Thanksgiving With a Southwestern Twist

Without straying too far from tradition, Santa Fe chefs accent the holiday feast with chiles and indigenous spices

Celebrating Thanksgiving in Santa Fe, N.M., is a far cry from eating turkey in the middle of the desert, says Jeff Drew, sous chef at the city's wildly popular Coyote Cafe.

Instead, snow covers the tops of nearby mountains, the leaves of the aspen trees have turned to gold, and the brisk autumn air is perfumed with the scent of drying red chiles, he says.

And the Thanksgiving feast naturally incorporates flavors of the Southwest. But most restaurants don't stray too far from tradition.

Diners can handle a little twist on the holiday, but they don't want you to stuff chiles inside of their game bird, Mr. Drew says.

''Even though we are living in the Southwest and we have a lot of locals, we still also have a lot of visitors at Thanksgiving, and they're coming to Coyote for pretty much of a traditional Thanksgiving.''

Last year, Coyote Cafe's Southwestern twist came from red-chile honey-glazed sweet potatoes that accompanied herb-roasted turkey.

As for cranberries, ''We really try to stay away from the traditional compote, the traditional relish,'' Drew says. Instead, Coyote Cafe might serve a salsa made with cranberries and red- chile pecans; the latter are dipped in syrup and dusted with red-chile powder.

Dennis Apadoca, sous chef at another favorite eating spot, SantaCafe, says, ''It doesn't matter what we do, 50 percent of our sales will be turkey and pumpkin pie.''

Last year, SantaCafe featured turkey rubbed with achiote, the seed of the annato plant. ''It has some spice but its primary purpose is color,'' Mr. Apadoca explains.

In addition to a corn bread and cornmeal stuffing, the bird was served with a sage-and-apple-cider gravy, green-chile mashed potatoes, pureed butternut squash, and cranberry-orange compote. Cranberries also appeared in the upside-down crumble cake. In addition to a traditional pumpkin tart, SantaCafe pastry chef, Patrick Markby, made pumpkin bread, pumpkin ice cream, and a linzer-like torte with a spicy pumpkin filling baked with raisins between two layers of short crust.

Southwestern cuisine began, of course, with the native Americans and evolved as the Navajo and Pueblo peoples came into contact with the Spanish settlers. ''We've been living closely with the Spanish since the 1700s,'' says author and historian Joe Sando of the Pueblo Research Center in Albuquerque, N.M. ''Because of the long years of contact, the food that we call Pueblo food is a combination of Spanish and Pueblo food.''

While Thanksgiving is often considered the quintessential American holiday, it remains controversial among native Americans. ''We don't honor the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, or Thanksgiving - these are white man's holidays,'' Mr. Sando says.

Navajo activist Andrew Thomas explains that simply thanking the native Americans does not replace their lost identity, traditional ways, and land.

Tamales and posole are two local favorites that SantaCafe's Apadoca is considering for Thanksgiving this year. A New Mexican stew made from a dried corn similar to hominy, pork, and chiles, the posole would be a side dish. The tamales would be an appetizer, filled with duck and wrapped, Latin American style, with banana leaves, rather than the more traditionally New Mexican pork filling and corn-husk wrapping.

At his home, Apadoca, a native of Albuquerque, will be hosting a restaurant-size crowd of 50 to 75 family members and friends. ''My grandmother and all of us will get together, and we'll all make the tamales.''

That's just for starters. The chef's family will also eat turkey - with red-chile puree instead of gravy; corn and flour tortillas; posole; pumpkin pie; rice pudding; natillas, an egg custard topped with cinnamon; and sweet-meat empanadas, turnovers stuffed with pork, apples, raisins, and brown sugar.

Carmen Segura, a vendor at the Santa Fe farmers' market, says her family eats ''mostly traditional Thanksgiving food: mashed potatoes, turkey, dressing.'' But, she adds, ''We have to serve red or green chiles for the kids when they come.''

Cheryl Alters Jamison, who co-authored ''The Border Cookbook: Authentic Home Cooking of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico'' (Harvard Common Press) with her husband, Bill Jamison, says that on Thanksgiving they usually eat out with her husband's family - ''they don't like to cook.'' But later, they whip up a feast with her family. ''We have a second Thanksgiving, turkey with a few Southwestern twists,'' such as jalapeno-spinach casserole and a stuffing that includes corn chips as well as corn bread.

Ms. Jamison might cook the turkey in a smoker and flavor the bird with an injection of pickling liquid from bottled jalapeno chiles mixed with a little oil, which ''gives a subtle but distinctive flavor,'' she says. ''It's not like the food is on fire.''

For the past 10 to 15 years, Southwestern cuisine has changed, says SantaCafe's Apadoca. ''It's gone south. Southwestern cuisine doesn't just mean New Mexican anymore, it means all the regions in Mexico and South America.''

At the same time, Coyote Cafe's Drew notes that Southwestern foodstuffs have become widely available in other parts of the United States. So home cooks living outside New Mexico don't have to travel to Santa Fe to spice up the traditional meal and enjoy a Southwestern Thanksgiving.

* In addition to the Jamisons' book already mentioned, we also recommend their book ''Smoke and Spice'' (Harvard Common Press), ''Mark Miller's Indian Market Cookbook'' (Ten Speed Press), and ''The Book of Regional American Cooking: Southwest'' (HP Books), among others, for some excellent Southwestern recipes.

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