. So either expedition could take the credit for bringing chiles from Mexico. What is known however, is that after the Spanish arrived, chile growing exploded all over “Nuevo Mexico.” It’s likely many different early forms of jalapeños, serranos, anchos, and pasillas were grown, but one variety adapted very well– the long green chile.

This chile has been cultivated here for hundreds of years with such dedication that several distinct varieties developed. These varieties, or “land races,” called ‘Chimayo’ and ‘Espanola’ adapted to particular environments and are still planted today in the same fields they were grown in centuries ago; they constitute a small but distinct part of the tons of pods produced each year in New Mexico. The chile breeding program at New Mexico State University has further developed a number of varieties in response to the needs of both the industry and consumers. It began with crossing the New Mexico chile with one from Peru to produce the No. 6 which changed the image of the chile from a ball of fire to one that could be enjoyed by many, not just those of the cast iron gullets. Thanks to NMSU we now have the ‘Big Jim’, a large, thick-fleshed, straight chile which is excellent for stuffing, the ‘No. 6-4′. which is the most commonly grown in New Mexico, the ‘Joe E Parker’, an improved 6-4 variety that was developed for the canners, as well as the hot ‘Sandia’, the hotter ‘Barkers’, and others.

All the basic dishes in traditional New Mexican cuisine contain chile: sauces, salsas, stews, enchiladas, tamales, carne adovada, and many combination vegetable dishes. What makes this cuisine so unique from the surrounding states is that chiles are not used only as a seasoning, instead they comprise a main ingredient. And the most essential component in New Mexico cuisine is the chile sauce–both red and green. These are simple sauces containing only chile with a little garlic and some herbs; both are lightly seasoned so that nothing overpowers the flavor of the chile. The chile is always the most important ingredient. So whether you prefer red or green or if you’re like me and like them both, experiment with the following recipes and enjoy the taste of the New Mexican chile.

Chile Colorado (Basic Red Chile Sauce)

The chiles that are traditionally used for this sauce are the ones pulled off the ristras or strings of dried chiles. Ristras are not just used for decoration–this is one method of sun drying or preserving the fall chile crop for use throughout the year. Use this sauce in a number of dishes, as a topping for enchiladas and tacos, as a basis for stews like posole, or any recipe that calls for a red sauce.

  • 10 to 12 dried red New Mexican chiles

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 2 to 3 cups beef broth (optional), or water

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • Pinch of ground cumin

  • Salt to taste

Arrange the chile pods on a baking pan and place in a 250-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until the chiles become very aromatic, being careful not to let them burn. Remove the stems and seeds and place the pods into a bowl.

Cover the chiles with very hot water and allow them to steep for 15 to 20 minutes to soften. Drain the chiles and discard the water.

In a heavy saucepan, saute the onion and garlic in the oil until soft. Add the chiles and a couple cups of water or broth and simmer for 10 minutes.

Place all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Strain the mixture, if desired, for a smoother sauce. If the sauce is too thin, place it back on the stove and simmer until it is reduced to the desired consistency, or if too thick, add more water or broth.

Adjust the seasonings and serve.

Yield: 2½ to 3 cups

Heat Scale: Medium to Hot

Posole (Red Chile, Pork, and Dried Corn Stew)

Treating corn with lime to remove the tough skins was probably a technique the early Meso-American cultures passed on to the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. This corn, called posole, is the basis of this dish of the same name. A traditional dish during the holiday season, it is considered to bring good luck through the year if eaten on New Year’s Eve. Any cubed pork will be fine in this recipe but I like to use the chops so I can flavor the stew with the bones. Posole is served both with the chile in the stew and also with the sauce on the side. I serve it with some chile sauce in the stew and additional sauce on the side for guests to at their own discretion. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 8 ounces dry posole

  • 1 ½ pounds thick-cut pork chops, fat removed, cubed, bones reserved

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (if needed)

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 quart pork or chicken broth

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • 3 cups Chile Colorado Sauce (recipe above)

  • Salt to taste

Put the posole in a large pot and cover with water so that there is a couple inches of water above the posole. Soak the posole overnight.

Bring the pot with the posole to a boil, add the pork bones, and reduce the heat. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Add 3 cups of the broth to the pot.

In a heavy skillet, brown the pork, adding a little oil if necessary. Add the pork and the bones to the posole. Saute the onions and garlic in the same pan until they start to brown, remove and add to the posole. Pour the remainder of the broth into the skillet, raise the heat, deglaze the pan and add to the posole. Season with the oregano and salt to taste.

Add some of the chile sauce to the posole and simmer until the corn starts to “pop” and the meat is very tender, to the point of falling apart.

Remove the bones and serve in bowls accompanied by warm flour tortillas and the remaining chile sauce on the side.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium to Hot

Green Chile Sauce

This is another classic all-purpose sauce that is basic to the cuisine of New Mexico. It has its roots in the southern part of the state where the bulk of the green chile is grown. This is a lightly flavored sauce with a pungency that ranges from medium to wild depending on the heat of the chiles. Pour the sauce over chiles rellenos, enchiladas, beans, or simply eat it from a bowl because it tastes so good.

  • 1 small onion, chopped

  • 1 garlic clove, minced

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1 to 1 ½ cups chopped green New Mexico chile, roasted and peeled

  • 1 small tomato, peeled and chopped

  • 2 to 3 cups chicken broth

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and saute the onion and garlic until soft.

Add the chile, tomato, broth, and cumin. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the sauce for 10 minutes. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and continue to simmer for an additional 5 to 10 minutes to thicken.

Adjust the seasonings and serve.

Yield: 2 to 2 ½ cups

Heat Scale: Medium to Hot

Variation: Adding finely diced pork or beef, omitting the tomatoes, or thickening with a roux of flour and oil, are all popular variations.

Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas with Green Chile Sauce

In New Mexico, enchiladas can be rolled or flat and stacked, made with yellow or blue corn tortillas, filled with any number of ingredients, and smothered in chile sauce. After you decide to order enchiladas here, there are still decisions to be made. First, blue or regular referring to the type of tortilla, rolled or stacked, red or green chile sauce and, if you can’t decide and want both sauces, order “Christmas.” And finally you may order them with a fried egg on top, which is true New Mexican fare.


  • 2 chicken breasts

  • 2 small onions, chopped

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 whole cloves

  • 1 cup sour cream

  • 1/4 cup black olives, chopped

  • 2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese

  • Vegetable oil for frying

  • 8 corn tortillas

  • 2 cups Green Chile Sauce (recipe above)

  • Chopped fresh lettuce and tomatoes, and sour cream for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large pot, cover the chicken, ½ of the onions, garlic, and cloves with cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes. Remove the chicken. Strain and reserve the broth for use in the sauce. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and bones, and shred.

To assemble: Place a little of the sauce in the bottom of a baking dish. To soften the tortillas, pour the oil in a pan to a depth of about a 1/4-inch and heat until hot enough so that a drop of water in the oil will sputter. Dip a tortilla briefly in hot oil to soften, remove and drain. Next dip the tortilla in the sauce and place on the baking pan. Place some of the chicken down the center of the tortilla, top with some chopped onions, sour cream, olives, and cheese over the chicken, and roll. Ending with the flap side down in the pan.

Pour additional sauce over the enchiladas and bake for 5 to 10 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

Garnish with the lettuce and tomatoes, and top with a dollop of sour cream.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Calabacitas (Squash and Corn with Green Chile)

For hundreds of years squash and corn have been the staples of the Pueblo Indians in northern New Mexico, and in this popular dish, they are combined with chile. The delicate flavor of the corn and squash with the bite of the chile is a combination that can act as a basis for other variations. Use different types of summer squash, add cheese such as cheddar, Monterey jack, or feta, and/or chicken to turn this recipe from a side dish into an entree.

  • 2 zucchini squash, sliced

  • ½ small white onion, sliced and separated into rings

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

  • 2 cups cooked whole kernel corn

  • ½ cup chopped green New Mexican chile, roasted and peeled

  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • 1/4 to ½ cup heavy cream

  • Salt to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and saute the squash and onion for a couple of minutes. The squash should be tender but not be soft.

Add the corn, chile, and oregano to the pan and saute for 2 minutes. Stir in the cream and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes to blend the flavors.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild to Medium

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