SANTA FE — “Red or green?’’ In New Mexico, those three words make up the official state question. If you want both red and green chili pepper sauce, you ask for “Christmas.’’
“We put them in everything and on everything; it’s what makes our cuisine special,’’ explains Deena Chafetz, a chef and teacher of the “Chile Amor’’ class at the venerable Santa Fe School of Cooking.
After this 90-minute workshop, which costs $50 per person, you are in a better position to decipher menus, know what’s in chili-infused guacamole, carne adovada (pork marinated in red chili), pizza with green chili sauce, and green chili beer. Early on, you can get what we call “chili chap’’: chapped lips from low humidity further irritated by hot food, certainly a rite of passage for any visitor from a more humid climate.
We are 16 students from around the country, unified on our most burning question: Which is hotter, red or green? Her answer: It depends.
“The first thing you need to know is that red and green chilies are not different varieties. They’re the same peppers,’’ Chafetz says, smiling as she sees us novices absorb this new information. “All green peppers eventually turn red. So a hot green pepper will be a hot red pepper. Beyond that, it depends on the plant, the region, the soil, the weather. They can go from mild to very hot. So at a restaurant you need to ask, ‘Which is hotter today?’ It changes from day to day.’’
We learn that green chili sauce is always made from fresh roasted and peeled peppers (they can be frozen after roasting), while red sauce is made from either dried chili pods or chili powder.
“When I say powder, I’m not talking about what you all call chili powder,’’ she says. “Our chili powders are pure. What you use is for chili con carne, which is what the rest of the country calls chili. We New Mexicans do acknowledge its existence, but that’s about it.’’
We divide into groups and work at cooking stations to grill, peel, and dice green peppers, adding them to an onion and garlic mixture, and we make two red chili sauces, one from powder, and the other from pods. We sample them all on homemade tortillas.
“These are your staples,’’ Chafetz says. “Chilies are like wine. Not only do they taste different from different regions, as you get to know the flavors, you pair them with different foods.’’
For now, though, it is enough to know the difference between green and red. Which means that when we stop by the vibrant Santa Fe Farmers’ Market the next day, I have some inkling of what farmer Matt Romero is doing as he turns a large drum over a flame to roast just-harvested green chilies. From August and into October, chili roasters set up shop across the state, at markets and in parking lots, selling charred, peeled and diced chilies by the bushel and infusing the air with an intoxicating aroma. (Bushels of green peppers are also set aside to redden and dry for later use.)
Romero explains the roasting process to photo-snapping tourists as he turns the crank. “We do this roasting in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado,’’ he says. “I don’t think you’ll find it anywhere else. It’s part of our culture.’’
One woman who has stopped at Romero’s stand is hauling off a clear plastic bag filled with about 35 pounds of chopped green chilies. “I’ll take this and divide it into quart size Ziplocs, and they’ll last all winter,’’ explains Shar Jimenez, a Santa Fe resident for 16 years. “I’ll use it over things, as a side, and as a garnish.’’ The heat level, she says, is “good and hot. I’d say a 7 or 8 out of 10. I have a 6-year-old daughter, so we won’t be using it as much as we used to.’’
As she hoists the bag into her back seat, she adds, “It’s also my car freshener. Smell how perfumey and fruity it is?’’
Chafetz had told the class that California Anaheim chilies were the best (but not a perfect) East Coast substitute for fresh New Mexican peppers, but Romero has a better solution. “You want to time your vacation to the harvest, then just double bag a bushel and throw it in your checked luggage.’’
Santa Fe School of Cooking 116 West San Francisco St., Santa Fe, 800-982-4688, www.santafeschoolofcooking.com. Classes start at $50 per person; market on site.
Santa Fe Farmers’ Market 1607 Paseo De Peralta (Santa Fe Railyard), Santa Fe, 505-983-4098, www.santafefarmersmar market.com. Open Sat and Tue, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.