Not Your Mama's Chile Ristras - A Modern Twist on a New Mexico Classic!

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A chile ristra that will never decay? Yes please, and make it extra HOT!

Growing up in New Mexico has been a rich experience to say the least. Our state, and certainly my small community of Chimayo, is not without its problems; however, living a small-town life amid such a rich culture helps us realize that life is what we make of it. It is also a matter of attracting the people and experiences we wish to attract. Negativity and negative experiences breed more of the same. When we enjoy the little things, like a nice warm, fresh tortilla right off the comal with a little butter, the negative tends to take a back burner, no pun intended.
A few years ago I attended the La Viña wine festival down south, which happened in September, right in the middle of chile season. As people know, New Mexico is famous for its chile, and is considered the “chile capital of the world”. Most people have heard of “Hatch” chile and many people even from out of state specifically look for this particular chile when they visit or sometimes even have it shipped out of state directly to them. What many people who are not native to New Mexico do not really know is that Hatch is not the only place that grows our famous chile. In fact you can find some pretty incredible chile anywhere down south – including from places like Garfield, Artesia, Socorro, and Las Cruces.

Bushel of Socorro green chile from Romero's Fruit Stand in Hernandez, NM

The wine festival is held near Las Cruces every year, unfortunately I haven’t made the time to get back to that festival since it first began, which seems like many moons ago. At that time it was a small (manageable) wine festival. I have no idea what it’s like now but back then it was perfect – not too many people, not too big, with just enough wineries and attractions that one felt accomplished (and, ahem, not too inebriated) at the end of the day. The heat in Las Cruces can be unbearable in the summer and even into the fall, but there was ample shade at the wine fest that it was barely noticeable.

Anyway, what I will never, ever forget about that particular wine festival was the booth where a few ladies were making fresh tortillas and roasting and peeling freshly picked green chiles and you could buy a tortilla with a fresh chile or two and a little salt and garlic sprinkled on. If you’ve never had this you don't know what you’re missing. I thought it was a great, unique offering for such an event!

These days even southern Colorado is making a name for itself during chile season, with many people opting for their chile instead of that from New Mexico. It's becoming a sort of rivalry it seems. New Mexicans who opt for Pueblo chile are beginning to be seen as traitors. I say whatever floats your boat...and tickles your palate!

What many people do not know is how amazingly flavorful the chile from northern New Mexico tastes. In fact Chimayo, the town where I grew up, is known locally as having a unique strain of chile, which many farmers have protected for generations. There's even been an undertaking by locals and local non-profits to get the seed patented so that those who do not actually grow or sell Chimayo Chile could not capitalize on the name “Chimayo Chile”. This was actually an issue, believe it or not. I recall seeing a packaged chile at grocery stores several years ago made by the Bueno company, which was called “Chimayo Chile”. Knowing how difficult it is to find this chile, and the fact that it is much more expensive than Chile from southern New Mexico and thus Bueno could not have possibly sold it for the price asked, I looked more closely at the label. Sure enough, it was just a name assigned to the package, likely to dupe people into thinking they were getting authentic Chimayo chile.

Beautiful Chimayo chile garden

Chimayo chile farmers know the difficulty in growing a good crop of this chile and the time it takes to preserve the seeds for the following season. They do not take this type of “plagiarism” lightly. Chimayo’s claim to fame has always been the local church El Santuario de Chimayo, which garners thousands of visitors every year for Holy Week; however, its second claim to fame is its chile. Indeed the chile is a guarded heirloom, which most people might only taste once in their lives, if ever.

The chile itself is less uniform and does not grow as large as the chile from Hatch or other areas down south. The key to it's unique flavor is not only the heirloom seed itself but also that it is grown in thethe “high desert” and although growing it in other climates is likely possible, it would not be the same. It is very flavorful but also quite spicy, “quemozo” (HOT!), and, truth be told, I am kind of a wimp when it comes to eating very hot chile. If you’re from Chimayo but either cannot or do not like to eat hot chile, the people around here do not let you live it down. Gil tells me all the time, when I opt out of eating hot chile, “What kind of Chimayosa are you?!” I get this a lot, as do others from Chimayo who don’t eat hot chile, as if the ability to handle hot chile is burned into our DNA. Pardon another pun.

Bushels of green Chimayo chile

New Mexicans know that the “State question” (yes, like a state motto we have a state “question”) is “red, green, or Christmas?” and this is in reference to whether you want your food with red chile, green chile or both. Green chile is prepared differently than red. Green is essentially “unripe” and red is what happens once it’s ripened. As long as chile has been harvested, the method for drying and storing it has been the same – stringing the red chile on a “ristra”. Many people still do this and hang their ristras along the walls outside their homes to allow them to dry. If they’re in the business of growing and harvesting chile they will sell the ristras for use by others. In other cases people will do it for themselves or their own families. As in the past, if you drive through Chimayo in the fall you'll see many houses with strings and strings of ristras along the walls.


Photo of author's great grandmother with author's father standing in front of handmade woven blankets and chile ristras in Chimayo, circa 1936

Photo of author's great-grandmother, father (standing), and aunt (in arms), in front of handmade woven blankets and numerous chile ristras. Circa 1936.

This allowed the people to remove however many chiles necessary to prepare with their meal on an as-needed basis. The method of cooking the chiles varies with regards to how you wish to use it. Some people prefer grinding the chile into powder and making a sauce while others prefer boiling the pods and blending them with a little water to the desired consistency, which is called chile gisado or chile caribe. The flavor of the chile is different depending on how it is prepared. I find the chile prepared from the pods to have a sweetness to it, while that prepared as a sauce from the ground chile is more bitter. The dish itself usually dictates how the chile should be prepared. Chile for enchiladas is generally made from either fresh green chile - best with shredded chicken - or ground red chile - best with ground beef - while the chile to add to posole or pork meat is usually made from the pods.


Northern New Mexican Cuisine - Blue corn enchiladas with the traditional fried egg on top from Rancho de Chimayo

People generally don’t grind their own chile from the ristra anymore but instead purchase it from the same farms that sell fresh chile or from local markets. The pods are also available for purchase in the same way. These days the chile ristras are used mainly for decoration. They really are beautiful and many people display them in their porches or hanging from the wall. These beautiful decorations are not cheap, however. In fact, depending on the size they can be quite expensive. It’s a bit of a luxury for them to be used as decoration considering they rot in a relatively short period of time and one must invest in another eventually. Ristras are popular and many people who visit New Mexico take them back to their home states as a souvenir…or have them shipped (very carefully).

Strings of Chimayo chile ristras along with bushels of red and green

Lucky for them, now there’s a way for people to enjoy beautiful chile ristras without worry about having to replace them in a year or two. They can be displayed indoors or outdoors without having to worry about them rotting ;). These are called “Everlasting Chile Ristras” made of cold roll steel and those under 22 inches are finished with a beautiful lollipop red powder coat. Larger sizes are painted with a transparent candy apple red gloss. We offer a "four-sided"ristra to give the illusion of a three-dimensional ristra as well as a flat wall-hanging ristra. The photos do not do them justice! Check them out and let us know what you think!



Side by side Chile Ristras

Photo credit: Chimayo chile garden, bushels, and ristras courtesy of Fidel & Loyda Martinez

If you have purchased one of our ristras please leave a review on our page! Thanks in advance!

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  • Maria Gillette on

    I would like to buy a fresh dried chimayo pods to cook with

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