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Aromatic cooking of New Mexico

By Carolyn RoyalSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 1984

Sante Fe, N.M.

At sunset the mountains of the snow-capped Sangre de Christo Range in Santa Fe, N.M., are silhouetted like ragged layers of colored paper, all shades of purples and pinks. The aroma of pinon wood fires permeates the atmosphere.

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The cooking of northern New Mexico is also colorful and aromatic, coming as it does from native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo ancestry.

Fiery red and green chilies are used liberally. The Pueblo Indians were growing chilies when the Spanish arrived in 1539.

Today they can be seen, after the harvest and before the first frost, drying outside adobe homes on the ground or on the flat roofs, soon to be tied into ristras, or wreaths.

For use in cooking the chilies are first blistered in the oven, plunged into cold water, then peeled and seeded. They go into a staple of the kitchen, salsa, or chili sauce. It's used for everything from a dip for tortillas or sauce for enchiladas to a topping for hamburgers and chicken.

Just west of Santa Fe, the Anasazi, cliff-dwelling forebears of the Pueblo Indians, farmed the pinto bean and corn in haunting Frijoles Canyon, now Bandelier National Monument. They also hunted deer and rabbit and cooked stews in pitch-lined baskets by dropping hot rocks into them.

Corn was ground with a stone rolling pin or pounded on a flat stone with legs called a ''metate.'' Water was added, and tortillas were produced by frying on a hot flat stone. Blue corn, a New Mexico specialty, was also grown.

Later the Pueblos built beehive-shaped ovens called hornos outside their homes. Here the classic round pueblo bread was baked in the high heat after the coals were removed.

Pinon nuts were a staple, gathered by families in the autumn and roasted for use in stuffings, soups, and cakes.

A typical Santa Fe lunch today is a sandwich using Indian fry bread or tortillas as the base. Fillings may be pinto beans, avocado with bacon, hamburger, or sharp Cheddar cheese and lettuce, all covered with salsa and eaten with a fork.

Posole, a stew made of chicos - or hominy - pork, and red chili, may be served as a side dish. A wonderful dessert is sopaipillas, fried dough served warm with honey.

There are numerous excellent restaurants in the Santa Fe area that serve northern New Mexico dishes. One of the most charming is The Shed, located in Prince Patio, a cluster of low adobe buildings built in 1692 and entered through a courtyard.

Open for lunch only, the price for a substantial enchilada plate of blue corn tortillas covered with beans, cheese, onions, and salsa and served with French bread is just $3.40. The tiny, low-ceilinged rooms are decorated with murals and paintings of Pueblo Indian life.

On Canyon Road, where the art galleries are concentrated, The Haven offers a mixture of New Mexican, Greek, and nouvelle cuisine, all served the with home-baked bread.

North of Santa Fe is Taos and its famous pueblo and artists' colony. On the road into town is Casa de Valdez, a large and comfortable restaurant that specializes in hickory smoked meat barbecued in a pit on the premises and with a vibrant piquant barbecue sauce.