The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

At last, we are in New Mexico! My home state is written about beautifully in this classic, The Milagro Beanfield War. Set in the mythical village of Milagro (there is actually a Milagro, NM, but the real town is nothing like the book’s version), it’s the story of Joe Mondragón and his fight for water rights, against big business, and in essence, it’s the story of the little guy fighting the system and – for once – winning.

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I loved the story of one man against the system – the whole David and Goliath theme – and could certainly relate it to much of what has gone on here in my state. New Mexico seems to fighting a battle of two clashing cultures – the culture of the heritage and history of the original families who settled here over 400 years ago, and the ongoing culture of the rest of America that continues to come here and make small but significant changes to a way of life that has been consistent for hundreds of years.

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I am all for progress and innovation, but it would be nice to have that without losing so much of our cultural heritage that is found increasingly in the small towns of the state. This book gave me a new appreciation for places and things that I’d grown up around and taken for granted.

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The movie version of this book was filmed in the Northern New Mexico, in a little town called Truchas, which was originally part of a larger Spanish land grant and in fact, because it is unincorporated, still operates under the same land grant laws that were in effect 300 years ago. You still see horses and cows on the streets and roadways, sharing the space with cars, tractors and bicycles.

2016-09-04 17.53.34_resized.jpg It’s a true slice of New Mexican history, a beautiful small village tucked against mountain ranges, and for me, epitomizes what is so very special about my home state.

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but I never learned to cook the New Mexico classics growing up. My grandmother, Nana Jean, who raised me for the most part, was a fantastic cook and the greatest maternal influence on my life and my cooking. But when I was young, I associated cooking with drudgery and obligation. You HAD to cook for your family and kids – not out of fun, out of requirement. As a result, I flat-out refused to learn to cook until I hit my early 30s and discovered Nigella Lawson, who made it look not only easy but glamorous and fun. From her, I learned to cook simple things and gradually moved into more complex dishes and flavors, and developed the palate that influences my cooking today.

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When my Nana Jean died a few years ago, she took much of my heart with her. It was only when I came out of the worst of my grieving that I was able to look at the homey cookbook she’d put together for all of her grandchildren, written in her own words and each with a handwritten dedication to each of us.

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When I started to read the recipes and methods I’d grown up with, I realized that I was ready to embrace her spirit and start making these dishes. And it’s appropriate that her spirit is what encourages me to continue doing what I’m doing, in honor not just of my love of books and cooking, but also, my love of my home state of New Mexico.

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In the book, the character Herbie Platt comes to Milagro to conduct scientific research, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Amarante Cordova, an elderly man who believes in all the saints, and regularly leaves them offerings of tamales. It was an interesting juxtaposition of science and progress meeting tradition and history, and showing how they can indeed compliment one another. Herbie ends up falling for Stephanie, a local woman who runs a nursery school and has befriended him.  In one scene, while he is pondering his love for her, she shows up with a traditional New Mexico meal for him and ensures his devotion to the death, something we New Mexico women are good at doing with our cooking.

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“By this time Herbie loved her so much it hurt. Whereupon Stephanie appeared – miraculously! – with steaming enchiladas, a bottle of homemade beer, freshly baked bread, and locally grown grapes. They ate while a church bell languidly rang the Angelus.”

This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s classic recipe for green chile chicken enchiladas, with my own added twist.

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6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached in chicken broth and shredded
12 corn tortillas. I used white, but yellow is just fine, too.
Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
1 small onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup of milk
1 carton of mushrooms – my twist and a darn good one, I must say
1.5 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses
1 cup roasted and peeled New Mexico green chile

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Preheat the oven to 350F, and sauté the mushrooms, onions and garlic in a bit of oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

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Heat the oil in a skillet until a drop of water makes it sizzle and pop. Fry each corn tortilla for 5 seconds on each side, just to soften them and make them a bit more pliable.

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Layer the corn tortillas in a casserole dish. I used my Nana’s old Pyrex dish that I remember her using for enchiladas, and mix the shredded chicken with the sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic.

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In a separate bowl, combine the two cans of soup with the milk, stir together, then add to the chicken and mushroom mixture. Stir, then mix in the chile in with the rest of the ingredients.

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Spoon a layer of the mixture over the corn tortillas. Add some of the shredded cheese. Layer more tortillas on top of that layer, then add another layer of the chicken mixture. Top with another generous layer of cheese.

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Bake for 30 minutes and savor the rapturous scent of chicken, mushrooms, cheese and green chile cooking together. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then eat. They are so delicious, rich and creamy and spicy! I do think my Nana would be proud!

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25 thoughts on “The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

  1. …another pleasure. Thanks again… (place and scents, people, movement, forms… and a… pasta al forno (enchilada, something that gives pleasure to recall even if you don’t actually have such memories…. still seems like a belonging. Shucks. I wish I’d of known, well, one of my grandmas…. one passed early, the other was in Italy.)

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    1. Thank you so much. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. As I’m sure you can tell, this one was very close to my heart. I’m sorry you didn’t get to spend time with your grandmothers growing up. For me, that was the seminal relationship of my life. My grandmother was a wonderful, wonderful woman. I miss her terribly but I am deeply grateful she is not here to suffer through this pandemic. Please take good care of yourself and stay well. 😊

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  2. Your story bring me memories of my own.

    People always ask me where, or how I learned to cook, once they taste my food, to the point that I already have an elaborated answer, if you want, too much tarareada (too much repeated)

    Accustomed to being served as king at home, by Mother, Nana, Grandmothers, and Aunts, I never set foot in the kitchen, in fact the women of the house being traditionalists, and fanatical about the point that men do not belong in the kitchen, they did not even allow us, the men of the home to enter the kitchen, saying:

    “What do you need, or what business do you have here?
    Are you going to grow skirts?

    My job was to sit at the table where I was occupying at the head of the table, opposite my father, without being the oldest, with the door of the kitchen very close to me, from where the women of the house could realize, if my eyes looked for something at the table, and they immediately will ask me:

    “What do you need?”

    To which I answered for example: More rice, or another tortilla, the answer was immediate: “And how do you want the tortilla, freshly made, reheated, or doradita (slightly toasted)?

    In other words they were constantly pampering me, and taking care of my every need, and consequently, I was spoiled rotten, and totally useless!

    When I left, away from home to study, at the age of seventeen, I was totally helpless!

    And consequently I suffered a lot!

    Trying to cook something I called my mother often home, to ask her how to do this, or that, whatever I liked so much.

    By trial, and error, persistence, and and correcting mistakes, I finally acquired dexterity in cooking, and remembering the original taste of the many dishes, they cooked, I became good at preparing my own food, to the point my ex wives, did very little cooking, and even today, my own grown up children, rather come to eat with me. than going to their mothers, for diner!

    Great post! 🙂

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    1. I have always thought mothers and grandmothers who taught their kids and grandkids to cook – regardless of gender – were doing the entire world a favor. One, because you are allowing that child to be independent and no rely on anyone else. Two, if you’re teaching a boy to cook, you are potentially doing his future wife a favor by giving him the ability to cook for her and their family. I admit to having grown up in a traditional Hispanic New Mexican family where my grandmothers waited on their husbands and I find myself doing this as well. However, I don’t do it out of servility or because it’s expected…..I do it because I was also taught to pamper my guests. I enjoy serving my guests, whether it’s the man I love or other visitors. I think it’s marvelous that you taught yourself this essential skill. It is life-enhancing in so many ways. I’ll bet your children value the lesson you are teaching by having them over to enjoy food that you’ve cooked. Thank you for commenting, and I’m so glad you liked this post.

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      1. Oh, no doubt!

        I am also very happy, and proud I got that culinary tradition behind me, passed from generations of Grandmothers, Mother, Aunts, and Nannies, otherwise I will be eating out, or bringing prepared meals home every day, like most people in America seem doing now day, constantly hearing friends talking about food, sadly listen to the many places, they went to eat a great meal, never hear now, that they cooked a great meal themselves.

        I am retired now, and away from Los Angeles, and back in my country, but in America often, I was invited by friends at their homes, and I would prepare them a great meal for every one, of course I have them helping me cutting vegetables, and helping in the kitchen, to my surprise they always seemed to be helpless around the kitchen, and some with kitchens as large as my apartment, with great kitchens, fully equipped, but mainly as decorations, and hardly ever used, I noticed, by the fine dust inside the pantry, cabinets, the brand new pans, pots, and many cooking utensils never used, some still with the label, except the fridge, to storage the leftovers, and cold drinks, and the microwave oven the only things they ever use!

        I guess with the abundance of ready made meals, and people’s busy lives, with few exceptions, more, and more people do not cook ever, which it’s sad.

        A son, and a daughter of mine, are now helping me to prepare a meal, when visiting, and therefore learning how to cook themselves, my daughter is becoming now very proficient, and she seems to be very detail oriented, and methodical, my son likes good food, and always asking me questions as to what seasonings I use, and how I do things in the kitchen, as well, which augurs well, for passing the knowledge, and tradition to future generations.

        Thank you for your response. 🙂

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  3. It’s sad that disagreements usually end in the loss of some identity. It’s happening all the time, everywhere. I feel like that in my country too. I’m all for helping people and having everyone come and live here. I love what a kind and helpful country we can be… But, do we have to do it at the loss of what makes us Canada?
    I love that your Nana made up a cookbook for her grandkids, what a lovely legacy to ensure that her cooking is always remembered! The food looks delicious! 💖🍻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree it’s unfortunate that oftentimes we can’t disagree without it going to the extreme, but sadly, I think that’s going to be the norm going forward. Especially with the level of discourse and how social media has fueled that. The cookbook from my Nana is one of my greatest treasures! Thanks again!

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  4. I love enchiladas! Wow, yours look so delicious, too. I get Hatch green chile shipped to me each year and I hoard it because it can be expensive to get out of state. But I haven’t yet tried enchiladas. Your post has inspired me. I also love the mushrooms! A great way to add vegetables. Now I want to visit Milagro, NM!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mari! Enchiladas are my favorite dish in the whole world. Glad you liked the post. And I understand about hoarding chile! Even though I live in this state with easy access, I always stockpile chile.


  5. Vanessa, I love how you combine your books, meals, with the heart of a family. I too am Latin and love to tell my children the stories of how my own mother would make meals with love and patience. Great Blog as always my dear beautiful lady..

    Take care, from Laura (Esperanza) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. That’s wonderful that you share those stories of your mother with your children. Our family histories are really what make us who we are I think. Thank you so very much for your feedback. It is greatly appreciated!

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  6. I remember watching the movie with my mom when I was younger. She is from Truchas! Your blog brought back many fond memories. And the pictures did the job of making me hungry. The part of your nana Jean providing you with her handwritten recipes and personal message was really sweet! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I wasn’t sure about the soup either but my grandmother’s recipe specified it so I did it. I do what I’m told. 🙂 if you do make this and use soup, I promise that the flavor is really delicious. And yes, Nigella is definitely my hero for more reasons than just cooking. She’s really an amazing person. So glad you like the post.

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