Finding a Cultural Touchstone in New Mexico's Carne Adovada

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Carne adovada at Barelas. [Photographs: Stephanie Cameron]

Twelve years ago, I left the beautiful and chaotic city of New Orleans for the high desert vistas of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was an impulsive move, driven by professional frustration rather than any disenchantment with the Big Easy, and one I've often questioned over the years. New Orleans' culture and history set it apart from mainstream America, and I liked being in that space. Of course, the city's food—its backyard crawfish boils and platters of fat, salty oysters, freshly shucked and waiting for some Crystal hot sauce—was, and remains, palpably inseparable from its character.

And so, between starting my new job and adjusting to New Mexico's shocking lack of humidity, I found myself hunting for similar touchstones—ingredients and flavors that would help me understand what the state was made of. Happily, there was no shortage of inspiration in the region's history of Native American settlements, followed by Spanish conquest, Native rebellion, Spanish reconquest, and centuries of relative isolation.

One dish in particular captured my imagination and my palate alike: carne adovada, a meaty stew that is ubiquitous here, found in beloved diners and family-owned restaurants, tourist hotspots, and even some upscale eateries.

At first glance, the recipe itself isn't complicated: Pork is marinated for hours in a sauce of red chiles (say "chilies" instead and you'll instantly be identified as an out-of-towner); seasoned with salt, garlic, Mexican oregano, and perhaps some cumin and vinegar; then stewed until the meat is fall-apart tender. The flavors are simple as well—provided that the heat isn't overpowering, you'll taste meltingly tender pork, the smoky tang of chile, and subtle hints of oregano. But each home cook and restaurant chef puts his or her own twist on it. The dish can come flooded with heat, or mildly spiked for a subtle kick on the finish; some cube the raw pork before marinating, while others insist on cooking the whole pork shoulder, shredding or cubing the meat only to serve. In fact, no matter the variation, there's only one thing that's guaranteed: If you've eaten carne adovada once, well, you've only eaten it once.

Unlike so many Southwestern dishes, like fajitas and burritos, carne adovada has yet to jump the state's borders. Lois Ellen Frank, a Native foods historian and author, relates the localization of carne adovada to the idea of terroir—it carries the flavors of the land, and is inextricable from them. And sure enough, I have a hard time imagining the dish thriving outside its original environment. In part, that's because it starts, naturally, with chiles.

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Mary & Tito's carne adovada–stuffed sopapilla.

Chiles have been around for some 6,000 years, says Frank, spread throughout what we now know as North and South America, both by birds, who deposited the seeds along migratory routes, and by trade among indigenous tribes. The Spanish certainly found chiles among the Aztecs when they arrived in present-day Mexico in the 1500s. Thanks to trade (and those birds), chiles were already in what would become New Mexico when the Spanish set out to settle the northern frontier, but they also brought new varieties with them, says Frank.

The Native people they encountered in pueblos relied on wild game rather than domesticated animals for food, and it's likely the Spanish saw them using chiles both in food and as medicine—chiles, Frank adds, have antifungal, antibacterial, and probiotic properties. The conquistadors introduced chickens and hogs to the region, and, with no refrigeration, chiles provided an excellent way to keep meat around a little longer. Capsaicin, which gives chiles their heat, stops oxidation, explains Jane Butel, an author and expert on Southwest cuisine.

Making pork into a kind of stew with the chile was probably a take on mole, Frank says, though it lacked that dish's complexity of flavor. Indeed, mole de olla is another likely inspiration for carne adovada, says Dave DeWitt, a food historian who has written extensively about peppers. The thick soup or stew is popular in central Mexico and features meat and a variety of local vegetables, like cactus, squash, green beans, corn, and potatoes, in a broth flavored with chile guajillo and chile pasilla. Two of carne adovada's key seasonings, garlic and oregano, have long grown wild in New Mexico, Butel says, which is probably why they were integrated into the dish. Though it's not clear what the original chile of choice was for carne adovada, it's common to include several different chiles in a single preparation.

Commercial chile pepper production is now centered in Hatch, New Mexico. But many swear by the historic Chimayo chiles, from the verdant northern New Mexican village of the same name. Years of selective breeding in that area have yielded chiles that devotees say have a sweetness and citrusy flavor that make them superior to other varieties. Chimayo is also one of the first places where landraces* developed in New Mexico, as the Spanish introduced more varieties and cross-breeding flourished, says DeWitt.

* A crop or animal breed that evolves through traditional agricultural practices in a specific place, often in isolation.

Many of the area's visitors come to eat at Rancho de Chimayó, a restaurant housed in what was once a sprawling hacienda, whose carne adovada helped it land on the America's Classics list from the James Beard Foundation. Chef Janet Malcom likes to add some pequin pepper to her recipe to give it a little extra kick, and bucks tradition by adding some green chile (made with unripe peppers) to the final dish. As all New Mexicans will tell you, "red or green?" is the state's iconic culinary question, and, while some consider it unthinkable to add green chiles to carne adovada, Malcom swears it brings out more flavor.

No matter where you stand in the chile debate, though, you're certain to find carne adovada on the menu at any down-home, mom-and-pop operation serving New Mexican cuisine. Many restaurants rely on traditional family recipes, though the dish does occasionally show up in more fancified forms, such as the carne adobada (an alternate spelling) at Eloisa in Santa Fe, which features a kurobuta pork chop and corn custard with black quinoa and red amaranth. Butel prefers to work with whole pork shoulder, which she marinates for two hours at room temperature (or eight in the fridge) in a combination of crushed red chiles and chile powder, cumin, Mexican oregano, and salt. Only after roasting it at 325°F for up to two hours, until it's fork-tender, does she shred it.

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A hearty plate of the pork stew at Duran Central Pharmacy.

Meanwhile, at Duran Central Pharmacy, near Old Town in Albuquerque, the carne adovada starts with cubed pork. Dried red chile pods, reconstituted in water, are puréed and mixed with flour, garlic, salt, and oregano to make a marinade. Manager Jay Guthrie says his in-laws, Robert and Monika Ghattas, bought the store in 1965. They wanted to make the soda fountain more profitable by adding New Mexican food to the menu, and turned to one of their workers for her family's recipe.

"At that time in the 1960s, all the butcher shops had carne adovada," Guthrie says. (One of them, Nelson's Meats on Old Coors Drive in Albuquerque, still does.) The dish was less common in restaurants, Guthrie adds, "but everyone made it at home."

Duran's serves it with steamed potatoes, a unique twist requested by city workers who frequented the café, says Marcel Ghattas, one of four Ghattas children. He thinks it's a great way to soak up that red chile. But it proved a little too oddball for customers at Duran's Station, which Marcel opened 10 years ago, just five miles from the original Duran's, so he added the option of fried potatoes to the plate. Both restaurants use a similar method of preparation, cooking the carne adovada in enormous steam-jacketed kettles.

Others prefer roasting the pork. Chef Antoinette Knight's parents founded the Albuquerque café Mary & Tito's in 1963, which went on to be named an America's Classic by the James Beard Foundation in 2010. She roasts pork shoulder at 350°F for four and a half hours, rather than using the steam kettle method.

"You can tell the difference," she insists. "The pork really absorbs the red chile." The resulting dish has a juicy texture and a smoky, earthy flavor. You can get the basic carne adovada plate at Mary & Tito's with refried beans, Spanish rice, and shredded lettuce. But, if you're willing to stray from the classic, there's also a sopapilla stuffed with the delicious mixture—dubbed a "Mexican Turnover" on the menu—not to mention enchiladas, omelettes, and even a pizza featuring the versatile carne.

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Carne adovada breakfast at Barelas.

At Barelas Coffee House in Albuquerque—a must-stop for politicians on the campaign trail, local or national—breakfast can include a generous pile of carne atop your eggs. Manager Geri Lucero says their baked version uses pork shoulder and a variety of chiles blended with cilantro and oregano. They also use carne adovada, rather than just plain pork, in their posole (hominy pork stew). The resulting posole is so much more tender, and the chile flavor so much more intense, there's no going back.

Recently, I grabbed a carne adovada burrito from Española's El Parasol for the road. I balked at the heat initially, spicier than I usually like. But I found myself returning for more nibbles as I drove, letting the tender pork sit on my tongue and thinking of terroir. Gradually, the subtleties came out—an earthiness emerged, along with undercurrents of oregano and garlic. It seemed fitting to eat this essential New Mexican food as I drove through the Española Valley, where the Spanish established what was arguably their first capital in the New World. It was also where the Pueblo Revolt began in 1680, which would drive out the Spanish conquerors for more than a decade. I still miss New Orleans terribly, but tasting the red chile in the burrito's juicy carne adovada made me feel lucky to live in another state where food and place are still so intertwined.