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Red or Green? Chile that is!

Go to any New Mexican restaurant and order a New Mexican meal and this will be the question.

You are now going to learn what the difference is, what the history is and what you may want to or not want to try.

Chile peppers are not members of the pepper family. Chile terminology is confusing: pepper, chili, chile, chilli, Aji, paprika and Capsicum are used interchangeable for "chile pepper" plants. Chile peppers are actually part of the Capsicum genus. The word Capsicum comes from the Greek language meaning "to bite." In Mexico, Central America and the Southwestern United States, it is referred to as a chile pepper.

What causes the burning sensation is the alkaloid capsaicin. It is very stable and can retain a certain heat level regardless if it is cooked, dried or frozen. Many varieties of the Capsicum species are not hot, or pungent.

It is thought that chile peppers made their first appearance around 7000 BC in Central Mexico. The first European to discover chiles was Christopher Columbus in 1493. He was looking for another type of black pepper. What he found were small hot pods that had been used as seasoning by the Native Americans. He called them Pimientos meaning black peppers in the Spanish language. The chiles were then introduced into the European community. To this day, the popularity of chile peppers has increased dramatically

For the most part, green chiles are fresh, while red ones are dried. As with everything concerning chiles, there are a few exceptions to this rule of thumb. All chiles start off as green. As they ripen, they turn red or yellow. Most red chiles are then dried and must be reconstituted in hot liquid before use. But sometimes a chile, such as the jalapeno, habanero or serrano, will become red and still be used in its fresh form.

On a scale of hot rating (Scoville Rating) from 0 to 300,000 the New Mexico chile is rated between 500 – 1000..

New Mexico peppers are mild to moderate in heat, hotter and richer in flavor and are preferred for many uses in dried form; New Mexico Red chiles are mild with a simple earthy flavor with a hint of cherry.

New Mexico has twelve chile producing counties, with Dona Ana County leading. Chiles are the state's top cash crop and New Mexico ranks first in the amount produced and acreage planted; double that of its competitor, California.

Hatch in southern New Mexico is where much of the New Mexico chili crop is grown. Hatch is called the Chile Capital of the world and has its annual Hatch Chile festival on Labor Day weekend.

In New Mexico when ordering chile with your meal the chile is typically the Hatch Chile. The green ones are usually roasted and the red ones are dried before they are used in cooking.

Remember this when asked red or green? Or Christmas? The green is hotter and the red is a more pungent but not so hot a taste. Christmas is both red and green for those of you who want to try both so you can make the decision as to what you like.

At the Santa Fe School of Cooking they use the New Mexican Chile in many of their New Mexican recipes. You might want to check out their schedule when you visit to see what types of classes you can take and learn to cook with chiles.

So here are some of the restaurants in Santa Fe that have a incredible dishes where the chiles are a major component: The Pink Adobe which features the Steak Dunigan with green chiles, Café Pasquals which features their Blue Lady Enchiladas for lunch and Spinach, Jack Cheese and Red Onion Enchiladas for dinner. The Authentic Northern New Mexico restaurant where the locals go is El Comedor; there you will find their entire menu of lunch and dinner with choices of red and green chiles everywhere.

When you go to New Mexico you will see many a set of hanging red chiles in front of houses. This has become a decoration, but started out as a drying method. Many beautiful wreaths, Christmas decorations, and gifts are made in New Mexico with these dried red chiles. The Chile Shop in Santa Fe is a great shop to see these items as well as many street side vendors.

Whether you are eating the chiles of New Mexico, or buying them for decoration, they will always bring enjoyment when you come to visit the Land of Enchantment.

Eileen Richardson

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