If you’ve been following my blog since it started, you’ll know of my deep and abiding love for the literary works of Rudolfo Anaya. A native of my home state of New Mexico, he was one of the first writers to gain national and worldwide attention for his books set here in the Land of Enchantment. His writings embody the experience of growing up Hispanic in New Mexico, growing up in a small town with not very much money, growing up in a world that is rapidly changing from agricultural to industrial, growing up in a world that straddles both the corporeal and the spiritual.
Rio Grande Fall walks this line between the material world and that of the spirits that surround us here in our beautiful, dysfunctional but always magical state of New Mexico. The second in a series of four books by Anaya titled on the seasons of the year and all following the story of Elfego “Sonny” Baca, a private investigator with quite the track record of cracking cases and hooking up with women, this book continues the story from the first book Zia Summer, in which Sonny is tracking a cult leader and murderer called Raven, who is what we call a brujo here – a witch working dark magic.
The charm of these books is that they exemplify life in New Mexico as told from the point of view of a native resident, not a transplant, and that’s why I can relate so much to the books of Anaya. He doesn’t promote the same tired literary tropes about the Southwest that so many non-native writers do. I love our Native American culture but my God, it’s been done to death in books and TV and movies. I like the focus on the other people who make up the beautiful and varied tapestry that is the people of our state – this Hispanics who are descended from Spanish soldiers and indigenous women of Mexico whose whose unique history, genetics, religion and culture have made us the hard-working, fun-loving, resilient, difficult and amazing raza we are today.
Sonny Baca lives in the North Valley in Albuquerque, in the shadow of massive cottonwood trees, in proximity to his beloved elderly neighbor Don Eliseo and Don Eliseo’s friends Don Toto and Doña Concha. For those of you not familiar with New Mexico culture, the title of “Don” or “Doña” is honorary, given to an elder whose knowledge, influence and connections made he or she a powerful member of the community. Similar to how Vito Corleone was referred to as “Don Corleone” in the Godfather books and movies, so here you have that same concept.
Don Eliseo is a powerful influence in Sonny’s life, representing the light side of his soul as Raven represents the dark, negative energy that is also part of Sonny’s makeup. And Sonny’s connection with his elderly neighbors also emphasizes the respect, love and honor the majority of New Mexico Hispanics hold for their senior citizens. They are the ones with our history, our story, and our souls and when they are gone, a major piece of our cultural identity goes with them.
This scene is classic New Mexico in the autumn, when people are roasting green chile outside, drinking beer or wine, and essentially turning it into a party.
Don Eliseo and his two friends were busy in the front yard when Sonny drove up. He and Doña Concha and Don Toto were roasting a basketful of green chile that Don Eliseo grew in his field by the house. Don Eliseo slowly and methodically placed the shapely green peppers on the grill, turned each one with care, and when the thin skin was brown and roasted, he picked up the chile and tossed it in a pan. Don Toto’s job was to make sure the just-roasted chiles were kept covered with a wet towel and steaming, thus making the skin easier to peel off. He also kept the wineglasses full of his own vintage, a North Valley wine that came from vines his family had cultivated since the seventeenth century.
Fall is chile season here in New Mexico, and the smell of it roasting at farmers markets, growers markets and grocery stores is an integral part of the changing of the season. In fact, October is also when the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place, so oftentimes you’ll be out walking or opening your door to greet the morning, and be hit with a gorgeous scent of roasting green chile while watching hot-air balloons float serenely overhead against a backdrop of the stunningly blue New Mexico sky……..and you will know that autumn has arrived. Green chile is marvelously versatile, and I thought I’d make a classic fall dish of chicken pot pie and add that spicy twist of roasted green chile and other traditional fall vegetables, in homage to Sonny Baca and Don Eliseo, who would surely approve.
Two good-quality, store-bought pie crusts (you can make your own but why give yourself more work?)
5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter
1 green zucchini, cubed
1 red bell pepper, deseeded and cubed
1 can corn, drained and rinsed
2 generous tablespoons dried garlic powder
5 New Mexico green chile peppers, preferably Big Jim
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup full-fat milk
1/2 cup chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oven to 425F, and poach the chicken thighs in water or store-bought chicken broth, then cool and shred. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the oil and butter, sprinkle over the garlic powder, and saute the squash and bell pepper about 10 minutes.
Add the corn and stir until warm, then pour into the bowl with the shredded chicken and mix well. Set aside and save the oil in the skillet.
If you have a gas stove, turn on the two front hobs and lay two chiles on top of each. The idea is to roast and blister them on each side, turning frequently until the entire chile is blackened and roasted. Use tongs so you don’t burn your fingers. NOTE: this is a very old-school method of roasting green chile. Most people do it in the oven under the broiler, on an outdoor grill, or in a toaster oven, but I like to live dangerously and do it the way my grandfather taught me – stovetop!
Turn the chiles as you roast them, so that each side gets blackened and that spicy smell wafts out at you. Put into a large plastic bag, seal it and cover with a tea towel. The idea here is that the skins will steam off. Leave for up to 20 minutes.
Remove the chile from the plastic bag, slide off the skins, then cut off the stems and remove as many seeds as possible.
Chop up the roasted chile, season with salt and garlic powder, and mix with the chicken and vegetables. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
Heat some butter in the same skillet you used for the vegetables, and when melted, add the flour and stir until it melts into the butter and browns a bit. Gradually add the milk and keep whisking, to form a roux. Simmer over medium heat until it thickens.
Lay out one of the pie crusts and add in the chicken-vegetable-chile mixture, then pour over the hot roux.
Cover with the other pie crust, crimping the edges to sea, and cutting some slits in the top for steam to escape.
Bake for 30 minutes, until the pie crust gets golden brown and you can smell all those wonderful savory scents. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes before cutting into it and enjoying your slice of New Mexico heaven on a plate!