“Red or green?”
This a statement you’re bound to hear when ordering a meal in and around New Mexico — and if you really know what’s good, you’ll say, “Christmas.”
In the early 19th Century, enchiladas were introduced by Aztec and Spanish influences to the new country of Mexico and gradually became known as a native dish, now distinctively part of Mexican cuisine. In New Mexico, Mexican cuisine developed in fairly isolated circumstances, which allowed it to maintain its Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and Latin identity. Enchiladas were further adapted, and now the combination of chile sauces and flavor has given birth to a dish affectionately known as Christmas enchiladas or stacked enchiladas.
And Christmas is a year-round affair in New Mexico. These enchiladas are unique to the state and can be found on nearly every menu you come across. Even if you’ve never encountered anyone ordering an entree smothered in both red and green chile sauce, the meaning of “Christmas” is instantly clear: having very little to do with the holiday but rather from the rich Mexican heritage of New Mexico and the coincidence of the local Hatch chile pepper colors being red and green.
New Mexico has a unique culinary culture of its very own. Many visitors sit down at restaurants in New Mexico expecting what they know to be Mexican, Tex-Mex, or California fresh-Mex food — and are surprised and delighted to discover the differences.
The crown jewels are the state's famed chile sauces (note the spelling, which is enshrined in the state constitution). New Mexico is the only state to have an official question: ‘Red or green?’ referring to the colors of the two sauces liberally smothered over and infused into every New Mexican dish (it is even put on burgers and pizzas!). And this sauce is made explicitly with Hatch Chiles.
Chiles are the heart and soul of these stacked enchiladas. Authentic dishes proudly use Hatch chile peppers — and only Hatch chile peppers — for their sauces. These pepper are grown and harvested in the Hatch Valley region of Southern New Mexico. The famous chiles stand out in the unique climate and soil composition that they’re grown in. You might argue that Hatch Valley is to chile peppers what the Napa Valley is to grapes.
The New Mexico chile has a long and mixed history: Native American Pueblo tribes used local species of peppers, and these were adapted and later influenced by European cultivation techniques brought in by the Spanish. The modern version of the chiles of today was bred and introduced in 1894 by local horticulturalist Fabián Garcia.
The state is so rooted (pun intended) in their chiles that in 2012 legislators passed a law that prohibits the sale of chili peppers with the label "New Mexican" unless actually grown in New Mexico, or they must include a disclaimer label of "Not Grown in New Mexico."
There are two basic types of tortillas: corn and flour. Traditionally tortillas for enchiladas are made with masa harina, a type of corn flour. Today, despite the mass manufacturing of wheat tortillas, corn tortillas are still a more popular option.
Corn was cultivated and held sacred by ancient native tribes in Central America, and they ground it to make their tortillas. Enchiladas were always made with corn tortillas until the Spanish came and introduced wheat flour.
Today, corn tortillas are still a better choice, not just for the extra flavor they bring, but because they resist getting soggier and hold their shape better when rolled.
With a name that literally translates to “to be spiced” or “spicy” in Spanish, enchilada sauce is a smooth chile-based sauce.
The most common type of sauce used to make enchiladas is a sauce blended from rehydrated red chile peppers, fresh onion, fresh garlic, and herbs. This is how enchiladas were made for hundreds of years.
Red chile sauce is the classic version, based on red chiles, and usually contains vinegar, onions, and garlic as the primary sources of flavor. Red sauces can contain tomatoes or tomato paste but don’t require them.
On the other hand, green chile sauce is based on green chiles and often contains tomatillos, green variants of the tomato common in Mexican cuisine that are often sweeter.
The combination of the two sauces on one dish provides alternating hits of smoky, sweet red chiles and a bright, spicy kick from the green chiles. Where they bleed together at the center of the plate... that's where something magical happens as an entirely new sauce is created.
Now that you've learned about the rich history of Christmas enchiladas — you're ready to eat. This recipe can be adapted in many ways, but here’s a traditional take. First, you have to soften your tortillas. Preheat some canola oil in a skillet on medium heat. Stack 2 to 3 tortillas and place them in oil using metal tongs. Fry, turning as needed, just to soften the tortillas. It should take less than a minute.
Place your tortillas onto a plate and preheat your broiler to high. Fill each tortilla with 2 tablespoons of cheese and sliced green onions (to taste). You can also add your favorite filling: chicken, beef, or shrimp. Roll them as tight as possible and place them in a baking dish. Ladle red and green sauce on either side to cover the enchiladas. Top with cheese (as much as you like) and broil until the cheese has melted. Garnish with fresh toppings and sour cream. These can also be served with Spanish rice and pinto beans on the side.
One of the best ways to experience New Mexico is through its fantastic cuisine. If you don't know where to start or are overwhelmed by choice, Christmas enchiladas hit you with both bold flavor and unique combinations, which all deliver on mouth-watering taste. And you can add your new found New Mexico expertise to your wardrobe as well; by sporting your chile choices all year round.