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[whitespace] Holiday Zest

Christmas cuisine in the Land of Enchantment

By Paula Harris

Holidays in the American Southwest may conjure up kitschy visions of blinking red chile lights draped over the Christmas tree, and moon-howling plastic coyotes clad in Santa hats. But that's only part of the story.

The real glory of the holidays in the high desert areas, especially New Mexico, is that they truly deliver a diverse feast for the senses.

Passers-by crunch through the snow that blankets and transforms the plazas of Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque.

Blazing red wreaths and clusters of dried chiles (called ristras) festively adorn the adobe homes.

The farolitos (altar candles) anchored in small, sand-filled brown paper bags line the walkways, windowsills, and rooftops and glow warmly at night.

And the crisp fragrance of piñon logs, burning in hundreds of fireplaces, really invokes the beginning of the holiday season.

Food is a feast in the Southwest at any time of year.

The region is known to seduce even supermodel-sized appetites with its hearty breakfasts of huevos rancheros (corn tortillas topped with fried eggs, cheese, red or green chile and pinto beans), or chorizo burritos, crammed with scrambled eggs, potatoes, and spicy sausage.

Folks develop a craving for the area's bowls of feisty green chile stew, laden with chunks of meat, beans, potatoes and served with steaming jalapeño corn muffins.

For others, the ultraspicy carne adovada (slices of pork marinated in red chile, herbs, and spices and slow-baked until the meat is meltingly tender) is the zesty lure.

And who wouldn't swoon over the warm sopaipillas (puffy, pillow-shaped yeasty pastries), deep-fried and eaten with a generous drizzle of honey, which taste sublime when one needs to douse chile-induced mouth-fire?

But during the holidays, food takes on a special magic.

The spell is woven early in the season by merchants and gallery owners offering hot, spiced cider flavored with raisins and ginger root, accompanied by melt-in-the-mouth, anise-flavored Christmas cookies, known as biscochitos.

Although sometimes mistakenly referred to as Mexican or Tex-Mex food, the dishes commonly identified with New Mexico actually reflect a rainbow of cultures.

"Southwest cooking has Native American influences that you don't find in Mexican cuisine," says Michael Salinger, coordinator of the culinary arts program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

SRJC is offering a course in Southwest cooking beginning Jan. 14 as part of the college's American Regional Cuisine series.

"When you explore Southwest cooking, you find ingredients are used that are indigenous to the United States, Mexico, and Central America, which are often coupled with techniques, such as truly classical French techniques, not at all indigenous to this area," Salinger adds.

This easy availability of ingredients makes Southwestern cooking easy for amateur chefs. "Cilantro, chili, and herbs are a big part of California cuisine," Salinger notes.

And, of course, the presence of a large local Hispanic population makes Southwestern style all the more popular.

It's this multicultural heritage, which blends Indian, Spanish, and Anglo traditions, that causes the Southwest's richly seasoned culinary melting pot to steam and bubble.

"Southwestern food is more integrated. It's a link between Mexican and American cuisines," says Bernadette Burrell, owner and chef at Dempsey's Restaurant and Brewery in Petaluma.

"It's also good beer food," says Burrell, who often incorporates visually appealing Southwestern treats, such as a pasilla chile crammed with polenta, raisins, pine nuts, and jack cheese served over black beans, into her gourmet pub-grub repertoire.

"Southwestern food is full-flavored and good for winter," she adds. "It warms you up."

Indeed, the high desert region boasts many tantalizing varieties of chile pepper, encompassing a wide range of colors, shapes, sizes, and piquancy. The chiles are essential to many recipes and are roasted, stewed, fried, or simply added, plucked fresh from the plant to pack an extra punch.

To many New Mexicans, the look, taste, and aroma of chile stirs the spirit akin to a religious experience.

The main problem for most diehard chile-heads is the excruciating choice they must face in restaurants, deciding between the traditional red or green sauces to accompany the dishes.

The only sensible response is "Christmas!"--a magical phrase known to savvy locals, meaning a sample of each fiery sauce side by side.

"Gimme Christmas!"

Southwestern Style

Here are some recipes to transform your holiday meal into a Southwestern fiesta:

Albuquerque Turkey with Cranberry Salsa

Marinade ingredients:

    3 tbsp. fresh orange juice
    2 tbsp. olive oil
    2 tsp. ground mild red chile
    3 garlic cloves, minced
    1/2 tsp. each dried oregano and salt
    1/4 tsp. each ground cumin and black pepper
    3 turkey breast fillets or tenderloins (1-1 1/4 lbs. total)

Salsa ingredients:

    1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
    2 tbsp. each minced red onion, cilantro, honey, and fresh orange juice
    1/4 orange chopped
    1 fresh jalapeño or serrano chile, seeded and minced
    salt

Cooking instructions:

In a sealable plastic bag, combine marinade ingredients. Add turkey; seal bag and refrigerate two hours. Combine salsa ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate. Preheat grill and grease rack. Lift turkey from marinade. Reserve marinade. Grill turkey 8 to 10 minutes, turning and frequently basting with reserved marinade. Cut fillets into slices and serve ladled with salsa. (Serves 4)

Cheddar Chipotle Mashed Potatoes

Ingredients:

    4 Idaho potatoes
    3 cloves roasted garlic, chopped
    1 c. white cheddar cheese, grated
    2 chipotle chiles, crushed
    1/2 c. cream cheese
    2 tbsp. butter

Cooking instructions:
Dice potatoes and boil until tender. Strain. Whip with remaining ingredients. Season to taste. (Serves 4)

Canyon Road Spiced Cider

Ingredients:

    2 quarts cider of filtered apple juice
    1/3 c. firmly packed brown sugar
    8 whole allspice berries
    8 whole cloves
    3 cinnamon sticks
    2 thin slices fresh ginger
    1 orange
    2 tbsp. raisins
    bamboo skewers

Cooking instructions:

Pour cider into a pan and add sugar. Heat gently. Place allspice, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and ginger in a 12-inch square of cheesecloth. Bring corners together and tie. Drop into cider cover pan and bring to a simmer. After 20 minutes, discard spice bag. Cut orange into 1/8 inch thick slices. Thread 4 or 5 raisins and an orange slice lengthwise onto eight bamboo skewers. Ladle hot cider into cups and place a skewer of fruit in each. (Makes 8 Servings)

(Adapted from Regional American Cooking: Southwest by Jan Nix, HP Books, 1993.)

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From the December 20-26, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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