The Melting Pot, Stirred

A new exhibit traces the roots of New World Cuisine, with chocolate as a main course.

Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art has been among my most-beloved destinations for the 30 years I have lived in New Mexico. With the museum’s opening of an epic, yearlong exhibition devoted to food, nourishment, and cultural heritage, I am now so enamored that I might ask the staff to let me move into one of the galleries. Five years in the making, New World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate, Maté y Más, is a must for anyone with an interest in culinary history, beautiful objects, and gorgeous staging.

Nicolasa Chávez, curator of Spanish Colonial and Contemporary Hispano/Latino Collections, shows expertise and passion for her subject at every turn. She’s a 15th-generation New Mexican, with degrees and advanced degrees in history, Spanish language, and Iberian studies from the University of New Mexico. She has transcribed the letters of Don Diego de Vargas, and worked as a curator for the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum. It doesn’t hurt that she’s traveled extensively in Spain and South America, spent years in the kitchen with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and is the daughter of one of New Mexico’s most distinguished historians, Thomas E. Chávez, retired director of the state’s Palace of the Governors.

Some Backstory

When Christopher Columbus bumped into the Caribbean islands in 1492, he was seeking a new route to India’s Malabar Coast, the home of black pepper. At the time, it was one of the Old World’s most-sought spices. Not realizing his geographical error, Columbus created centuries of linguistic confusion by calling the native peoples “Indians” and their pungent chiles “peppers.” Among other things, his arrival altered the planet’s culinary and agricultural landscapes.

Many exhibitions have dealt with this general theme, mostly focusing on corn, beans, squash, chiles, and tomatoes: New World discoveries that changed foodways around the globe. No one can dispute the importance of those ingredients, but Nicolasa Chávez opted to delve into the topic differently, with her greatest emphasis on beverages. Theobroma cacao, the Americas’ food of the Gods—known to us today as chocolate—blanketed the world like a candy bar melting in the New Mexico sun. It was originally a bitter, unsweetened drink used for religious and ceremonial purposes. In contrast, South America’s yerba maté, a culturally significant infusion made from the leaves of a rainforest holly tree, has really caught on outside its home territories only in recent decades. Wines and vines get special exploration too, from their Old World roots to their importance in what is now Argentina, and the grape’s trail northward.

Ingredients for Change

New World Cuisine shows how, first in Mexico and then in South America and New Mexico, the natives of the Americas and the Spanish forged one of the most dynamic blends of food cultures ever seen in human history. Another New Mexican, a preeminent horticultural historian, William W. Dunmire, describes the interaction as “a mighty food pathway into the American Southwest.” Cows, hogs, sheep, goats, and other domesticated animals were introduced everywhere Europeans settled. Foods brought to the New World include melons and peaches, cabbage and cucumbers, garlic and onions. From the time the first shipment of New World crops arrived on the European continent, in 1493, cuisine changed forever there, too. The Spanish acquired tomatoes for gazpacho, previously just a white bread soup. The Irish eventually got Peruvian potatoes; the French, Mexican vanilla. And China, Thailand, and India procured chiles.

Of particular interest to New Mexicans may be portions of the exhibit that tell the stories of how certain foods came to be popular here. A traditional New Mexican kitchen compares and contrasts to those of Spain and New Spain. Another exhibit traces how grapes came, by 1629, to what is now New Mexico: Franciscan friars kicked off our state’s wine industry, a century and a half before California got into the game. Initially, much of the wine was for sacramental purposes, but it became the beverage of choice through the colonial and territorial periods. The wine business continued to expand, especially with the influx of Italian and French immigrants at the end of the 19th century. A superstorm of early-20th-century flooding and root rot increased outside competition, and Prohibition then wiped out wine in New Mexico for more than 50 years, until the industry’s vigorous rebound in recent decades. Check out the 19th-century Italian winemaking equipment in the exhibition, loaned by Ponderosa Valley Vineyards.

You Are What You Eat With

The exhibition features some 300 implements for harvesting, cooking, and dining. Examples include Asian and European spice jars, retrofitted in Mexico with intricately detailed locking metal lids to protect a household’s precious cacao from thieves; traditional pottery cooking vessels reimagined by metalsmiths who used hammered copper to accommodate the molinillo used to froth chocolate; and fine antique and contemporary silverware from Europe and the Americas. An artful imitation of imported Chinese porcelain, the cobalt-and-white majolica tableware from Puebla, is exquisite.

Nicolasa Chávez has borrowed one tiny pottery fragment from Chaco Canyon that tested positive for theobroma residue.“I wanted that in the exhibit to really bring home to New Mexico that we’ve had a 1,000-year-old love affair with chocolate,” she says. She has collected chocolateras, the vessels for mixing and pouring liquid chocolate, as well as cups fused to mancerinas—special saucers that held the cups of chocolate in place so that none of the precious elixir would spill. Chocolate drinking remained a regular activity of upper-class Hispanos in New Mexico until Anglos arrived in numbers, bringing with them coffee and tea.

The maté cups from Argentina, Uruguay, and other areas of South America were a revelation to me. Made from gourds, often rimmed or inlaid with silver, or simply fashioned entirely from silver, the intricate carved or cast  cups represent alpacas, birds, and other fauna and flora. The accompanying bombillas, which serve as straws and filters, are similarly ornate. The beverage and the ritual connected to making and sharing it are potent symbols of hospitality. Don’t miss the handsome set of maté cups donated to the New Mexico History Museum by native New Mexican diplomat Frank Ortiz, who acquired the set while on State Department assignment to Argentina. With serving vessels this lovely, you may wonder why, in Europe, the popularity of chocolate and coffee far eclipsed that of maté.

Bites

More Sweets for the Sweet

You expect New Mexico’s premier chocolatiers, such as Cocopotamus, to whip up gluten-free and vegan truffles with all natural ingredients, and they deliver big on that promise. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Body, one of Santa Fe’s finest fitness emporiums, also offers house-made truffles and raw chocolates. Owner Lorin Parrish uses her extensive knowledge of current health concerns to design the recipes for these delectable confections. The raw chocolates contain only raw cacao, raw cacao butter, raw cacao paste, raw coconut oil, and, as sweetener, a syrup made from the root of the yacón, an Andean plant, which has a milder effect on blood sugar than regular cane sugar. The basic truffles are made with just cacao, cream, milk, and raw sugar. In addition, the chocolates are flavored with infusions such as ginger, chile pepper, and more. Body. 333 W. Cordova, Santa Fe. (505) 986-0362; bodyofsantafe.com

Run, Don’t Walk, to Quail Run

Deena Chafetz became one of my favorite chefs during her stint at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. When she moved on to Santa Fe’s deluxe private residential community Quail Run, I figured I wouldn’t have the chance to eat one of her meals anytime soon. Then I discovered that a nominal monthly fee can be applied to meals taken at Quails Run’s dining club, giving nonmembers the opportunity to enjoy the Grille Restaurant whenever they wish. Call the restaurant for details.  Quail Run. 3101 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe. (505) 986-2200; quailrunsantafe.com

Sips

Alsace on the Jémez

Ponderosa Valley Vineyards, in the tiny village of Ponderosa on the slopes of the Jémez Mountains, has been producing wines since 1993. Area vineyards, though, go back to at least the 1880s. For a Valentine’s Day dinner, start with the winery’s Riesling, or end with a split of their Late Harvest Riesling dessert wine. At outlets throughout New Mexico and available by mail. You can visit the winery, too, where you’re likely to be greeted by owner Henry Street. 3171 Highway 290, Ponderosa. 800-WINE-MKR; ponderosawinery.com

Cheryl Alters Jamison is New Mexico Magazine’s contributing culinary editor. Read her blog at nmmagazine.com/tastingnm. See Douglas Merriam’s work at douglasmerriam.com.

Chocolate Flourless Tart with Almond Crust

Imagine a fudgy brownie crossed with a flourless chocolate cake perched on a slab of toasted almonds, and you’d come close to this little masterpiece from chocolatier Ally Sinclair.
Yield Serves 8

Ingredients

Crust

½ stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Pinch salt
1 heaping tablespoon confectioners’ (powdered) sugar
1 cup almond meal
2 to 3 tablespoons toffee baking bits, optional

Filling

1 shot espresso
12 ounces semisweet chocolate (preferably not chocolate chips)
½ stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3 large eggs if near sea level, 4 if at 5,000 feet or higher
½ cup granulated sugar
¹/³ cup whipping cream
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract, preferably Mexican (such as Nielsen-Massey)
Pinch salt
Confectioners’ (powdered) sugar

Directions

Preheat oven to 350° F, if at or close to sea level. For altitudes above 5,000 feet (Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos), preheat oven to 370° F. If at sea level, place oven rack in middle. If at higher altitude, place rack of the way up from oven’s bottom.

For Crust

Melt butter with salt in small pan on stovetop over medium-low heat. Stir in confectioners’ sugar and almond meal. Mixture will be a bit sticky. Scrape mixture into 8-inch spring-form pan and press into even layer. Bake 6 to 9 minutes or until just slightly browned. If you wish, sprinkle with toffee bits while warm and gently press bits down into crust. Set crust aside on baking rack to cool.

For Filling

Melt chocolate with butter in top of double boiler. Stir to combine, then set aside to slightly cool. Lightly whisk eggs just enough to combine them. Do not overbeat. When chocolate has cooled, whisk eggs into it. Add sugar, cream, vanilla, salt, and espresso, mixing just enough to combine. Pour filling over crust. Bake 18 to 22 minutes or until set (wiggles only slightly at center).

Cool tart on wire rack at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature. Slices can be cut more neatly when cool. Dust full tart or individual pieces with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

Recipe © 2012 by Cocopotamus/NYDC Chocolate LLC.

Nicolasa Chávez’s Sangría

The exhibition’s curator makes up pitchers or punch bowls of this thirst quencher for nearly every festive occasion.
Yield Serves a Party

Ingredients

1500 ml (2 standard bottles or 1 magnum) dry red wine, such as Frontera Shiraz
1 cup apricot or blackberry brandy, or other fruit-flavored brandy
2 medium oranges, cut into bite-size chunks
2 medium apples, such as Granny Smith
or Gala, cut into bite-size chunks
2 large lemons, cut into bite-size chunks
1 cinnamon stick
¼ teaspoon brown sugar
1 liter 7-Up, sparkling lemonade, or sparkling orange soda (Spanish La Casera brand,
if available)

Directions

Combine wine, brandy, fruit, cinnamon stick, and brown sugar in punch bowl or large clear serving jar. Let sit 1 to 2 hours at room temperature, or overnight in refrigerator. Just before serving, add sparkling soda. Ladle sangría into ice-filled glasses and enjoy.

<>Recipe courtesy Nicolasa Chávez.

Nopal Salad

Prickly-pear cactus pads (nopal or nopales), taste a good bit like green beans.
Yield Serves 4

Ingredients

1 pound fresh nopales, sliced into thin ribbons, or 15- to 16-ounce jar of nopales (Weldon recommends Goya), drained and rinsed
Juice of 1 large lemon
4 medium Roma (plum) tomatoes, seeded
and diced
½ medium purple onion, finely chopped
2 to 3 fresh jalapeños, seeded and
finely chopped
About 3 ounces queso fresco, crumbled
Fresh cilantro, about a handful, stemmed
and chopped
Juice of 2 medium limes
Salt and black pepper

Directions

Toss together nopales with lemon juice in shallow bowl and marinate 20 to 25 minutes. Drain off accumulated liquid. (Fresh nopales will soften somewhat while in the juice.)

If working with fresh nopales, fire up a grill to medium heat. On a small wire-mesh grill topper or cooking grate, grill nopales, turning frequently, until tender with some brown edges (about 5 minutes). Cool. (Bottled nopales are already cooked.)

Mix together in another bowl tomatoes, onion, jalapeños, queso fresco, cilantro, and lime juice. Add nopales, salt and pepper to taste, and refrigerate about 30 minutes. Serve chilled.

Recipe courtesy Weldon Fulton.