The Land of Enchantment

I go to New Mexico to be inspired.  The culture, the landscape, the food, the history, the textures, the colours – they’re all threads in a complex and fascinating tapestry.  At first sight New Mexico may be deceiving – a harsh, desolate wilderness where even the plethora of adobe houses somehow fade seamlessly into the landscape beyond leaving you to wonder whether they ever even existed in the first place.  Were they just mirages on the desert floor?   This is the place where dreams of the American Wild West were born and quickly went to die.  But there’s a reason New Mexico is called “The Land of Enchantment.” There’s a magic here, deep and ancient, rooted in traditions that never die.  If you turned New Mexico on her side she would look a bit like a rainbow with harsh red clay soil beneath waves of yellow grass, green sage and piñon pines covering purple mesas under a devastatingly blue sky.  Look a little closer and you’ll see she’s also a land of contradictions.  Soft and hard.  Rich and poor.  Dry and fertile.  Sacred and secular.  Scarred but beautiful – an intoxicating mix of smoke and the aroma of roasted chiles drifting like ghosts through the clear air, carried by the heartbeat of Native American drums.

Santa Fe in Spring

New Mexico in bloom

New Mexico tiles

No one ever travelled to New Mexico and left saying they’d had enough of the food.  I don’t think that’s possible.  Posole, enchiladas, sopapillas, green chili stew.  These are dishes that you don’t simply enjoy once, but pry their way into your gastronomic subconscious, whether by the sheer force of the heat of a Hatch green chili or by the subtle way corn masa envelopes shredded beef and red chili sauce creating the perfect bite… and incidentally, if you’re ever driving through New Mexico and pass someone selling tamales out of the trunk of their car, stop and buy them!  They’ll be the best you’ve ever had.  These things stick with you long after you’ve left the state, like a drug addiction – the more you eat the more you can’t get enough.

New Mexican food is neither “Mexican” nor “Tex-Mex,” but rather a beautiful combination of flavours from Mexico and Spain cooked together with traditional Native American cuisines and traditions.  Similarly, wine from New Mexico is in a league of its own.   The last thing you may think of when someone mentions New Mexico is probably the wine, but New Mexico has been producing some of America’s best wines since the 1600s.  Spanish monks, recognizing the fertility of the soil, the long growing season, the high elevation and the rich terroir, realized that this land of enchantment was ideal for growing grapes.  Smuggling in vines from Spain, they planted the first vineyards there in that red clay soil.  What was, at the time, wine meant only to be used for ceremonial and religious purposes soon became a booming business.

Wineries dot New Mexico from the north to the south.  And I love to spend a lazy afternoon exploring them – they’re almost all open to the public and offer tastings.   Last month we visited Casa Rondeña – which is a beautiful winery set along the verdant banks of the Rio Grande river in the old village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.  It’s an oasis of green snaking through the city of Albuquerque.  The first thing I noticed when we turned down the dirt drive was that even the buildings are adorned with the most striking emerald green roof tiles!   We were there for a tasting just before the vineyards leafed out and I can only imagine how beautiful they must be in late spring and early summer.

Casa Rondeña vineyard

Casa Rondeña

New Mexico in Spring

Wine at Casa Rondeña

Door at Casa Rondeña

Rat-Skinners’ Stew and Tortilla Soup

While I’m on the topic of New Mexican food, let me tell you a little story.  My parents met in New Mexico in college where they were both studying biology.   My dad frequently worked out in the desert for weeks on end, conducting research and studying the wildlife.  Because of this, he and the other biologists in the field we’re given the affectionate nick-name “Rat-Skinners,” though, whether or not they actually skinned rats, I don’t know.  Without a kitchen, they frequently cooked over an open fire and one of their favourite meals was a concoction of canned tamales slathered with canned beef chili and topped with a can of corn.  This delicacy became know as “Rat-Skinners’ Stew.”  Not a very appetizing name, for sure, but as kids, my dad often prepared this for my brother and me – and we loved it!  It was one of the very first things I learned how to “cook” as a child, if you can consider opening a couple of cans and heating them on the stove “cooking.”   The ingredients were always in our pantry.   You could certainly make a healthier version by picking up some tamales from a street vendor and drowning them in homemade chili – but then I don’t think it could really be called “Rat-Skinners’ Stew.”

I know, it’s not a real New Mexican recipe, so let me share one that is.  My grandparents lived in the mountains just outside of Santa Fe, and whenever we would visit, my grandmother would welcome us with a huge pot of tortilla soup, simmering on the stove.  This was often the first thing we ate when we visited New Mexico and I have such fond memories of driving through their little village at night, looking out the window, searching for the lights of their house and knowing that a big, spicy bowl of soup was waiting.  These days I make this soup when I’m craving a taste of New Mexico.  I’ve made this for lunch a few times since we’ve been back, and it pairs perfectly with the bold “Meritage” red blend from Casa Rondeña.  When it comes to pairing New Mexican food with wine, all the traditional rules (white with chicken, red with meat, etc.) go out the window, not that I was ever one for following them in the first place.  Instead, I like to look at wine and food in the same way I look at the elements of a photograph – white will accentuate the highlights while red will define the shadows.  The complexity of the spices and the heat of the chiles in this soup cater to a big, bold red.  Having said that, though, were you to serve this soup with a sweeter white it would bring out nuances in the flavours that might otherwise be lost.  It’s up to you.

I hope you don’t mind my little departure from French-inspired recipes to share this family favourite!

New Mexican Chicken Tortilla Soup

New Mexican Chicken Tortilla Soup

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
1 (4 oz) can diced hatch green chilis
1 can fire roasted tomatoes
1 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 TBSP honey
6 cups chicken broth
2 limes, juiced
a large handful fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
grated Monterey Jack cheese
tortilla chips

Heat the oil in a large soup pot.  Sauté the onion until it begins to soften.  Add the jalapeño and the garlic and cook a minute longer.  Add the green chilis, tomatoes, cumin, chili powder and honey.  Stir in the broth and bring to a simmer.

Rinse the chicken under cool water and carefully slide it into the simmering broth.  Poach the chicken in the broth for 20 – 25 minutes, until cooked through.  Remove the chicken to a plate to cool and cover the soup to keep it gently simmering.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it using two forks and stir it back into the soup.  Stir in the lime juice and a large handful of cilantro.  Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.  Ladle the soup into bowls and top each serving with a little cheese and some broken tortilla chips.  Place the remaining chips in a bowl on the table so that people can add more as needed.

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