Taste of New Mexico: Carne Adovada

by Terry B on August 13, 2008

Marinated overnight and then slow cooked until falling apart tender, Carne Adovada melds the flavors of New Mexico Red Chiles, cumin, oregano and garlic in this traditional New Mexican pork dish. Recipe below.

New Mexico loves its chile peppers. There is simply no way you can overstate this fact. According to a fascinating article by Bonny Wolf at NPR’s Kitchen Window, New Mexico is the largest producer of chiles in the United States. And as Ms. Wolf sees it, there’s more to the state’s fascination than mere agricultural pride:

…In New Mexico, chiles are more than a crop. They’re a culture, a way of life. It is unimaginable to New Mexicans that people eat food untouched by their state’s chile.

There’s even an official state question: Red or green?

And if you can’t decide if you want red chile or green chile, you may answer, “Christmas,” and you’ll get some of both.

Interestingly, red or green, it’s the same New Mexico chile [also known as the California or Anaheim chile], just at different stages of development, either picked green or allowed to ripen into red on the vine. It’s what happens to the chiles afterward that makes the difference in the sauces’ flavors. Again, Ms. Wolf: “Green chiles are roasted, peeled, seeded and either used right away or frozen. Dried red chiles are ground into powder or strung into the lovely, deep-red ristras — strings in Spanish — you see hanging in many New Mexican homes. Northerners usually hang ristras for decoration while New Mexican cooks use the pods throughout the year to season food. Because the climate is so dry, there’s no fear of mold.”

On our recent trip to New Mexico, we rarely went a meal without being asked the official state question. And there wasn’t a wrong answer—both were delicious. We got our first sampling of both at Duran’s Central Pharmacy in Albuquerque; you actually walk through the pharmacy to get to an unassuming restaurant that serves up great New Mexican fare at very reasonable prices. We encountered excellent examples of red and green chiles in a number of restaurants: Little Anita’s, also in Albuquerque, and Maria’s, a friendly, rambling, down-to-earth place in Santa Fe recommended to me by Toni over at Daily Bread Journal, to name a couple.

We had plenty of delicious non-New Mexican food too. Crêpes at La Crêpe Michel in Albuquerque’s Old Town, transcendent burgers in the beautiful patio at Apple Tree in Taos, inventive tapas at La Boca in Santa Fe… And on our last night in New Mexico, craving something like we’d find at home in Chicago, we headed over to the neighborhood around the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and ended up in a Korean BBQ joint. Just what we were looking for.

But my favorite New Mexican dish, hands down, was Carne Adovada. A traditional New Mexican dish, it is meat—most often pork—slow cooked in adobo sauce. We had it at the rightfully popular Tomasita’s in Santa Fe. Housed in a 1904 red brick station house adjacent to the Santa Fe train station, Tomasita’s has been a fixture since long before the railyards became the Railyard District, an up and coming neighborhood of hip shops and restaurants [and a welcome relief from the tourist hothouse that the heart of Santa Fe can be].

From the first bite, I knew I would have to try to make carne adovada. It was falling apart tender and coated in an almost velvety red chile sauce, not buried under it as many New Mexican dishes seemed to be. And it had a wonderful blend of flavors with just the right amount of heat. This hearty dish can be served with flour tortillas, in taco shells or with rice and beans, as I did here.

There are about as many takes on carne adovada as there are cooks. They range from fairly complex [like one from Kate in the Kitchen that has you make your own adobo sauce from dried chiles] to overly simple. One version from a Santa Fe cooking school, of all places, dispensed with the marinating and only cooked it for an hour! Even I could tell that was a recipe for an underflavored, chewy disaster.

In the end, I settled on a recipe somewhere in the middle complexitywise and doctored the heck out of the spice levels. Then when it came out of the oven and the sauce was a watery, bland mess that wasn’t sticking to the blondish chunks of tender meat, I did more doctoring, with the ever supportive Marion at my side. Here’s how that played out, by the way. First I looked at the way too liquid sauce. Not good. Then I tasted it. Even less good. Then I called for back-up. Marion suggested we transfer the meat to a bowl and work on the sauce, adding more spices and boiling it to reduce it. A good start tastewise, but still far from the velvety coating sauce we remembered from Tomasita’s. I’m sure I had a deer-in-the-headlights look at this point, until Marion uttered three magic words: “Make a roux.” I did. It worked. In the recipe below, I’m going to write it as if it’s how I’d planned to cook it all along. And how I will cook it the next time I make it.

Carne Adovada
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
4 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons New Mexico red chile powder, divided [see Kitchen Notes]
2-1/2 cups warm water
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, divided
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper [see Kitchen Notes]
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 pounds cubed pork stew meat, from pork shoulder or pork butt
2 tablespoons butter

Put on a kettle of water to boil. In a skillet or frying pan, heat oil over medium heat. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of flour and brown until light golden brown. [I used the DIREKT Whisk from IKEA; to me, it’s the perfect tool for preventing lumps in sauces. Anytime you see whisk or stir in this recipe, I was using this well-designed device.] Blend in 4 tablespoons of chile powder. Slowly add water, whisking until lumps are removed. Add garlic, 2 teaspoons oregano, cumin, cayenne pepper and salt. Simmer on medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and let cool.

Place pork in a one-gallon, zippered plastic food storage bag. When chile mixture has cooled, add it to pork, seal bag and mix until pork is covered with chile. Marinate pork for at least 12 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350º F. Transfer pork and marinade to a covered dutch oven or roasting pan. Roast pork in preheated oven for at least 2-1/2 hours, or until meat is very tender. You can also cook it in a slow cooker—I was seeing times of 4 hours or more; but since I don’t have a slow cooker, I can’t give you accurate timing.

Remove from oven, transfer meat to a large bowl with a slotted spoon and cover to keep warm. Place dutch oven with sauce over a medium flame on the stove and stir in remaining 1/2 teaspoon of oregano and 2 teaspoons of chile powder.

Make a roux. This quick and easy faux roux, a simple restaurant cheat, will thicken the chile sauce nicely. Heat a small nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Melt the butter in the skillet and gradually add the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour, whisking constantly until it is completely blended and a golden brown.

Transfer butter/flour mixture to chile sauce, whisking it in to thoroughly blend and thicken. Remove from heat. Return meat and any accumulated juices to sauce and mix to coat. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Finding New Mexico red chile powder. Some Latino markets carry New Mexico chile powder, which is essentially ground New Mexico chiles. Interestingly, here in Chicago, I had better luck finding the dried chiles. There are many online sources for the powder. The Spice House, where I found it locally, also sells it through their website. You’ll find some recipes for using it there too.

Adjust the heat, with cayenne pepper. When I first made the chile sauce, I sampled it before adding it to the pork to marinate. It had a nice, spicy kick to it. The original recipe hadn’t called for cayenne, but I had considered adding it to heat things up a little. I didn’t because the marinade tasted plenty spicy; but during the long cooking process, it mellowed considerably. I would definitely add some cayenne to the marinade and maybe even adjust it at the end with a little more. Know your own tastebuds and those of your fellow diners as you decide whether to turn up the heat or not.

A final hot note. We know what makes chiles hot—the heat comes from capsaicin, found in the seeds and veins or ribs—the whitish ridges inside the peppers. But why are chiles hot? As in what’s the evolutionary benefit that made them develop their fieriness? Turns out it’s for self-defense, against fungi, no less. My friend Carolyn sent me this interesting Yahoo! News article on how heat protects chiles from fungi, but doesn’t faze the birds who help spread their seeds.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 8/13/2008

Coffee, wine and conflicting health stories. Two articles look at coffee health myths and contradictory research on wine and breast cancer, at WTF? Random food for thought.

The Liars, or things we learn from our kids. My daughter reintroduces me to a rock band that has become waaay more interesting than when I first heard them, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rcm November 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Th real stuff is made with whole dried NM chiles. Soak them to soften them up then de-seed and de-stem them. Bring to a boil with some garlic and onion, just till the hot break, and purée. Add water to get a desired thickness and marinate AT LEAST 12 hours. Cook slowly, really slowly, in a Dutch oven or crock pot. Set aside some of the purée and add it to make a roux and you have your red chile sauce to top it off. Roll into a tortilla and top with cheese or eat without the tortilla. I also serve it with brown rice. Simple recipe. I would stear clear of chile powder or cumin.

Jack January 15, 2012 at 1:53 am

Weighing in on the Anaheim vs. NM peppers subject: chile in New Mexico is like rum in Caribbean in the sense that there are many varieties and sometimes the best result is obtained by blending them to leverage their best characteristics. Here’s a list of the more popular ones grown and sold roughly in order of increasing hotness.

NM 64
Big Jim
Pueblo Hot

The New Mexico 64 and Sandia were pretty popular when I lived there and I still grow them here in California but the growing conditions are different so they just don’t taste the same. California Anaheims are BLAND compared to any of the above. Fortunately, I have a freezer full of frozen green from NM to keep me sane. It’s worth a flight to Albq. or Phoenix once a year to stock up. (Yes, it’s that good.)

BTW, “chili” is that red stuff from Texas/Okalahoma. I certainly appreciate it’s potential for goodness, but it’s a different beast. Using that spelling for chile causes a lot of confusion.

Terry B January 15, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. And Jack, thanks for the primer on New Mexican chiles. Regarding the chile vs. chili question, first, I did use chile throughout my post (your comment had me wondering, so I checked it again). But researching the question, I found an entertaining piece written by Carol Anne, also a New Mexican, on her entertaining blog Five O’Clock Somewhere. In it, she claims that the distinction between the two words only matters to New Mexicans.

Jack January 16, 2012 at 12:11 am

You did indeed get it correct. But you can see that in many of the comments people used chili when they meant chile. Sometimes distinctions are important especially when you’re trying to learn or communicate beyond a mere superficial level. A hotdog (or whatever) with chili on it is good. A hot dog (or burger, or pizza or chicken sandwich or fried eggs and potatoes or … [now I’m making myself hungry] with chile on it can be heavenly.

BTW, Don’t even get me started on barbecued vs. grilled or sautéed vs. sweated or sashimi vs. sushi or… therein lies peril. Sometimes precise language is called for when the distinction is important to the speaker.

Anecdote: I worked in a New Mexican restaurant for 4 years. We’d get lots of out-of-state visitors, many quite famous. Texans would often become very confused when the the red chile they ordered arrived at the table. “What’s this? Where are the biscuits?” (Does anyone really eat chili with biscuits? Not judging: just confused.) To avoid misunderstandings I learned to preface the ordering process by asking if they were aware of the difference between Texas chili and NM chile.

Dang it. Now a want a bowl of red and some tortillas. I guess I’d better get cooking.

Terry B January 16, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Thanks for the entertaining comments, Jack! And as someone who writes for a living, I’m right there with you about getting the words right. Mark Twain put it perfectly: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

James from WA state February 25, 2012 at 3:41 am

This meal was great. I kind of blended your recipe with the “Kate in the Kitchen” one, and then I made my famous Cabbage Pico de Gallo:

1/2 head Green Cabbage, sliced thinly
3 Jalapenos en escambeche, minced
1/4 cup Zanohorias (carrots in escambeche), diced
2 tablespoons escambeche liquid
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1/3 cup chopped cilantro, including stems
Juice from 1 lime
Salt to taste

We basically threw this on top of the adovada inside a small flour tortilla and made “tacos” out of it. Very good, although because I ground my own dried chilies, this stuff was HOT! Anyways, the pork was very tender and despite the heat, reminded me of the Taco Trucks that are prevalent all over our home city, Yakima. Thanks for sharing. Check out my blog, which follows the making of a wine from vineyard to the final product: http://www.vinocluster.com.

Matt December 5, 2012 at 3:57 pm

New Mexico Hatch Chiles

*are not*

(i’ll repeat one more time to drive the point home)


Anaheim or California Peppers.

Ann Romero January 31, 2015 at 12:32 pm

Check out COCINAS DE NEW MEXICO, recipes put together by PNM (public service company of NM). The book offers a relatively complete listing, and variety of NM recipes, including Carne Adovado. The secret to the chile marinade is to use chile concentrate (chile caribe) rather than regular chile colorado (diluted). The seasoned pork is marinated for 8-24 hours before baking.

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