New Mexico’s Harvest of Heat


Right now, chiles are being harvested in southern New Mexico, and it’s probably the best year in a decade for New Mexico’s favorite food. When we think of New Mexico chile, we usually have an image of the long green pods that turn red—the New Mexican varieties. But the crop is much more diverse than just those chiles. Here are the main types of chile grown in southern New Mexico.

Green Chile is sold as fresh to the consumer, dehydrated for spice mixes, or wet processed (canned, frozen, or pickled). Some of this chile undergoes additional processing into salsas, sauces, and such prepared products as enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and tamales.

Cayenne has two primary uses: it is made into mash or dehydrated for powders. Mash is made by crushing the pods in a hammer mill and mixing the resulting paste with salt and vinegar. It is then aged in large storage tanks and moved out of state by truck or rail where it is made into Cajun-style hot sauces.

Red Chile is divided into two separate categories: red chile and paprika. Red chile, which is pungent, is left whole to be made into decorative ristras or sold in bags, is crushed into flakes, or is ground into powder. It is further processed into red chile sauces for use in enchiladas, chile con carne, and tamales. Paprika, which has little or no heat, has two primary uses: the pods are ground into powder or processed for oleoresin extraction. The oleoresin is a natural food coloring that provides the color for barbecue sauce, prepared meats, and potato chips, to name just a few of its uses.

Jalapeños, like green chiles, are sold fresh to the consumer, wet processed, or dehydrated. Most of the crop is either pickled or canned and used in prepared salsas and nachos. When dehydrated, they are used in spice mixes and prepared foods.

Processing the chiles is a big business in New Mexico. Approximately 112,000 wet tons of green chile, cayenne, and jalapeños are processed each year and about 37,000 dry tons of red chile. Total acreage of chiles varies from year to year but averages about 12,000. There are other chiles grown as well, such as piquins and habaneros, but they are a very minor part of the total crop.

Green Chile Con Queso
Nothing beats snacking on chips dipped in chile con queso while drinking a Negra Modelo and watching football. Here is a slightly different take on the dip, one that avoids American or processed cheese.

1/4 cup butter
1 cup chopped green New Mexican chiles
2 serrano chiles, stems and seeds removed, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup minced onion
1 cup diced fresh tomatoes (skins and seeds removed)
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
2 tablespoons sour cream
Tortilla chips or fresh vegetables for dipping

Heat the butter in a saucepan and saute together over medium heat the green chile, serrano chile, garlic, onion, tomatoes, and cilantro for about three minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cheeses, stir, cover, and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and allow to sit for 2 minutes. Pour the mixture into a bowl and top with the sour cream.

Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

AboutDave Dewitt

Dave is known in the media as "The Pope of Peppers" because of the 36 books he's written on chile peppers and spicy food around the world. He's also co-producer of the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show and editor and publisher of the Fiery Foods & Barbecue SuperSite at His latest book, with chile breeder Dr. Paul Bosland, is The Complete Chile Pepper Book.

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