Dig into the Roots of Santa Fe’s Winter Cuisine

When Santa Fe puts on her winter whites, new memories are made and old flavors re-discovered as the sights and scents change in seasonal splendor along with the weather. Our historic destination is blessed by food traditions as ancient as the cultures that settled here so long ago, and we honor our past each time we celebrate with a convivial repast. Certain treats are especially appreciated on our tables at times of the year when their robust flavors warm us from the inside out, and their reappearance is always eagerly anticipated and welcomed with hearty appetites. Why not join me for a tummy tour of winter in an only-in-Santa-Fe culinary adventure?

Yuletide Is Yummy with Tamales on the Table

T is for tamale, the treat we love to eat! (Photo courtesy of Santa Fe School of Cooking)
T is for tamale, the treat we love to eat! (Photo courtesy of Santa Fe School of Cooking)

A tamale seems like a casual affair when you consider the ingredients, but as you delve deeper into the preparation, you realize this comfort food is anything but simple. Setting up a home tamale line to turn out dozens, if not scores, means we are able to eat them with abandon. Fillings run the gamut from classic pork and red chile to a variety of vegetarian inventions, and Santa Fe home cooks like me feel free to experiment with whatever leftovers are sitting in the fridge. Surrounded by a soft, creamy cornmeal casing and steamed inside a cornhusk, a tamale is truly gustatory greatness in a small package — can you tell I love them?

Originating in Mesoamerica B.C., tamales were an easy, portable food for hunters and travelers, and they fed the armies of these ancient cultures long before Spanish conquistadores landed in the New World. The Mexican tradition of serving tamales at Christmas-time migrated north to New Mexico and has become an annual delight to which we Santa Feans look forward, whether it’s Grandma leading the assembly line in her kitchen, or dining at one of our favorite Santa Fe restaurants.

Situated in the same spot since 1952, Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen holds a hallowed place in Santa Fe lore for its massive menu of margaritas, which makes pairing a plate of tamales with a signature margarita a delightful challenge I am always willing to take. The scent of red chile wafts up as you unwrap the tamale, and the pleasant but not overwhelming heat suits the tender cornmeal casing just right (uh-oh, I think I have to

Enjoy Santa Fe’s winter spirit and hot tamales at Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen. Photo Courtesy ABQ Journal
Enjoy Santa Fe’s winter spirit and hot tamales at Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen. Photo Courtesy ABQ Journal
Take a table at La Plazuela for the colorful taste of Santa Fe.
Take a table at La Plazuela for the colorful taste of Santa Fe.

For atmosphere, the sky-lit surroundings of La Plazuela in the heart of La Fonda on the Plaza offer a memorable ambiance, bringing me and my pals back again and again, and a recent remodel has this Grande Dame looking her absolute holiday best. You can order your tamales topped with red or green chile, or do like the locals and request Christmas-style, which means you’ll get them with both red and green chile on top —that’s a Santa Fe holiday on a plate available all year long for the asking!

Putting Posole in the Pot Guarantees a Great Meal

Corn meant so much to the indigenous cultures of the New World, and posole (also spelled pozole) is yet another iteration of this critical crop. Maize, the ancestor of today’s corn, was considered a sacred plant by this hemisphere’s ancient inhabitants prior to Old World colonization, and was featured at rituals and special occasions. In preparation for posole, the corn kernels are dried after the harvest and then soaked in a lime solution and hulled before being combined with meat (typically pork), garlic, onions, red chile, and a variety of spices. Of course, it’s always the chef’s privilege to improvise!

Traditionally served as a Christmas Eve meal, a pot of posole simmering on the stove in advance allows a family to participate in Las Posadas without fretting about dinner. This annual Christmas Eve re-enactment of the Holy Family’s search for shelter on a cold winter night is a time for neighbors to visit, and families to gather and celebrate the traditions of the past and joys of the present. The heft and hearty character of posole also serves to keep us satisfied if we’re planning to attend Midnight Mass at our beautiful Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis.

Bienvenidos means you are welcome to dig in at Tia Sophia’s.
Bienvenidos means you are welcome to dig in at Tia Sophia’s.

Winter weather and holiday music are my reminders to take out the slow cooker for a big batch of posole, but any time of the year I can rely on a fix at Tia Sophia, the breakfast-and-lunch only haunt of foodies in the know. Served in lieu of beans alongside an enchilada or swimming solo in a bowl, Tia’s posole delivers midday meal memories. And you might even see hometown guitar hero and scion of the family, Alex Maryol, heading into the kitchen.

Winter’s When You Gotta Get the Green

I confess that there are times when my kitchen larder lacks some basics, but there is one thing that is always in both my freezer and my refrigerator, and that’s green chile. Multiple bags of roasted, peeled, and frozen pods await their transformation into whatever green chile fantasy appears on my table. Add a little of this, a little of that, and voila, it’s dinner! Although I cycle weekly through tacos and tostadas, enchiladas and quesadillas, green chile stew holds a special place in my heart. Well, maybe I mean my tummy.

Like all stews, our Santa Fe versions developed as an inexpensive way to make a little bit of meat go a long way by adding the humble peasant combo of potato and onion to expand the portfolio. The traditional stew combination of meat (usually pork or beef, but chicken is common, and turkey is a seasonal treat) with the vegetable classics cooked low and slow until the meat is tender goes to new heights when green chile makes a deliciously spicy sauce. I grew up on my mother’s brawny beef stew, and I apologize, Mom, but your recipe has been supplanted by the hot stuff.

Tomasita’s Big Bowl? Bring it on, baby!
Tomasita’s Big Bowl? Bring it on, baby!

If I’m in the mood to eat green chile stew, but not in the mood to make it, I head straight for Tomasita’s. This Santa Fe Railyard restaurant is renowned for its chile, and even if you have to wait a bit for a table (the no-reservations policy is fairly standard for casual New Mexican restaurants), it’s never too long, and the margaritas pass the time pleasantly. Ask for the Big Bowl, and mix up the ingredients (beans, no beans, posole, no posole, you get the idea) in the green chile stew as your tastes incline. Tomasita’s recipe has been honed in this kitchen for over 40 years by the same family, so you know they’ve got it down pat.

Our Holiday Cookie Has State Status

New Mexico was the first state in the U.S. to have an official state cookie, designated back in 1989. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania can fight over who really has the best official chocolate chip cookie, but no one else has the subtly sweet anise-flavored sugar cookie we call a biscochito — or bizcochito, depending on who’s doing the spelling (like pozole vs. posole, and I won’t fight those battles).

Heritage recipes are guarded closely and released with Grandma’s admonitions on ingredients and technique. Traditionally made with lard, which some still consider superior for results, biscochitos start to appear in our Santa Fe households when holiday garlands start to deck the halls. Their light flavor and delicate sweetness never overpower after a meal. With a cup of coffee, they make a surprisingly delicious breakfast (okay, I confess to a sweet tooth active all day long), or a simple midnight snack. Like basic sugar cookies, they are pretty darn easy to make — check out this recipe from the Santa Fe School of Cooking. But you can make it even easier by picking up a box at The Chocolate Maven, where they are made with butter so vegetarians can eat sweet too!

Bring on the biscochitos, baby!
Bring on the biscochitos, baby!

Taste the Holidays in Santa Fe

For centuries, Santa Fe has been a mecca for talent, and it stands to reason that our food traditions continue to attract kitchen creatives. So many wonderful chefs and home cooks have made the City Different their home, and in the process, have enhanced our food culture in ways we never expected. The old ways still work their mouth-watering magic, however, especially when the season for holiday indulgence comes around. Our table always has a seat awaiting you and yours, and you’re invited to make the taste of Santa Fe a part of a recipe for delicious discoveries in our historic town.

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