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Why New Mexican Cuisine is So Special

By Jane Butel  June 13, 2023

Did you know that the culinary of New Mexico is the first of ALL the Americas?  The ancient history goes like this.  Most believe that during the Ice Age or thereabouts when humans could wade across the Bering Strait out of Mongoliia, they came to the Americas and trekked down through what are now Alaska and Canada.  When in Canada, they followed the electro magnetic shock waves of the Canadian Rockies that led them South.

As they kept going down through what is now the USA, still following the Rocky Mountains--they came to warmer weather and the waters of what is now the Rio Grande.  At that time the Rio Grande was huge, like an inland sea.  These early people settled there and found nourishment from the local vegetation.   Their essentially vegetarian diet  or cuisine consisted of less than 10 food groups.

First, were the night shades--chiles, which were the preserving and flavoring agent, potatoes (a source of starch), and tomatoes.

Second, was the trilogy of the cuisine---corn (which was the most important source of food), legumes (such as beans which would grow up the corn stalk in areas of poor soil) and gourds which were all manner of melons and squash.

Third--flavoring agents which were wild garlic and onions--both member of the lily family.

Fourth and lastly was mint, often referred to as the good herb or yerba bueno which was both a source of medicinals and flavors.

Today's New Mexican cuisine does not veer very far from the path of these basics.

The Spanish brought the most important source of domestic large animal protein which was hogs.  To this day,  probably the most popular meat is pork which is served in many forms--Carne Adobado being one of the most popular.  Carne for short was started because the only way they could keep the pork for any length of time was to rub quantities of red chile into the butchered carcas along with garlic and wild oregano.   The chile rubbed carcas was then placed tightly into the hide and burried 10 feet or so below the surface of the earth where it would keep for quite a while.  This is still how carne is made today--but of course not placed in the hide or buried.

In my weekend, week long and red chile classes we make Carne Adobado--a real treat!

We are adding several classes for the rest of the summer, featuring chiles in many delightful and tasty forms.  Remember, chile is a health and life preserver!

On July 7 - 9 is our next weekend class, followed by a Red Chile Fiesta on July 13 and another Green Chile class on July 27.  In August, we are going to have a fun,  Creative Taco class, and on August 24, the popular New Mexico Favorites.

Here's two quick and easy recipes to enjoy--


Pecans grow all over the Southwest. The richness of pecans tinged with tart lemon and tarragon is delicious. This can be served with grilled vegetables.

Yield: 6 servings

Lemon-Pecan Butter (see below)

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Salt and freshly ground white or black pepper

6 sprigs flat-leaf parsley or tarragon

Lemon-Pecan Butter

¼ cup pecans

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

Zest of 1 lemon, minced

2 teaspoons fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice.

  1. Prepare the Lemon-Pecan Butter, called a compound butter and chill in the freezer.
  2. While the butter is chilling, brush chicken with lemon juice and melt butter, and season lightly with salt and pepper.
  3. Preheat grill to medium or 350°. Place rack 4 inches above heat
  4. Arrange chicken on rack: grill 6 minutes. Turn and grill 5 to 6 minutes or until juices run clear when chicken is pierced with a knife and the interior is 185°.
  5. To serve, place 1 breast half on a plate and top with 2 thin slices Lemon-Pecan Butter. Garnish with parsley.

Finely grind pecans in a blender or food processor. Add butter, lemon zest, tarragon and lemon juice and process until combined. Place on a plastic wrap or waxed paper, forming into a log about 1 inch in diameter. Refrigerate until firm. (Freeze if time is short)


Here green chiles supply the capsaicin or spiciness. Green chiles are merely unripe red chiles and possess the same measure of capsaicin as though they were red, ripe chiles. This quick to make main dish salad, complements of convenience or deli ingredients, is a quick and healthy, spicy entrée for lunch or dinner.

Yield: 4 servings

1 6-ounce package southwestern-flavored rice mix

¼ pound boneless, skinless deli chicken, diced

1 4-ounce can diced green chiles

¼ cup jalapeno Lime Cream Dressing

Optional garnishes: ¼ cup ripe olives, sliced; 1 head of red or green leaf lettuce, rinsed and torn into bite-size pieces

1. Cook the rice according to package directions. Set aside to cool. 

2. Place the chicken, chiles, pepper, and rice in a large bowl and toss with the salad dressing. Add the olives, if desired. To serve, divide the salad among 4 plates, on top of the lettuce, if using.

Per serving: Calories 333, Protein 32 g, Carbohydrates 38 g, Fiber 4 g, Fat 7 g, Saturated Fat 3 g, Cholesterol 80 mg, Sodium 767 mg, (Analyzed with 1 Tablespoon butter called for in the package of rice mix)


1 cup plain yoghurt or ¼ cup nonfat sour cream with ¼ cup skim milk whisked in

1 or 2 jalapenos, minced

¼ cup cilantro, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice (1/2 lime)

½ teaspoon lime zest

1. Combine the yoghurt, jalapenos, cilantro, lime juice, and zest. Whisk together, or place in a jar and shake. This dressing will keep at least 2 weeks covered in the refrigerator.



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