What sets New Mexican food apart from other cuisines is the custom of incorporating chile peppers — whether crushed, roasted, pickled, fresh, dried or powdered — into just about any dish. These fruits thrive in New Mexico because of the hot, dry days and steady, cool temperatures at night due to the state’s high altitude.
Red and green sauces are drawn from the same peppers at different levels of ripeness.
It is a popular belief that chiles get hotter as they ripen, but the heat of each pepper is dependent on where it is grown.
Farmers pick the chiles green off the plant; they can then be roasted and peeled to make dishes such as rellenos or cut into chunks to make sauces, but the alternative is to let the peppers dry until they turn a dark, leathery red. Most people regard bundles of these dried chiles, known as ristras, as the design element that epitomizes Southwestern charm.
Most Americans are familiar with green Hatch chiles, sourced from farms in the town of Hatch and other villages in the fertile Rio Grande Valley, in the southern part of the state. On this visit, though, I was introduced to a rare, hard-to-get strain of chile.
On our drive along the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos, we stopped to visit Chimayó, a town in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains known for its weaving culture, a santuario with a reputation for miraculous healing and its peerless chile peppers. The heirloom chiles grown here are smaller, skinnier and often twisted or knotted. They are much harder to process and peel, thanks to their misshapen form and very thin skin. Chimayó peppers are grown by individual families who have passed the seeds down through generations, and only about 500 acres are harvested annually. This elusive product is coveted by chile pepper aficionados and jealously protected by local farmers.
The authentic Chimayó chile is available only briefly, in October and November. As a caution to those who believe everything can be found online, many websites sell what is labeled as powdered Chimayó chile. These are usually peppers grown using Chimayó seeds in nonnative areas. You have not tried a true Chimayó pepper unless it has been grown on native land. It is worth the journey to understand how one type of chile can be so revered.