Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Hoodoo Needs Its Hat

The title may sound like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, but I’m talking about magical place that is in fact quite real.

A year and four months after relocating to New Mexico, I finally made it to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, about an hour and a half north in the Pueblo of Cochiti (tribal land). Kasha-Katuwe means “white cliffs” in the pueblo’s traditional language, while Tent Rocks is the anglo way of describing the unusual pointed hoodoos that number in the hundreds here. (Another famous example of hoodoos would be Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.)

Towering up to 90 feet in height, some of them have hard caprocks, or “hats,” which keep their cone shape and softer layers intact. Those that have lost their hats, however, are slowly crumbling right before your eyes.

The 1.5-mile trail takes you through shady slot canyons at the bottom (which were slightly eerie after watching Aron Ralston get stuck in one in the film 127 Hours), up a steep 630-foot climb, and finally, out onto a panoramic cliff where you are literally on top of the world. You can see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains overlooking Santa Fe to the north all the way to the Sandia Mountains of Albuquerque to the south. You can also look down at the posse of hoodoos below you for a whole new perspective on these otherworldly rocks.

In case you’re wondering, these pumice, ash and tuff deposits were created by volcanic eruptions six to seven million years ago, and you can still find round black pieces of translucent obsidian (aka volcanic glass, or colloquially, “Apache tears”) mixed into the sandy bottom of the canyon. It’s tempting to take a six-million-year-old sample home, but it’s prohibited. So I took a photo instead.

As a final nerdy factoid, I read in the Trail Guide that the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in New Mexico in the mid-1500s (and brought green chile with them, as I wrote about in my last blog post) made note of this place in their diaries. It surely must have looked like a serious contender for one of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. But no, it’s just a breathtaking living geology laboratory that’s captivated humans for over 4,000 years.

And I can go there anytime I want. That’s pretty cool.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Green Chile + Anything = Amazing

If you know anything about New Mexican cuisine, you know it centers around green chile. (And yes, that’s how it’s spelled here. Not chili/chilies, but chile/chiles.) Today, I learned even more about the state’s largest agricultural crop from Santa Fe Travelers' blog post, entitled “Were chiles always in New Mexico?”

According to the New Mexico Department of Tourism, wild chile plants originated in Brazil, and like many things (both agricultural and cultural), they were brought to New Mexico by the Spanish, who first arrived in the 1540s looking for the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. (They, ahem, found no such thing.) Centuries later, a pioneering horticulturist from Las Cruces, NM, helped cultivate the more hardy varieties that are ubiquitous today: Big Jim, Joe E. Parker, Sandia and EspaƱola Improved.

When I say green chiles have become a cornerstone of our gastronomical life here in New Mexico, that they mark the harvest season (when you can smell them roasting outside grocery stories here) and that they can enhance just about anything you eat, you may think I’m drinking the green chile juice. But before you question my sanity, let me ask – have you actually eaten green chiles? If you have, you know they’re mildly spicy (meaning pleasantly, bearably spicy, and not too hot) and incredibly flavorful.

As further evidence, let me cite three ways green chiles have been unexpectedly added to dishes with killer results. The first, as mentioned in the Santa Fe Travelers article (with a recipe), is Green Chile Apple Pie. This one has actually caught on so much that you can now find it outside of New Mexico, as I did in November when I bought one at Green Chile Kitchen in San Francisco. (Here’s the New York Times review of their version of this unique pie.)

The second is adding green chile to sushi. My favorite example of this thus far is the Amex Roll at Samurai Sushi in Albuquerque, which combines green chile with spicy tuna and cucumber. Absolutely delicious and an explosion of spicy goodness. You’ll also see green chile tempura as an appetizer or a specialty role in a number of Japanese restaurants here, showing that it’s not just a condiment but the headliner in many dishes.

Finally, my most recent discovery on the “surprising uses of green chile” front would be the utterly addictive Green Chile Pecan Sandia Cookies from AlbuqCookie, a company founded by a New York transplant who also realized that in New Mexico you can combine chile with about anything. Another product I'm eager to try is his Chocolate Pepper Chile Cookies, which also demonstrate the happy marriage of sweet and spicy.

So there you have it - my trifecta of proof. Feeling the need to come up with your own wild and crazy combination? Order green chile online (either roasted or frozen) from Hatch Chile Express, as everyone from New Mexico will tell you the best green chiles are grown in Hatch, NM. Or, you can also snag a jar of 505 Southwestern All-Natural Diced and Flamed Roasted Green Chiles in many supermarkets. (They too source all their green chiles from Hatch, and their name is a reference to the New Mexico area code, 505.)