Spices of life
New Mexico's cuisine goes beyond "red or green"
The aromatic herbs and spices that flavor New Mexico’s signature dishes have been used throughout the Americas for hundreds of years, lending distinctive tastes and aromas to a great variety of cuisines and in the process conferring powerful health benefits.
Canela and Allspice
Rocky Durham, executive chef/co-founder of the Santa Fe Culinary Academy, lists canela and allspice as star players in her pantry of essential Southwestern spices. Canela is a variety of cinnamon that Durham said is “softer in the nose and more akin to black pepper than to pumpkin pie.”
Allspice, a berry that grows only in the Western Hemisphere, “is easy to overuse,” Durham says, “but just a hint of those Caribbean aromatics brings new dimensions to Yucatan-inspired cuisines.”
Traditionally used to relieve digestive disorders, cinnamon also may be useful in treating high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Allspice has traditionally been used as a tea to aid digestion and as a poultice for sore muscles.
Kate Wheeler, a former chef and owner/ operator of the Savory Spice Shop in Santa Fe, believes “garlic makes everything better, and it’s incredibly easy to grow. It’s also known as a powerful aphrodisiac.” In ancient Egypt, garlic was placed in the tombs of pharaohs as an offering and fed to the slaves building the tombs to increase endurance.
Garlic has proven antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties; it has been studied as a remedy for earaches, skin infection, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.
“Cumin originated in the Nile Valley of Egypt and is one of the oldest traded spices,” Wheeler says. “It brings on the earthy flavor and deep scent of chile powders. The sweet aroma is what make red chile pork stew become carne adovada.”
Historically, cumin was used to treat digestive problems. It’s a good source of manganese, calcium and magnesium, which is an essential mineral. Cumin is now being studied for its potential to control blood sugar.
Mediterranean and Mexican oregano look alike, but they are two completely different species. The Mediterranean variety is a member of the mint family, while Mexican oregano is related to lemon verbena and has mild citrus notes that complement cumin and chiles.
Santa Fe native Nicole Curtis Ammerman is director of the Santa Fe School of Cooking founded by her mother, Susan Curtis. She says that Mexican oregano, the only kind they use at the school, is “sweeter and milder than the Mediterranean variety.”
Oregano has antibacterial and antioxidant properties, has been used to treat respiratory and gastrointestinal problems and is a traditional remedy for toothaches and gum disease.
Commonly used in both Asian and Mexican dishes, cilantro and coriander come from the same plant. The leaves are the herb cilantro and the seeds are ground to make the spice coriander.
Cilantro’s ability to lower cholesterol and blood sugar has been confirmed in animal studies. Because it can reduce blood sugar, people who are taking diabetes drugs or are scheduled for surgery should use cilantro with caution.
Epazote, also called wormseed and Jesuit’s tea, is native to Central and South America and grows well in New Mexico. “It gives a slightly licorice flavor to pots of beans,” Wheeler says, “while reducing the risk of flatulence.” Ammerman agrees, noting that the Santa Fe School of Cooking uses it less for flavor and more to make the beans more easily digestible.
The herb’s active ingredient is a natural pesticide, which makes it a handy companion plant in the garden.
Recent research indicates that chile peppers have been cultivated in Mexico for at least 6,000 years. The first European to encounter chiles in the Caribbean was Christopher Columbus. Carried around the globe by Portuguese and Arab traders, chiles today are as important to Southeast Asian cuisines as they are to those of the Americas.
“There are thousands of different kinds (of chiles),” Wheeler says. “All of them release endorphins and get us addicted. You couldn’t have Southwestern cuisine without them!”
All peppers are a good source of B vitamins. They are high in potassium and magnesium and help the body absorb nutrients from beans and grains eaten at the same meal. Red chile also contains large amounts of vitamin C.
Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chile peppers that gives them their heat, is considered safe and effective when used in a topical cream to relieve the pain of arthritis, psoriasis and shingles.
Santa Fe Culinary Academy
112 W. San Francisco St., Suite 300, Santa Fe 505-983-7445 www.Santafeculinaryacademy.com
Santa Fe School of Cooking
125 N. Guadalupe St., Santa Fe 505-983-4511 www.Santafeschoolofcooking.com
Savory Spice Shop Santa Fe
225 Galisteo St., Santa Fe 505-819-5659 www.savoryspiceshop.com