Friday, September 10, 2010

Chillin' with the Chiles in Taos: Part 3

After finding God in a chile relleno in Chimayó, my mojo was working again. Now I was ready for the Taos blues: blue skies and blue corn. Maybe even some blue posole if I got lucky. I finally found some alone time walking the sleepy streets the next morning, and a glorious Bent Street Cafe breakfast of huevos rancheros with scrambled eggs, blue corn tortillas, fresh green chiles, cheddar cheese and refried beans bestowed their curative powers on me much like the relleno had. What a difference a chile makes. My grief over Howard had subsided as I embraced the wide open space with a lighter heart and heavier stomach.

During breakfast the next day at Michael's Kitchen, I had but one question: "Atole-piñon pancakes, where have you been all my life?" These indigenous Southwestern hotcakes were made with earthy, blue cornmeal and roasted local piñon nuts in the batter. They were like piñon-packed piñatas—nuts falling out with every blow of my fork. I've made blue cornmeal pancakes before, and they were a murky, dark blue-gray color. But these beauties were golden brown on the outside with only a hint of blue-gray on the inside.

I asked the waiter, who might have been a farmer, what was in the batter, and he just shrugged. "How do I know? Go ask the cook," he said, motioning me to go to the kitchen. So I walked over there, stuck my head in the window and said, "What's in your piñon pancake batter?" The cook looked up, surprised at my gumption, and said "Half pancake mix and half blue cornmeal." Aha! A trade secret revealed straight from the horse's mouth. (I wonder if Thomas Keller would oblige me in the same fashion at the French Laundry.)

New Mexico is renowned for its piñon nut, a name derived from the Spanish word for pine nut. The piñon pine tree is a two-needled pine which grows wild in the high desert mountains. Out of the 100 recognized species of true pines, only a few produce nuts that are worth eating. The piñon is smaller with a smoother, more delicate flavor than the ones we use in the rest of the country. Pignolias from Italy are supposedly the closest in flavor to piñons, but these days, a lot of the pine nuts are coming from China. The bag I got at Trader Joe's says they're either from Russia or Korea. Unfortunately, most of these imports are overly intense and astringent, unlike the subtle and creamy piñon, which is far superior. But hey, that's just my 'pinion.

About five miles outside of Taos is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge—the second highest suspension bridge in the country. Needless to say, the view of the gorge is gorgeous. And while you're in the neighborhood, you can do a little emu oil shopping. The emu experts claim the oil from this ostrich-like bird offers arthritis pain relief, calms psoriasis and eczema, increases hair growth, regenerates skin cells and more. But as far as healing powers go, I'm standing by my chile theory.

After spending a couple of nights in Taos and conquering a few breakfasts on my own, I was feeling healthier. I had felt the powers of the chile and knew I could face the world again with the strength of a Habanero. It was time to head back to Santa Fe, and with less than 24 hours left on the trip, I still had posole to buy and farmers to meet. I would be spending those final few Saturday hours at the grand daddy of farmer's markets. And it was gonna be good.

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  1. Oh, boy - I can't wait to show these posts to my BF -- he's originally from New Mexico and is a total chileholic. He's also told me about the awesome pinon nuts out there -he loves 'em- and those blue corn and pinon pancakes look fantastic! I've gotta get out there one of these days. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Your pictures are gorgeous! I especially love that first one with the open road and blue sky as far as the eye can see. The pancakes sound incredible! I recently made pancakes with a cornmeal-based batter and it was delicious! I'll have to add pine nuts next time!

  3. I have been away and am trying desperately to play blog catch up! This is a sweet and spicy start (and well traveled start)! Well if cilanto is considered spicy... sorry I am jet lagged. GREG

  4. Atole - is one of my momma's favorite drinks. I'll have to check out a recipe or perhaps create one for you. You've also reminded me to go get my supply of pinones. Gracias.

  5. wow. those pancakes have officially enchanted me. the clouds over that bridge are stunning, too.

    (I just found your blog today; what a gem!)