I don’t win any points for eating local by flying across the country with chiles and other goodies from Santa Fe’s fabulous farmer’s market, but I’m glad I did. The idea cruising the back of my mind was to incorporate this New Mexico bounty into Italian, not Southwestern, dishes.
We’ll get to that, but first let me tell you about my haul. Thanks to the expander zipper on my suitcase, I came home with
- shishito peppers from a vendor who sizzled the slender Japanese chiles in olive oil and sprinkled them with sea salt. What could be better with a glass of prosecco or a cold beer? was my thought. Chile-dusted pistachios grown in Alamogordo, same reaction.
- blue cornmeal from Talon de Gato Farm. “Absolutely, you can make polenta with this and it will be a beautiful indigo color,” the vendor assured me.
- bolita beans, a variety that’s new to me. Sweeter and creamier than pintos, other customers told me. Perfect for a minestrone, I thought.
- prune plums and hard-neck garlic, because they looked good and had “Italian” in their names.
- a giant artichoke sprouting a purple flower, to dry and keep as a memento of my New Mexico stay.
- Cota Indian tea to sip for its taste and medicinal properties and a sage smudge stick (also a Native American item) to light and wave around in hopes of purifying our apartment.
Chiles are the big deal–and the real deal–in New Mexico. We were lucky to visit at green-chile roasting time, with aromas wafting through the air at the farmer’s market and vendors offering tastings. You get to know some of the names, whether you’re touring or eating out.
My husband ate an appetizer of “Hot or Not” pan roasted peppers at Il Piatto, consisting of sweet red Jimmy Nardellos (the seeds of this variety were brought over by a southern Italian immigrant) plus medium-hot padrons and shishitos. He feasted on a chile relleno at Rancho de Chimayo Hacienda while I ate a green chile stew with chunks of pork and potato. At Mucho Gusto I lucked into a completely different green chile soup with fresh corn and a tomato base.
Many chile varieties are dried for use all year long and to make decorative ristras. I bought crushed sun-dried red chiles at Potrero Trading Post in Chimayo, a pilgrimage destination not only for the healing dirt in an ancient sanctuary, but also for indigenous chiles with a small, highly sought after production.
Except for the shishitos, I passed up fresh chiles for my plane trip. But when I walked into my local Fresh Market back home, the first thing I saw–much to my delight–was a big display of Hatch chiles from New Mexico. Based on our friend Barry’s Chimayo vs. Hatch research, I knew that Hatch chiles are all grown in Hatch County, but consist of several scientifically bred sub-varieties of “New Mexico” chiles. Hence, their flavor and heat properties can vary.
The Hatch chiles I brought home to roast, for my foray into Italian cooking made with Southwestern ingredients, turned out to be medium hot. And, true to the vendor’s word, the blue cornmeal cooked up just like any other stoneground cornmeal to make a great polenta. For the sauce, I decided to combine roasted chiles with mushrooms, in part because a mushroom hunting expedition in the Santa Fe ski basin was still on my mind.
We’d climbed up to 11,000 feet with our friend Jim, who’s a mycology buff. It had been dry and the prospects were poor, but rumors about porcini sometimes found at this altitude had caught my attention. Jim found only a couple of dried-out puffballs, along with some inedible specimens,but it was fascinating to watch the mushroom-hunting process.
For my polenta sauce, I settled for storebought criminis. The dish turned out well and, finishing the last bite, I started thinking about a lamb ragu that could be my next blue-corn polenta topper.
But before that, I wanted to make minestrone with those bolita beans. As with many Italian soups, I started with a soffritto of chopped pancetta, onion, carrot, celery and garlic, sauteed in olive oil. After simmering the cooked beans with farro and diced yellow squash, I tasted–and then threw in the rest of my roasted Hatch chiles. Perfetto!
- 2 cups stoneground blue or yellow cornmeal
- Kosher salt or sea salt
- 1/2 cup half and half
- 2 slices pancetta diced small (about 1/3 cup)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 8 ounces crimini mushrooms and/or shiitake caps halved or cut in thick slices
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 3 roasted Hatch poblano or other medium-hot green chiles, cut in 1-inch squares *
- 1/2 cup quartered yellow grape tomatoes or diced yellow bell pepper
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
- Grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
Combine the cornmeal and 2 teaspoons salt with 3 cups water and the half and half in a medium saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a boil. Adjust the heat to a gentle simmer. Stir often to keep the cornmeal from sticking. Cook until it reaches the consistency of runny oatmeal and tastes fully cooked, 15 to 25 minutes. Add more water as necessary for the right consistency. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Meanwhile, saute the pancetta in the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet until lightly browned and most of the fat has liquified. Add the mushrooms and cook until they soften and brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in the wine, chiles, tomatoes and garlic. Reduce the heat and season to taste with salt. Simmer for about 10 minutes until the mixture has a saucy consistency.
To serve, spoon the polenta into shallow soup bowls and tilt to spread over the bottom. Spoon chile-mushroom ragu into the center of each serving and sprinkle with cheese.
* To roast chiles: Preheat the oven to 475°F. Spread chiles out on a baking sheet. Cook on a middle rack until deeply bronzed, turning once. Place in a paper bag or covered bowl to steam. When the chiles have cooled, strip off the skins, removing the stems and most of the seeds.