Santa Fe's cuisine is culturally rich

December 15, 1991|By Christian Science Monitor

Nothing is more warming than Santa Fe's cuisine. A direct descendant of three cultures, Santa Fe cooking celebrates and blends the flavors of American Indian, Hispanic and Anglo history.

The main industry here is the tourist trade, and catering to it are the city's many restaurants, ranging from the Baja Tacos stand, with its inexpensive and delicious tofu tamales, to moderately priced Tomasito's hearty fare to the high art of La Casa Sena or Santacafe.

The foods of the region were discovered and cultivated by Indians: Pinon nuts, chilies, corn, tomatillos, tomatoes, cactus, black beans and pinto beans, many squashes, even potatoes are all New World contributions. Local fish and game like trout, antelope, venison, buffalo, poussin (similar to a game hen), rabbit, pheasant and more grace the better restaurant kitchens. But what really sets Santa Fe cuisine apart is the expansive use of chilies in great variety. Chilies show up in sauces and marinades, in sweet chutneys, jellies and delicious breads, in extravagant potato dishes and in stuffing, salad dressing, salsa and soups.

nTC "There are 20 varieties of chilies in regular use at Casa Sena," says restaurant president Gordon Heis. The influence of Southwestern cuisine has spread to California, he says, and many of the products used in nouvelle cuisine really began in Santa Fe.

Casa Sena's chef, David Jones, says, "I've learned the traditional fare inside out, studies the ingredients. You really have to search out the chilies. I use a lot of northern New Mexican chilies from Chimayo and Dixon. The big jims, a dried red chili, come from Chimayo, for instance."

"Many people think all chilies are hot," says Santacafe's owner, Jim Bibo. "They're not. Some are sweet, some bitter. Many are hot -- some very, very hot." Santacafe's signature dish is a chili brioche that combines fresh pablano with dried red chilies and red bell peppers. It's a tasty, surprising bread served with butter and a cooler, whole-grain bread at all meals.

Mexican cuisine, which combines Indian and Spanish tastes, is heavily in evidence in Santa Fe. But there's a difference. Black beans accompany dishes as often as the ubiquitous refried pinto beans. A delectable fry bread called sopapilla accompanies most meals to cool the heat produced by the fierce little chili, and it can be eaten as a dessert with ice cream or smothered in honey.

The enchiladas (stuffed with beef, chicken or cheese) that absolutely everyone serves here will most likely be made with blue corn tortillas instead of the usual yellow tortilla. Blue corn, an Indian staple, is more nutritious than yellow corn, and seems to be a tad sweeter.

Corn, of course, is an indigenous treasure. In the fall when the harvest is in, corn chowders multiply. But corn breads and tortillas are a year-round staple.

Another Santa Fe staple is the tiny pinon nut, product of a local scrubby pine (pinon) tree. New Mexican pinon nuts are smaller and tastier, according to local chefs, than varieties grown in the Mediterranean and China.

The Spanish brought lamb, cattle and wheat flour to the region. Anglos have contributed a wide variety of vegetables and cheeses. And Indian cultures have provided most of the indigenous ingredients that make Santa Fe cooking so distinctive.

This recipe is from David Jones of La Casa Sena. "The heat from the chilies comes out as you get into the dish," says the chef. He recommends using a free-range or naturally raised bird.

Pinon breaded chicken with chili sauce

Serves four.

CHILI-LINGONBERRY SAUCE:

3 dried mulato chili pods (or use any dried red chilies)

2 tablespoons minced garlic

3 tablespoons minced shallots

3 tablespoons fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme)

1/4 cup olive oil

lingonberries in syrup (cranberries in syrup or fresh raspberries may be used)

2 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup sugar

CHICKEN:

L 2 whole chicken breasts, boneless, skin removed, cut in half

3/4 cup pine nuts, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/2 bunch parsley, chopped

4 egg whites

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup olive oil

Soak chilies in hot water until soft. Remove stems, veins and seeds. Chop to a fine dice and set aside. Saute garlic and shallots in olive oil until they start to brown. Add the chilies and chicken stock and continue to cook over high heat until sauce is thickened. Set aside.

Mix together pine nuts, bread crumbs and parsley. Lightly flour the chicken breast, dip in egg whites, then into pine nuts mixture. Saute the breaded chicken in hot olive oil for 5 minutes on each side or until cooked through. Serve with sauce under the chicken. Garnish with a fresh red jalapeno and steamed baby zucchini.

Note: Blue corn meal, chilies and other Santa Fe products are available by mail. Write for a brochure and price list from: Los

Chileros, P.O. Box 6215, Santa Fe, N.M. 87502.

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