SPICY SANTA FE Hispanic, Anglo, and Native American History Mix in Southwestern Cuisine - but Chilies Set It Apart

Article excerpt

NOTHING is more warming than Santa Fe's cuisine. A direct descendent of its three cultures, Santa Fe cooking celebrates and blends the flavors of its American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo history. The main industry here is the tourist trade and the many restaurants cater to it, ranging from the inexpensive and delicious tofu tamales at the Baja Tacos stand to moderately priced Tomasito's hearty fare to the high art of La Casa Sena or Santacafe.

Indians discovered and cultivated the foods of the region: pinon nuts, chilies, corn, tomatillos, tomatoes, cactus, black beans and pinto beans, many squashes, even potatoes are all New World contributions. Local fish and game like trout, antelope, venison, buffalo, poussin (similar to a game hen), rabbit, pheasant, and more grace the better restaurant kitchens. But what really sets Santa Fe cuisine apart is the expansive use of chilies in great variety. Chilies show up in sauces and marinades, in sweet chutneys, jellies, and delicious breads, in extravagant potato dishes, and in stuffing, salad dressing, salsa, and soups.

"There are 20 varieties of chilies in regular use at Casa Sena," says restaurant president Gordon Heis. The influence of Southwestern cuisine has spread to California, he says, and many of the products used in nouvelle cuisine really began in Santa Fe.

Casa Sena's chef, David Jones, says ve learned the traditional fare inside out, studied the ingredients. You really have to search out the chilies. I use a lot of northern New Mexican chilies from Chimayo and Dixon. The big jims, a dried red chile, come from Chimayo, for instance."

Local farmers experiment with varieties of chile under Mr. Jones's tutelage, sometimes allowing chilies normally picked green to ripen to a rich red - always risky in a high altitude climate where a snap frost can kill the plants overnight.

The chilies most often used among Casa Sena's 20 varieties are the pablano (fresh and moderately hot), chipotle (smoked red jalapeno, very spicy), and mild anaheims. Chef Jones uses even hotter chilies.

"Many people think all chilies are hot," says Santacafs owner, Jim Bibo. "They're not. Some are sweet, some bitter. Many are hot - some very, very hot." Santacafs signature dish is a chile brioche that combines fresh pablano with dried red chilies and red bell peppers. It's a tasty, surprising bread served with butter and a cooler, whole-grain bread at all meals.

Mexican cuisine, which combines Indian and Spanish tastes, is heavily in evidence in Santa Fe. …