Saturday, February 06, 2021

Red or Green? Golden or Amber?

New Mexico is famous for its tear-inducing red and green chile peppers, and the stew-like dishes made from the them. (That was not a typo, the Spanish who came here in the 1500's converted the Central Mexican Nahuatl (Aztec) name, chilli, to chile – the spelling used today by most New Mexicans.) 
The de jure “Official State Question” (not a typo either, we really do have one) is “red or green?” – asked every day by every wait-person on pretty much every restaurant order. 
“None of the above” is not on the menu. “Christmas,” meaning both, is always an unadvertised option. 

In response to your answer the chef will eagerly smother your enchiladas, chile rellenos or really, anything you can think of in a blanket of your chosen color(s). Including a gyro plate from a Greek restaurant. 
Sometimes they don’t ask. Imagine the surprise at biting into your benign looking tuna Florentine expecting comfort food creaminess only to discover… As a result of such experiences, and following advice we were given on our first trip out here, when asked THE QUESTION we tell our server, “whichever is milder. And on the side please.”

Recently J, a dear friend from Connecticut, emailed this tip for those of us trying to trust the science. “Chili peppers may help you live longer. Scientists have linked consumption of chili peppers to a reduced chance of early death due to such things as cancer or heart disease, according to an American Heart Association study... comparing the longevity of those who ate chili peppers on a regular basis with those who ate them very little or never, finding that those who did had a 26% less chance of dying of cardiovascular problems and a 23% less chance of dying of cancer.”

We thanked him for the info – but mentioned that (1) like many other things in life that are now thought to be good for us it is probably too late for us to start, and (2) when someone expresses surprise at our reluctance to bury our otherwise wonderful meal under a coating of throat-numbing, sweat-inducing “flavoring” we tell them, “we’re from New England. Our idea of spicy food is maple syrup.”

In early-to-mid-March when temperatures drop below freezing at night and rise to the forties during the day the maple sap starts to flow. Sugar, black, red and silver maples tapped with old school metal buckets, or higher tech vacuum-pumped brightly colored tubing appear on the landscape. 
Sugarhouses large and small boil the collected sap, evaporating the water out and sending clouds of sweet maple scented steam billowing from their cupolas and steam stacks. As the water evaporates, the sap thickens. At the 219 degrees F the syrup is drawn off, filtered, and graded for flavor and color – golden, amber, dark or very dark – New England’s de-facto, but unaccredited, official food colors.

Just as the running of the sap heralds the coming of spring in New England, the sounds and scents of roasting chiles signal harvest time in New Mexico. Hand-turned black wire cages with spinning peppers heated by propane flames appear at grocery stores, farmers markets and roadside stands throughout the state. The sound of gushing gas and the snap, crackle, and pop of roasting chiles provides the musical background to the smoky, sweet, pungent perfume that wafts through the fall air.

It is almost enough to make even the most hard-core New Englander throw caution to the wind and… Almost. But no, not us anyway.

Maple trees are few and far between out here, only growing in a small number of cool mountainous places – and on our placita thanks to a previous owner. A NMSU professor has developed the “Mesa Glow” hybrid specifically for the state’s warm and dry desert climate – but not a syrup producing one. “I was inspired...because of its fall color.”

So what are those of us who prefer our food preferences measured in Percent Sucrose Equivalents rather than Scoville Heat Units to do?  For many the answer is sweet sorghum, a flowering grass that has been a source of saccharine satisfaction to people around the world for over 10,000 years.  Back in CT we may have heard the name – and, if so, probably thought it was some kind of silage for cattle (it is), or perhaps the surname of a Dogpatch resident in the comic strip L’il Abner (it isn’t.)

But we really knew nothing about sorghum until we began volunteering at El Rancho de las Golondrinas. And did not actually taste any till about a month ago.

So here is some of what we have learned.

Things apparently were not that sweet in the New World until Columbus brought sugar cane to Hispaniola on his second voyage in December 1493. Thirty years later it was introduced into Mexico by Hernán Cortés. Until then sorghum had followed much the same Africa-to-Europe path as sugar cane – however, it is unclear when it made its way into the Spanish New World.

We do know however it did not become a commercially viable crop in the United States until just prior to the Civil War. And, as much as New Mexicans hate to give Texans credit for anything, it was extensively cultivated there in the mid-19th century and most likely made its way westward from there to the Land of Enchantment.

Prior to that, Nuevo Méxicanos did their sweetening with mashed or pressed fruit, honey (when available) and processed sugar from lower Mexico and, after the 1821 opening of the Santa Fe Trail, the United States.  Attempts to grow sugar cane here were stymied by altitude and climate. Sorghum cane,  however, adapted well. “Corn guzzles water. Sorghum sips it.” (americansorghum.rom)

At las Golondrinas living museum we grow enough of the crop to be used for demo purposes at our annual fall “Harvest Festival.”

The ranch has three sorghum processing devices (“melaseras”) – two mortar-and-pestle presses (a hollowed log with pounding stick, and a fulcrum-and-lever model) plus a roller mill.  Syrup is made from the green juice, which is extracted from the crushed stalks and then heated to steam off the excess water.

The mortar-and-pestles presses were people-powered, while the roller mill was turned by a horse or burro, hitched to the wooden bar. We have at the moment two of the small donkeys on the ranch. (Marsha has become quite good at rolling her Rs, pronouncing “boorowe.” Jim not so much – “bo͝orō”.)

Such mills were relatively expensive, so like the small Spanish grist mills mentioned in our last email, a single sorghum mill would serve an entire community. And, as with wheat, processing fees were bartered. The sorghum growers brought their crops in at harvest time and took back home with them a portion of the resultant molasses (“miel.”) And like trips to the grist mill, sorghum milling was also an occasion for communal feasting, dancing and catching up on local gossip.

The roller mill at las Golondrinas has a Sears, Roebuck and Company label with the date 1895. It was not original to the ranch. Like most of the buildings and display objects it was moved here from other parts of the state when the museum was being created.

Our first taste of sweet sorghum syrup however was provided to us by SF friends and neighbors L and J, whose delicious gift of corn bread and the accompanying topping was the inspiration for this article.

So, how does it compare to maple syrup? We don’t think we can do better than this description from the North Carolina website

“It's got a whang to it, initial, intense note of sweet, followed by a sharp sour and the faintest twinge of bitter, although not brackish like blackstrap molasses. Sorghum's flavor contains a buttery depth, which I like to call Appalachian umami.”

But truth be told we have not been totally without our beloved real maple syrup out here in Santa Fe. There is LL Bean and Trader Joe’s. And local restaurants serve it with entrees such as French toast, waffles and our new breakfast fave “blue corn pancakes.” And not that stuff made with corn syrup and artificial maple extract like some Connecticut eateries did.

Disappointingly however the waitpersons do not ask, “golden or amber?”

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