ANY TIME'S A GOOD TIME for hearty, homey dishes—but March is a great time. It’s still wintry in New Mexico’s higher elevations, and even in the far south, evenings still have a delicious chill. Take the shiver out of your next meal with a choice of meatballs, meatloaf, fried eggs, and stews of meat or smoked corn, spiked with chile and other tastes of New Mexico.
I hope that these dishes will not only bring seasonal warmth but, for many readers, ignite warm memories of family meals past. Before we swing fully into spring, grab a seat at our feast of comforting flavors.
SOPA DE ALBÓNDIGAS
Meatballs have been having their moment in haute culinary temples, but really, they’ve never faded from their revered spot in the world of home cooking. Grandmothers make them the world over, from Bangkok to Brooklyn, but I don’t find any of them to be more comforting than the brothy albóndigas still made in New Mexico’s home kitchens today.
Serves 6 to 8
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1⁄2 small onion,minced
- 1 small celery rib, chopped fine
- 1 1⁄2 pounds ground lamb or beef, or a combination
- 1⁄4 plus 2 tablespoons blue or other cornmeal
- 1 large egg
- 1 to 2 teaspoons dried mint
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon New Mexican azafrán (safflower stamens), optional
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
- 1⁄2 small onion, minced
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 14- to 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
- 2 cups lamb, beef, or chicken stock
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon New Mexican azafrán, optional
- Fresh mint leaves, optional
Warm oil in small skillet over medium heat. Stir in onion and celery and sauté briefly until soft but not brown. Set aside to cool.
In medium bowl, mix together the meat, cornmeal, and egg. Scrape onion-celery mixture into meat, followed by remaining ingredients, and stir them together lightly.
Form 3⁄4- to 1-inch meatballs, packing meat together lightly but firmly. If meat mixture sticks to your hands, rinse hands regularly with cold water. You should end up with about 48 small meatballs.
Warm 1 tablespoon oil in large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Brown meatballs in uncrowded batches, turning them frequently but gently. Drain with a slotted spoon and set aside on a platter.
Reduce the heat to medium and add 1 tablespoon oil. Stir in onion and sauté several minutes, until translucent, then add the flour and cook for another minute, stirring.
Stir in the tomatoes and juice, stock, water, optional azafrán, meatballs, and any juices. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until flavors blend and meatballs are cooked through. Salt to taste.
Ladle into broad, shallow soup bowls. If you wish, cut mint leaves into very thin ribbons and scatter over bowls. (Adapted from Tasting New Mexico, © 2012, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison.)
ORDER IT HERE Papa Felipe’s, in Albuquerque, makes a nice Mex–meets–New Mex version called caldo de albóndigas. 9800 Menaul Blvd. NE; (505) 292-8877; papafelipes.com
GREEN CHILE–PIÑON MEATLOAF
Even a minimalist meatloaf (ground beef, onion, bread crumbs) is the humble exemplar of Comfort Food Heaven. Why not elevate it with piquant local ingredients.
Serves 6 to 8
- 1⁄4 cup (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter
- 2 cups chopped onion (about 2 medium onions)
- 1 cup chopped roasted New Mexican green chile, fresh or thawed frozen
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pound ground beef (preferably an 80/20 percent mix of lean to fat)
- 1⁄2 pound ground pork
- 1⁄2 pound ground dark-meat turkey
- 3⁄4 cup saltine crackers, crumbled (1⁄2 bag from a four-pack box of crackers)
- 1⁄2 cup toasted New Mexican piñons, or other pine nuts
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 3 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 11⁄2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce, such as red or green Tabasco
- 4 bacon slices, halved
- Preheat oven to 350° F.
Melt butter in medium skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until limp, about 3 minutes. Stir in green chile and garlic and continue cooking until all ingredients are quite soft, 3 to 5 more minutes. Scrape mixture into a large bowl and let cool briefly. Mix in beef, pork, and turkey, then cracker crumbs, piñons, eggs, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and hot sauce. Mix well.
Pack mixture into a large loaf pan, mounding a bit in center. Lay bacon slices over top, side by side, overlapping if neces- sary, and tuck ends down into sides of loaf. Bake about 75 minutes, until bacon is brown and crisp and the loaf’s internal temperature reaches 160° F. Pour off accumulated grease and liquid and let loaf sit at least 10 minutes before cutting into thick slices and serving. This meatloaf makes great sandwiches, cold or hot, the following day. (Adapted from American Home Cooking, © 2000, Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison.)
ORDER IT HERE Santa Fe’s Zia Diner slings a particularly toothsome slab of New Mexi-fied meatloaf, studded with green chile and piñon. 326 S. Guadalupe St.; (505) 988-7008; ziadiner.com
Among all of the dishes featured here, this fried-egg classic appears most frequently on New Mexico’s café and restaurant menus. Instead of the classic Mexican tomato-based ranchero sauce, huevos here typically incorporate a red or green chile sauce, or a more-the-merrier “Christmas” combo of the two. In an admittedly broad generalization, the plate is usually filled out with a side of whole pinto beans and papas (potatoes) in the north, and refried beans and rice in the south. Choose whichever appeals to you. Like many morning foods, this makes a comforting supper at home.
- Vegetable oil for frying 8 corn tortillas
- 8 large eggs
- About 2 tablespoons butter or bacon drippings
- Freshly milled black pepper
- About 2 cups New Mexican red or green chile sauce, or 1 cup of each, warmed
- 6 ounces (about 3⁄4 cup) shredded mild cheddar, Monterey Jack, or asadero cheese
Heat 1⁄2 inch of oil in a medium to large skillet. Dip tortillas into oil, 1 or 2 at a time, and cook a few seconds, until soft and pliable. Drain tortillas and arrange 2 overlapping on each of 4 plates. Break the eggs, 2 by 2, into ramekins or small bowls.
Pour out of skillet all but enough oil to generously coat surface. Warm skillet again over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of butter (or bacon drippings) and, when foam subsides, in about 1 minute, pour in eggs and begin to fry them, 2 or 4 at a time, depending on skillet size. Season generously with salt and pepper and cook for 1 minute. As they cook, use spatula to scoop up some of the butter to drizzle over whites. Then turn heat down to low and continue cooking and drizzling butter for about 1 additional minute, or until done to your liking. Repeat with remaining eggs.
Top each tortilla with a fried egg. Spoon chile sauce over and around eggs. If using both red and green sauces, pour one over one of the eggs on each plate and the second over the other. Sprinkle with cheese. Serve immediately. (Adapted from Tasting New Mexico, © 2012, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison.)
ORDER IT HERE Check out the version at Nellie’s Café, in Las Cruces. 1226 W. Hadley Ave.; (575) 524-9982; on Facebook
A little smoky and a little chewy, with a lot of corn goodness, chicos are typically made with young “green” field corn. Ears are piled into outdoor horno ovens in the early fall to slowly roast and smolder overnight, then dried on rooftops. When later cooked in broth, the corn kernels remain smaller and tighter than posole corn—the difference between a tight flower bud and a blowsy blossom. Like posole, however, chicos can be a side dish, especially when mixed with whole pintos, but become a simple, satisfying main dish when stewed with a little meat. Here I suggest the complementary smoky savor of ham hocks, but beef short ribs or cubed lamb stew meat can replace the ham hocks. Chicos are elusive on restaurant menus, so treat yourself if you come across them.
Serves 6 to 8
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 medium onions, minced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 cups dried chicos
- 1-pound smoked ham hock, preferably in several pieces
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
- 2 bay leaves, optional
- 6 cups chicken stock or water
- 1⁄2 cup chopped roasted mild to medium New Mexican green chile, fresh or thawed frozen, or 2 to 4 whole dried mild to medium New Mexican red chile pods
Warm oil in a Dutch oven or small sauce- pan over medium heat. Stir in onions and cook until very soft, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute or two.
Stir in chicos, ham hock, 1⁄2 teaspoon salt, optional bay leaves, and stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for 11⁄2 to 2 hours, or until chicos are well softened and have lost their raw, starchy flavor. They will remain a little chewy. (Add a little more water if chicos begin to dry out before they are done.) Remove ham hock with a slotted spoon. Add chile and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes. When ham hock is cool enough to handle, separate meat from bones, fat, and skin. Shred meat and return to pan. Salt to taste if needed. Chicos should retain some liquid but not be extremely soupy. Serve hot in bowls. (Adapted from Tasting New Mexico, © 2012, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison.)
ORDER IT HERE JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados, in Española; the chicos come from the family’s nearby farm. 938 N. Riverside; (505) 753-1334; joannsranchocasados.com
CARNE CON CHILE ROJO
I first tasted a swoon-worthy version of this stew in Hatch, better known as a bastion of green chile. It was in a café shuttered many years ago, Dora’s, still mourned by diners who ate there.
Serves 6 to 8
- 1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 pounds beef chuck roast, in 1⁄2-inch cubes
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 3⁄4 cup ground dried mild New Mexican red chile
- 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano
- 2 teaspoons salt 4 cups beef stock, or more as needed
- 2 cups well-cooked pinto beans
- 2 medium baking potatoes, peeled, par-boiled, and cut into bite-size chunks
- Chopped onion and grated mild cheddar cheese for garnish
Warm oil in a Dutch oven or medium stockpot over high heat. Add beef cubes and sear on all sides until richly brown. Reduce heat to medium, add onions, and scrape up beef and browned bits from bottom of pan. Cook 5 minutes, or until onions are translucent. Stir in garlic and cook another minute or so. Stir in chile, oregano, salt, and stock, reduce the heat to very low, and cover.
Cook for about 2 hours, stirring every half-hour. Stir in beans and potatoes, replace lid, and continue cooking, stirring mixture up from bottom, for 15 to 30 minutes, or until beef and potatoes are very tender. Consistency should be slightly soupy. Ladle into bowls and top with chopped onion and grated cheese. (Adapted from The Border Cookbook, © 1994, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison.)
ORDER IT HERE Earl’s Family Restaurant, in Gallup, offers you the option of spooning the beans into the bowl of chile or enjoying them on the side. 1400 E. Historic Hwy. 66; (505) 863-4201; on Facebook
See more of Douglas Merriam’s photography at douglasmerriam.com.