Unpacking Santa Fe: Smoked Chiles, a Vintage Saltillo Serape & Other Treasures


I couldn’t say “no” to freshly ground dried red chiles, a jar of sultry chamiso honey, a beeswax Buddha candle, a late 19th century serape and yes, two rolls of garden twine. In Santa Fe, the shopping gene just won’t quit.

Just back from Santa Fe, opening the battered boxes I found on the doorstep this afternoon.

As usual, they’re full of forgotten surprises, not least the bag of homegrown black beans that sprang a leak.

I know they’ll be delicious once I get them in the pot, but right now the errant beans have hidden themselves amongst bags of freshly ground chiles and other treasures that came East.

While picking the beans out of the box, one by one, I’ve been asking myself:  Is travel shopping an exercise in futility? Is it a just a compulsive attempt to seize something that is by its very nature, evanescent?

It probably stems from the same urge that leads me to take hundreds of photos, in hopes of finding the one to share with the rest of the world…via Instagram.

In the case of Santa Fe, it’s easy to bring the tastes and smells of New Mexican cooking to my own kitchen, but how do we summon up the colors of fiery mountain sunsets or a field of orange poppies once we’ve left the scene? Sadly I can’t transform our house into a sensuous adobe abode, but that levitating stone Buddha may well remind me of the day we got lost on a dirt road in the desert—and stumbled upon an adobe storehouse filled with Asian gems.

In my heart I know that material objects can only take me so far, but then, what do you know?  That plume of sultry Bhutanese incense is even now conjuring up the seventh century temple—Kiyuchu Lakhang—where one afternoon, we stopped to light 108 butter lamps for the people we love.

Ditto for the cunning temple tigers from Bangkok, the Turkish rugs from Istanbul , the Portuguese tile parrots sitting in a fruit tree.  Each carries a kernel of memory that can send me traveling, at least for an hour or two.



And so it is with these bowls of frijoles from the farmer’s market.

The next time I simmer savory Black Beans with Smoky Bacon, Green Pepper and Garlic—I’ll also remember Mr. Mendez, the quiet, mustachioed farmer who brought them to Santa Fe from his fields in El Guique, a town north of Espanola not far from the Rio Grande River. Together we shivered in a cold gusty wind that nearly blew away the white roof of his stand, as he carefully scooped his beautiful beans into a couple of bags.

Did the farmer wonder if the trip to the half-empty market in Santa Fe that Saturday morning was worth it? I’m glad he came since I know his plump, new crop pinto beans will make exceptional frijoles borrachos, a “drunken” bean stew simmered with lots of garlic, cilantro and a splash of Negro Modelo.

By the way, did you notice those purplish blue corn kernels?  That would be hominy, which is just begging me to make a vat of posole, a delicious pre-Columbian Mexican stew that’s become one of B’s favorite dishes.  Hominy is made from dried field corn that has been soaked in powdery white  lime (calcium hydroxide) to loosen the tough hulls from the kernels of the corn.  When you cook the corn with pork, chiles and other seasonings, the kernels swell up and become soft and chewy, absorbing all the delicious flavors in the pot.

But first you have to remove the hulls: “Just pour boiling water over the corn and let it soak for about 20 minutes.  Then you can rub off the skins and use it,” said the high-octane vendor who was selling hominy corn at the far end of the market. “Then what?” I asked. He grinned at me through his reflective blue sunglasses: “Oh, you can use them with everything, soup, vegetables, whatever you want,” he laughed as he handed me a bag of bright red freshly ground chile colorado. “Happy Mother’s Day!”

How did he know?



Clockwise from the top left: dried red chile colorado; medium hot red New Mexican chile; smoked, coarsely ground green chipotle; smoked green chile; sundried red chile; and smoked Anaheim chile.

It was so windy that I was about to call it a day when a fast-talking, supernaturally persuasive farmer named Jesus Guzman convinced me to hang in there while I tried every one of the dozen or more dried and ground peppers he had for sale. That included not just the traditional New Mexican red and green chiles, available in mild, medium and hot, but a startling array of coarsely ground, home-smoked peppers including  Anaheims, sundried red chiles and green chipotles—aka green jalapenos that have been smoked, then dried and ground.

What I immediately noticed about the smoked chiles is that they would make a fantastic substitute for smoked Spanish paprika, just right for adding a little peppery heat to roasted vegetables, a vinaigrette, or for stirring into soups and stews.

Mr Guzman’s dried peppers—smoked or not—are grown without chemicals or pesticides. The heat varies from mild to scorching hot, depending on the type of chile, but all the ground chiles taste of the fruit from which they came. They are exceptionally sweet, and occasionally tangy. You can almost taste the flavor of the sun in which they are grown.



Of course, I then had to go at once to Garcia Street Books, one of my favorite Santa Fe bookshops, for help in using everything I bought at the market. Can you believe it?  The New Mexico Farm Table Cookbook by Sharon Neiderman, features 100 recipes from farmers and restaurants around the state with the very sorts of ingredients in my bag.  Among the recipes I’ll be trying very soon are Shepherd’s Lamb Green Chile Stew and Rancho de Chimayo Classic Red Chile (3/4 cup of ground red chile!), not to mention Hotel St. Bernard Sesame-Chile Dressing.



By now, the compulsive shopping gene was in full force.

At Modern General, a quirky new shop where you can drink smoothies at tree stump tables while perusing curated cooking and garden tools, I was taken with a seriously gnarled wooden cutting board. Made by Andrea Brugi, a renowned Tuscan woodworker, it was absurdly expensive, but the olive wood, twisted and riddled with holes, explicably reminded me of the dried skeletons of cholla cactus that littered the ground around the adobe house outside Santa Fe where we were staying. Serving prosciutto and olives would never be the same….

Yes, I had to have it.  But also, two rolls of garden twine, the rare practical purchase.  This soft hemp twine is my hands-down favorite for tying thorny roses to porch railings. It is also the very best for anchoring tomatoes to bamboo poles without damaging the tender stems.  I haven’t seen Nutscene for years—so I pounced, twice.



I’m frankly leery of the many galleries on Canyon Road, but at Casa Navarro, a trove of Spratling Mexican silver and contemporary photography, I discovered a narrow back room where vintage striped serapes in Day-Glo colors—think crimson, purple, green, pink, orange and more—were stacked on shelves reaching nearly to the ceiling.

Heaven! I have longed for one of these crazy serapes ever since I saw one in a gallery, casually draped over an old Spanish table adorned with nothing more than a wrought iron candelabra and a 1930’s painting of Taos Pueblo.  Call it New Mexican chic or whatever you want—the look was divine.



Oddly though, I found myself tugging at this comparatively subdued late 19th century serape from Saltillo, with a large block of red-dyed wool and multiple diamonds in the center.  Despite its advanced age, the serape’s colors were unfaded, suggesting that the weaver used aniline or chemical dyes to create the red, as well as the contrasting black, lilac, pink and green patterns.

In truth, textiles dyed with natural tints derived from plants and insects are far more desirable, but the colors on this serape are so soft that I don’t really care.  I’ll use it on the table outside for summer feasts; this winter, I’ll tuck into it the sofa in the library for curling up while the sleet falls outside.

Of course, there was more. Much more.

There was, for instance, a jar of thick, golden chamiso honey, harvested from bees who’ve drunk the nectar of “Rabbit Brush” sage blossoms.  This sultry honey, which tastes faintly of orange peels, is definitely not for cooking—instead I’ll save it for special occasions, drizzling it over good bread, eating it with salty manchego cheese and a handful of toasted walnuts.

And there was a beeswax Buddha head candle from the farmer’s market, guaranteed to burn at least 17 hours.  It’s so lovely that I can’t imagine lighting it.

And these was….well, all will be revealed, when the crates arrive…



One Response to “Unpacking Santa Fe: Smoked Chiles, a Vintage Saltillo Serape & Other Treasures”

  1. William Grossmann says:

    Courtney, the first time I was in New Mexico was in 1952 for a month at the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron and Raton – a month long backpacking trek through the northeast of New Mexico complete with burros to carry the heavy stuff. I was enchanted with everything – especially the crystal cave my friends and I discovered – no kidding, we were the first to have found it high in the mountains. I went back the next summer on my way to the national Boy Scout Jamboree in Irvine, CA – now the site of the U. Cal Irvine. So, when I had the chance to later become a consulting scientist at Los Alamos National Lab I took it immediately and spent 6 summers in Los Alamos and went all over the state. I love New Mexican food. Your column brought back memories of dinners with green chile, carne adovada, posole, green chile stew, among others. Now I am living in Berlin and it is the furthest away from such foods as you can find. I looked everywhere for a good Mexican restaurant and couldn’t find one. Even a phone call to the Mexican embassy substantiated the fact that is not a single good one in Berlin. Not even a Chipoteles. So, seeing your column (belatedly) fired me up. Where can I order ingredients that you describe and have it sent to me? Can I order that cookbook as well? I love your blogs.

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