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Chile spice of life in New Mexico

Fresh chiles in Albuquerque

Valerie Ryan for the Boston Globe

Fresh chiles in Albuquerque.

Valerie Ryan for the Boston Globe

Chile ristras on display.

ALBUQUERQUE — Long, hot summer days are over, but the heat of the season endures in the local harvest. Green chiles, which turn red when ripe, are the foundation of the Southwestern state’s spicy cuisine, the signature of the stark, striking desert landscape, and the unassuming emblem of multicultural identity.

Food here, based on Native American, Spanish, and Mexican cooking traditions, is history made tangible. Historian and author Dave DeWitt says chile seeds were brought from Mexico by the Spanish who founded Santa Fe in 1598. Local Pueblo peoples and Spanish farmers began to incorporate the peppers into staple foods: corn, beans, and squash. “Chile peppers completely influenced the cuisine, even more so than in Mexico.”

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Today, New Mexican food is distinct from that of other Southwestern states. A typical dish might be enchiladas, but order them in New Mexico, and they are different than those in Texas or Arizona. That’s all because of the type of chile and how it’s used, says DeWitt. What differentiates New Mexican cuisine is that chiles are eaten as food, not just as flavor enhancers. Chile relleno, or stuffed chile, is a dish of whole chiles filled with cheese, then battered, fried, and topped with an almost pure chile sauce. In other states, chile sauce is thickened and more like gravy, or cooks use different types of peppers, DeWitt says.

New Mexicans’ enchantment with their chile crop is apparent in the bustle at roadside stands and produce markets this time of year. To enhance the fruity pungency of green chiles and make the skins easy to remove, vendors roast them while customers wait, turning the pods over flames in large, hand-cranked steel mesh barrels. The smoky aroma filling the autumn air is not just pleasant, it’s expected. Chiles ripened to bright red hues are dried in long decorative ristras, preserving the piquant, sweet flavor for year-round use.

Locals stockpile both types. Freezers brim with bags of roasted green chiles, and welcoming ristras of fresh red hang in kitchens and on front porches. Restaurants also stock up. Waiters and waitresses everywhere join in the collective chorus, “Red or green?” This, in fact, is the state’s official query, which comes when you order a traditional dish like stacked enchiladas or stuffed sopaipillas. Indecisive diners-in-the-know reply, “Christmas,” and get both.

Valerie Ryan for the Boston Globe

Green chiles are roasted.

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To make the most of the uncompromising desert climate and soil, chile farmers work with local academics to tackle issues like low yields and disease, but the priority is a distinctive New Mexican flavor. Paul Bosland, director and cofounder of New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, works with growers, even asking them to taste new varieties in the field. Bosland says that chiles are still grown on family farms passed down through generations. “Chile saved the family farm in New Mexico,” he says.

In his lab, Bosland finds remarkable correlations between farmers’ top picks and peppers grown from seeds of historic varieties. Selection for higher-yield, disease-resistant peppers that maintain the flavor of the past has paid off. Chile is now a major player in the state’s economy.

Bosland likens chiles to wine. “Once you taste good wine, you won’t like the cheap stuff any more. Once you taste great chile, you won’t want anything else.”

Valerie Ryan can be reached at valerie.ryan.j@gmail.com.
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