New Mexico: a food paradise (but not so primal friendly)

Since moving to the New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment, I’ve been constantly challenged with some pretty big decisions…

…and they mostly focus around Mexican food.

The food here is quite possibly the best food of any state I’ve lived in. (Which says a lot, considering my obsession with Maryland crab cakes and Chicago-style pizza, all places I have formerly called home.) However, as you probably guessed, these Mexican food choices are so far from being Paleo or primal friendly. The first couple weeks I was here, I literally made myself sick eating burritos, tortilla chips, enchiladas, and huevos rancheros. Since my time in New Mexico, I’ve learned that refried beans are made with lard, and the traditional way to make biscochos, the melt-in-your-mouth sugary Mexican cookie, is to mix wild turkey fat into the cookie batter. My Midwestern based ideas of baking have been totally turned upside down.

Don’t get me wrong, the food here is awesome, but I’ve made some pretty poor eating poor decisions. Now I’ve been getting back on track, stepping away from the grains and burritos, and restoring my gut bacteria with kefir, kombucha, and bone broth before the onset of cold and flu season. (Especially since I work with kids- let’s hope I’m not too late.)

Another thing I’ve learned about New Mexican cooking is that they take two things very, very seriously: salsa and chiles.  Traditional New Mexican food uses chile peppers many different ways, and most of their salsas and sauces (For everything from enchiladas to tamales to burritos) incorporates the meaty, spicy pepper in one way or another. Hatch, New Mexico, the chile capital of the world, even has the annual Hatch Chile Festival in August, complete with a Chile Queen. The festival celebrates the harvest of the chiles for the year. Hatch chiles are where most of the U.S’ chiles are grown, and they export an insane amount; I recently read that Hatch provides 80% of the chiles in the continental U.S. In places other than New Mexico, theses babies can be obtained frozen at Trader Joe’s, and by the box at some Wal-marts. (Surprising, right??) If you are not from New Mexico, I highly suggest buying these now, since they’re in season, and freezing them for later use. According to Christopher, they’re very hard to find past the month of September in anywhere but the southwest. You’ve been warned.

Since chiles are such a staple here in New Mexico, they’re found literally everywhere. Since it is the beginning of September, they can be bought individually and in boxes, in grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and at stands on the side of the road. Grocery stores and vendors will sometimes even have giant chile roasters set up outside, where you can get your chile’s roasted and ready. (I swear, its like I’ve moved to a different country.) Roasting chiles gives them a richer, deeper flavor, and allows the chef to remove the skins for easier cooking and freezing.

Green chile roasting

Green chile roasting

Chiles are also used liberally in salsa. Although I have never heard of it before my time here, both red and green chiles are a fantastic addition to salsa. There’s a big debate on whether or not to use fresh chiles, roasted chiles, red chiles, or green chiles in salsa, so much so that every family and restaurant seems to have their own unique salsa version.

Two weeks ago, I went to Las Cruces’ very own Salsa Festival. For the $5 admission fee, you got unlimited tastings to about 20 different salsa booths.  Essentially, everyone walked around, taste testing salsa, and then voting on their favorite. Being from Chicago, I am no stranger to food fests, but this salsa fest was unreal; there are so many ways to make salsa! Red, green, sweet, smoky, chipotle, mild, spicy, mango, pico….

….the list is literally never-ending.

Las Cruces' Salsa Fest

Las Cruces' Salsa Fest


There were many contenders at the salsa fest, but my favorite, hands down, was the booth called “! Aye Chihuahua!”, who used roasted green chile peppers and the fruit from the prickly pear cactus. After chatting with the owners of Aya Chihuahua, they gave us the story of using cacti in salsa, and even let us try the fruit from the cactus. The prickly pear fruit tasted like a cross between watermelon and a traditional pear, and was sweet and watery without being sugary-sweet. (However, is was filled with incredibly hard seeds.) Christopher and I even asked if it was true that we could eat the fruit if ever stranded in the desert. Their answer? Yes, but it was unlikely that we would be able to find one un-scavenged by other like-minded desert animals. ! Aye Chihuahua! ‘s salsa was savory, spicy, and a little sweet. It even might be my most favorite red salsa to date. It received 3 of our 6 combined votes for salsa of the year. Deeeelish.

Prickly pear fruit from a cats comes in both green and red. The red version is slightly sweeter. 

Prickly pear fruit from a cats comes in both green and red. The red version is slightly sweeter. 

But what about green salsa? With the help of Brian, an electrician turned gardener, who I met at the local farmer’s market, I learned how to make my own version of salsa verde, or green salsa. Brian instructed me that when choosing tomatillos, the best tasting ones are the larger ones with the purplish spots that resemble a bruise beneath the husked underlay. Salsa Verde is tangy, due to the green tomatillos, and is a great pairing with “brighter” and fresh tasting food like fish, shrimp, white wine, and anything with citrus undertones. Although tortilla chips are the traditional way of consuming salsa, I have learned that salsa can be eaten by these primal-friendly ways:

  1. As a sauce on meat instead of a sauce loaded chemicals, dyes, high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives
  2. On salad instead of a salad dressing
  3. Mixed with scrambled eggs or used as a topping on over-easy eggs
  4. As a mix into soup-bases to add extra flavor or spice

My favorite way to enjoy salsa, in the primal sense, is in soups or on top of steak. Mmmmm. How do you guys enjoy your salsa?


Salsa Verde

  • 5-6 medium sized ripe tomatillos, husks removed
  • 1 medium Serrano pepper*
  • 3 medium green chiles
  • Juice from ½ of a lime
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Remove stems and shallow cores from the tomatillos. Dice the tomatillos into quarters and add to a food processor.
  2. Add chopped cilantro, garlic, and lime juice to food processor.
  3. Seed Serrano chile, and roughly dice the pepper. Add to food processor.
  4. Roast green chiles by placing them on the stove burner on medium heat. Roast until there are black burner marks on one side of chile. This will take approximately 5-6 minutes. Flip chile over to unroasted side and roast that side until done.
  5. Let chiles cool and remove roasted skins by peeling them.
  6. Remove skin from cooled, roasted green chile by cutting of the top and peeling the skin down the sides.
  7. Roughly chop skinned chiles, and add to food processor.
  8. Process all ingredients on medium speed for approximately 1 minute, or until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

*For increased spice, include more Serrano peppers. 

Choose these purple spotted tomatillos for the best flavor

Choose these purple spotted tomatillos for the best flavor


Stove-top roasted tomatillos

Stove-top roasted tomatillos




Salsa fest-ing

Salsa fest-ing