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Two Essential Herbs for Traditional New Mexican Cooking

By Jane Butel  September 29, 2021

There are two herbs most frequently used in New Mexican cooking.  One has been here a very long time  and is one of the essential less than 10 food groups from which the ancients developed a cuisine.  The other was brought here by the early Spanish Conquistadores arriving in New Mexico in the middle of the 16th century.

The first is Mexican Oregano which grows wild in the foothills of New Mexico down into Mexico.  Mexican Oregano is a member of the mint family which is the earliest known herb used in traditional New Mexican cuisine.  Mexican Oregano  is more mint like than Italian, Greek  or Mediterranean Oregano.  In fact if you do not have Mexican Oregano--do not substitute Mediterranean Oregano which is much stronger and competitive with the chile flavors.

Mexican Oregano has  rather broad leafed plants averaging about a foot tall  and has velvet-like leaves and lavender colored blossoms, somewhat reminiscent of red clover.

The other popular herb in New Mexican cookery is cumin which is not indigenous to the Americas and grows mostly in the Middle East.  In fact despite many attempts to get cumin to grow here, it just doesn't.  Cumin is much stronger than Mexican Oregano and once ground needs refrigeration to keep fresh.  (Mexican Oregano benefits from refrigeration storage also, but it is not as critical.)  Cumin is often called the chili herb, being very important in chili con carnes.  It is also excellent in Posole and a number of chile dishes.  When cooking with cumin, to get the greatest benefit from the flavor, add only half the required amount when cooking, adding the balance just before serving.  Just stir it in and serve. 

Right now is chili competition time, so if competing, remember to split the addition of cumin and you'll be surprised at the benefit of flavor it brings.  To get a strong cumin essence, some cooks add more cumin and more cumin to gain the flavor they are looking for.  It just won't happen that way.  When cumin stales and lacks the fresh flavor, it should be discarded.  Adding more just increases a horrible bitter taste.

The best way to store herbs and ground spices is in glass jars in either the refrigerator or the freezer and they will stay fresh and good as long as you have them.

To celebrate the use of these two herbs, I am placing them on a 25% off special.

This coming Monday, October 4, we have another special Green Chile class and the next weekend, October 8 - 10,  we have a weekend  cooking school.  I am extending our 20% off special for both.  

Here's a  couple of chile/chili recipes using one or both herbs. 


NAVAJO GREEN CHILE STEW

Green Chile StewBeware, chile novices—you may be too green for this green chili. It is a favorite of the Navajos and they like it hot. Go light on the chiles when starting out—you can always add more. Serve this with Bear Paw Bread (Pueblo Indian French style bread) or generously buttered hot flour tortillas.

Yield: 8 to 12 servings

3 pounds pork shoulder, fat and bone removed (reserve the fat), cut into ½ inch cubes

1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 ½ teaspoons salt

3 medium-size onions, coarsely chopped

4 medium-size cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 cans (14 ½ ounces each) whole tomatoes, chopped, liquid reserved

20 fresh green chiles, parched, peeled, and cut crosswise into 1 inch wide strips

(to equal about 4 cups; see Note)

½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

  1. Melt the pork fat in a heavy straight-sided 5-quart pot over medium high heat.
  1. Combine the flour and salt in a paper bag. Add the pork cubes and shake bag to coat them with flour. Shake the excess flour off the pork cubes. Add the pork to the pot, a third at a time, and cook, stirring, until the cubes are evenly browned on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. As they are browned, transfer the pork cubes to a bowl and set aside.
  1. Add the onions and garlic to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
  1. Return the pork to the pot, stir in the tomatoes, their liquid, and 3 cups water, and bring to a boil. Then lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes.
  1. Uncover the pot, add the chiles and oregano, and cook for another 30 minutes. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Notes: If you can’t find fresh chiles, use 2 cans (16 ounces each) whole green chiles. Drain them seed them, and cut them crosswise into 1-inch slices.

Reprinted with permission from Chili Madness by Jane Butel

GREEN CHILE TURKEY CHILI WITH A MARGARITA SPLASH

Leftover roast turkey makes a marvelous curtain call when served in this chili. Lacking any leftover turkey, or roast turkey from a deli, quickly saute ground turkey for about 2 minutes in the microwave oven or a bit longer on the stovetop. You can vary this chili in endless ways—for instance, by using navy or cannellini beans or red chiles instead of the green. Serve with warm corn or flour tortillas for a complete light meal. This is a “Sunday Best” recipe.

 COOKING TIME: 15 minutes

YIELD: 4 servings 

1 medium onion, chopped

1 14½-ounce can low-sodium, low-fat chicken broth

1 4-ounce can chopped green chiles

1 15¼ ounce can black beans

2 cups chopped, cooked turkey or 1 pound ground skinless turkey breast or chicken, sauteéd (see *Note)

1½ teaspoons ground cumin 

optional garnishes

1 lime

Jigger of tequila 

  1. Place the onions in a cold, heavy saucepan. Saute over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes, or until the onion starts to brown on the edges. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, or until the onion darkens or caramelizes in its own juices. Immediately add the broth, chiles, beans, turkey, and half the cumin. Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes—then stir in the other half of the cumin.
  2. Serve with about a teaspoon or so each of freshly squeezed lime juice and tequila. 

*NOTE: To saute the ground turkey in the microwave oven, break up the lumps, place in a microwavable bowl, and cover. Cook on high for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir and cook longer if needed. To cook on the stovetop, place the turkey (as above) in a cold, well-seasoned skillet and saute over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes. 

PER SERVING: Calories 241, Protein 29 g, Carbohydrates 21 g, Fiber 7 g, Fat 5 g, Saturated Fat 2 g, Cholesterol 55 mg, Sodium 763 mg. (Analyzed without the tequila or lime juice.)

See  the full archive of  Jane's Southwest Recipes .

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