My glorious and gustatorially-resplendent Citizens – I am pleased to report that I have just recently returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my father has lived for nearly 20 years now! This was the first time I’ve visited him in NM in nearly 5 years, and it was a joyous and Revolutionary reunion indeed – I also had the opportunity to sample some of Santa Fe’s finest traditional eateries while in town!
It was on my last day before returning home, and I had the opportunity to meet an old and dear online friend for the first time – and it was Howard who introduced me to the joys of not just sopapillas, but also carne adovada and red chile sauce – have patience and I shall explain what all parts of these delicious bills-of-fare entail!
A sopapilla is a kind of fried pastry and a type of quick bread served in several regions with Spanish heritage in the Americas. The word sopapilla is the diminutive of sopaipa, a word that entered Spanish from the Mozarabic language of Al-Andalus. The original Mozarabic word Xopaipa was used to mean bread soaked in oil. The word is derived in turn from the Germanic word suppa, which meant bread soaked in liquid.
A sopapilla is traditionally made from leavened wheat dough (or a mixture of wheat flour and masa harina) to which some shortening such as butter is added. After being allowed to rise, the dough is rolled into a sheet that is then cut into circular, square or triangular shapes, 8–10 cm in size for the longest dimension (if intended for a dessert) or 15–20 cm (if intended to be stuffed for a main course). These pieces are then deep-fried in oil, sometimes after being allowed to rise further before frying: the frying causes them to puff up, ideally forming a hollow pocket in the center.
Fried cakes have been made by humans since the earliest pottery vessels were developed that could hold oil or fat, around 5000 to 3000 BCE. In ancient times, frying cakes was a primitive substitute for baking, requiring only fire and a simple vessel. Every culture has developed some form of the dish. Sopapilla is a version found in Latin American cuisine, Tex-Mex cuisine and the cuisine of the Southwestern United States.
Sopapillas in New Mexican cuisine are pillow-shaped fried pastry dough, distinct from Latin American variations. Similar to Native American frybread (perhaps dervied from the Hopi or Navajo Native American First Nations), they are typically served as a bread, and used to mop up sauces, scoop up tidbits, or are shredded into stews. It’s been called “the doughnut of the Southwest”, while other authors have said “this non-yeasted, simply flavored bread is definitely not a donut, but it’s not really a fritter either”.
In northern New Mexico, they are often filled with savory ingredients such as ground beef or chicken, covered with chile and cheese, and served with lettuce and tomato as an entree, but such “stuffed sopapillas” are a relatively new innovation and are still fairly unknown in the southern part of the state. They are sometimes eaten as a dessert, drizzled with honey or anise syrup, but are often eaten this same way during the meal itself as New Mexican cuisine tends to be very spicy and sweet syrups reduce the sensations of heat.
Sopapillas are perhaps my new favorite snack – and they’re even better smothered in red chile sauce and stuffed with pork, as I have done in this recipe!
Adobada (Spanish for ‘marinated’), also spelled adovada, is a preparation for many dishes that are common in Mexican cuisine similar to tacos. Adobada is generally pork marinated in a “red” chile sauce with vinegar and oregano, but it can refer to different types of meat and to marinades closer to al pastor.
‘Carne adovada’ is a baked meat dish that is a specialty in New Mexican cuisine. In its simplest form, raw pork is cut into strips or cubes and placed in a large plastic bag with New Mexico red chili powder or minced red chili peppers (Hatch, Chimayo, or guajillo chili peppers), garlic, oregano, cumin, lime/lemon juice and/or vinegar, and salt, then mixed and refrigerated overnight. The dish is cooked by baking at low heat wrapped completely in foil or in a covered dish like a casserole dish to keep the meat moist.
The southern New Mexican version is usually pork cut into strips and chunks. Historically, before refrigeration, the pork was fermented in red chile in a crock using lactobacillus bacteria cultures. Fermented meat was a way of preservation and imparted a “sour” taste to the pork which explains why modern New Mexican adovada recipes call for a bit of white vinegar or lemon/lime juice.
The red chile is prepared “con pellejo” with bits of the chile skin using spices of fresh minced garlic, mortar and pestle ground oregano, comino (cumin), cilantro, and coriander seeds that may or may not be toasted. The dish is then baked until the meat is tender, moist and succulent on the inside while encrusted with a semidry and crisp red chile exterior that is almost blackened.
Other versions of red chile and boiled or braised pork may be claimed as carne adovada. Other versions of red chili and pork-skin pellejo are actually what is known as chile Colorado. Carne adovada may be served with a tortilla, beans and rice, fideos or homefries, or papas with a fresh vinegar slaw or salad.
Another version is found in central New Mexico. Chunks of pork are dipped in milk and rolled in a dry rub of red chili con pellejo, garlic powder, salt, and comino. These are tossed into a large fry pot with chicharrónes and deep fried until crisp on the outside and tender and succulent inside.
As to the red chile sauce – typically, most people think of the iconic GREEN Hatch chile sauce which is beloved throughout the state – but the red is also quintessentially New Mexican and really works well in this particular recipe! My version is made with the very rare but mandatory Chimayo pepper – more about it from this fascinating article in Food and Wine magazine!
The historic village of Chimayó, located in the heart of New Mexico, is approximately a 30-minute drive north of Santa Fe, at the foothills of the crimson-hued Sangre de Cristo mountains. Established at the tail-end of the 17th century by Spanish settlers, this tight-knit community of 3,000 people lies near the Santa Cruz river, and is best known for the Santuario de Chimayó.
But the most prized culinary item of the region is its distinctly reddish-orange chile that attracts purveyors from all nooks of the globe. Despite being so well-known, it is grown only in this community in small batches by a group of farmers who harvest the crop each fall, and use the harvest primarily for in dishes for their families.
The chile is grown from original heirloom seeds passed down from generation to generation, so outsiders can’t quite hybridize and grow their own version of it. Its intense red color comes from the drying process; the batches that are sold are oven-roasted, which gives the spice its distinctly toasted flavor. Chimayó pods are much smaller in size than a traditional Sandia or Hatch chile (roughly four inches in size), making it more difficult to harvest and process.
But it is the unique flavor of this spice that keeps visitors coming back for more.
“Chimayó chiles tend to be small, a little bit curlicued and thin-walled and because of this, they are harder to harvest,” says Cheryl Alters Jamison, a four-time James Beard Award-winning author. “They tend to be grown in small batches in someone’s backyard,” she says.
Because of the precise growing conditions for these plants—they demand warm days, cool nights and an adequate supply of water—it is rare to find this type of small chile anywhere else in the world. And because of the small harvest batches that tend to sell out almost immediately, Chimayó chile commands a very high price, around $45 per pound.
There has also been a rush of vendors who sell counterfeit versions of it, due to the growing demand. It is therefore important to know where to find the genuine stuff, and what qualities set the real chile apart from the other varieties.
Nicolas Madrid, manager of El Potrero Trading Post, which sells the real deal, says that he has only one farmer who will sell Chimayó chile to him, and he prices it at $45 per pound. “There’s basically not a single restaurant in Santa Fe that can serve Chimayó chile,” he says, referring to its scarcity.
Madrid says initially the annual production levels of Chimayó chile were once only 30 to 100 pounds, but that number has grown over the years, but he cannot estimate how much is available now because of “a large number of undocumented farmers,” he says.
Citizens, as you would expect from the Autarch of Authenticity, I ONLY use Chimayó chiles in the red chile sauce recipe – you can purchase the real deal, orange-red colored (this means it’s sun-dried, as opposed to oven-dried – that’s the best kind!) from here. You’ll need Mexican oregano as well for the red chile sauce – you can easily buy it from here. The red chile sauce recipe I am using is gratefully cribbed from madeinnewmexico.com.
My carne adovada recipe is from the Santa Fe School of Cooking – you’ll need top-quality standard New Mexican red chile powder, which you can buy here, crushed chile caribe (buy it from here), and red chile honey (buy it here). Also worth noting that the sopapilla recipe has my own tweaks, including the use of sage honey – buy it here.
The combo of all of these celestial dishes combined together is truly the manna of the Gods and well-worth all of your time, hard work and interest, my Citizens! You may wish to enjoy this delicious main course in tandem with a bowl of green Mexican posole!
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