Liddie’s Traditional New Mexican Dishes: Chaquewe With Red Chile

Video showing how to prepare Chaquewe with Red Chile. Video by Liddie Martinez

By LIDDIE MARTINEZ
Española Valley

With Holy Week here, some of my favorite dishes are beginning to make their annual appearance at my dinner table with much fanfare. My Aunt Pauline came over to visit this past weekend and we were talking about all the delicious foods our moms and grandmas used to make like panocha, alverjón maduro and torta de huevo. It was always a delight to help in the kitchen as these dishes graced our tables but once a year and the opportunity to watch a master making each dish was a rare occasion that could not be missed for those of us learning to cook.

Chaquewe, is a blue corn mush served with red chile made from pod during Holy Week. A very versatile dish, blue corn originated thousands of years ago, and its cultivation can be traced back to the Hopi people living in pueblos along the Rio Grande valley. For me this is a special cultural dish as it reflects the two dominate cultures of my heritage, Hispano and Native American. Red chile was also cultivated thousands of years ago by the Aztecs in Mexico so, this ancient dish predates colonization because trade between the Aztecs and the pueblos was long established before colonization and contains chile and blue corn, also the main ingredients in the hot chocolate invented and consumed by the Aztecs. The Spanish, following colonization, introduced chile cultivation to northern New Mexico which began as early as the 1600s in and around Okay Owinghe, known then as San Juan de los Caballeros.

Last year my husband and I received an amazing gift from an old friend: a handful of Aztec Blue Corn seed that he had stashed away about 40 years ago and forgotten about. We planted this old non-GMO seed from Mexico in our garden to grow enough seed corn to plant a full crop this year. With a little luck from mother nature and a bit of hard work, next year I will be able to make this dish using 100% organic ingredients grown on our own farm. I am so excited! This dish is by far the most ancient of those special Lenten dishes sacred to New Mexico’s history and as it represents my DNA, I strive to serve it in its purest form. 

The original recipe calls for juniper ash. Juniper ash is available in the market but is super easy to make in our region since we are surrounded by juniper trees. Just take some cuttings and burn them to ash in a cast iron pot. You can sift and then store in a mason jar. Not only does the juniper ash enhance the blue tone of the mush but it also adds valued calcium in a nondairy form. I am allergic to juniper so I omit this when I make Chaquewe but you should try it if you can.

When you are making dishes that are meatless (this could be a vegan dish if you substitute the butter for vegetable oil), building flavor becomes essential as you can’t rely on flavor from an added protein. This is why I roast the onion and garlic and even add a pinch of oregano (which I do not like and almost never use). Aromatics become critical to building flavor and you will find that it is worth the extra time to preheat your oven and roast them. Also, if you have a good blender, straining your chile after blending is not always necessary but, having grown up in a kitchen with professional cooks, the texture of unstrained chile from pod is not something my palate will allow, especially for this dish which should be creamy. But if it doesn’t bother you, skip the straining.

As you have noticed, the blue corn mush is polenta by another name. Which name came first? That one is easy: Chaquewe. Corn, in general, was introduced to Europe by the Spanish following the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The secret to a creamy texture is constant whisking and adding the blue corn meal a little at a time until it is fully incorporated. This also allows the cornmeal time to absorb the liquid and fluff up.

Red Chile from Pods

24 red chile pods, seeded and stems removed

3-4 cups water

3 cloves garlic

½ onion, coarsely chopped

3 Tbs. olive oil

¼ tsp. oregano

½ tsp. Salt

Pre-heat oven to 350° F.

Place onions and garlic in a skillet drizzled in oil and roast in oven for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, rinse chile pods and place in a saucepan covered with fresh, cool water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer for 20 minutes. Put a kettle of fresh water to boil.

When veggies have roasted, add to blender with drained chile pods and a 1 cup or so of boiling water. Pulse for 30 seconds then add additional water a little at a time between pulses until it is the consistency desired. Press chile purée through sieve and set aside.

Chaquewe

2 Cups Water

6 Tablespoons Lard or Butter

½ Cup Blue Corn Meal

½ Teaspoon Salt

½ Teaspoon Juniper Ash (optional)

In a cast iron skillet over medium – high heat, bring water and salt to a boil. Add butter and allow it to melt completely.  If you are going to use juniper ash, mix it into the blue corn meal. Juniper ash will deepen the blue color of the dish, add a smoky flavor and provides the great benefit of an alternate natural calcium source that is non-dairy. 

Slowly add blue corn meal one third at a time whisking constantly until corn meal has completely incorporated and is smooth and lump free before adding more. Reduce heat to very low and whisk until the corn mush begins to pull away from the pan. It will take some time for the corn to absorb the liquid and fluff. Add small amounts of water it if becomes too thick.

This recipe serves 4-6 side dish portions.

Editor’s note: Liddie Martinez is the author of the popular award winning Chile Line Cookbook: Historic Recipes of Northern New Mexico, which is available online at www.pajaritopress.com.

Blue Aztec Corn. Photo by Liddie Martinez

Chimayo Red Ristra. Photo by Liddie Martinez

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