In a city where ropes of dried red chilies are as common as philodendrons in Washington fern bars, where eating meets art in a cocktail lounge cum convent which displays Spanish religious paintings, you can't go wrong at a place that includes the name of a woman: Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, Tomasita's Santa Fe Station, Josie's Casa de Comida, Maria Ysabel's.
These are restaurants not only named for women, but run by those chefs to whom the names refer. These are no feminist-age entries into the restaurant profession; 76-year-old Tomasita Leyba considers grinding red chilies alongside her tortilla-making sister-in-law Lala (now 72) just the way it's always been. Maria Ysabel Mondragon thinks the Santa Fe woman succeeds in the business as an antidote to politics. "Everything here is government," Mondragan said. While the "husbands are too busy" making policy in the state's capital, the women have time for their own enterprises. Sometimes, though--even in this earthy town of about 50,000, where locals refer to the only eatery with a dress code as "that restaurant"--food and politics go hand-in-hand.
Mondragon's husband, Roberto, ran for the democratic nomination for U.S. Congress, but lost the primary. Unlike other politicians who may disappear from the limelight after unsuccessful elections, though, Mondragan still is being heard--if from a different podium. Every weekend he sings Spanish folk tunes and plays the guitar at his wife's restaurant. Maria Ysabel Mondragon, a bright-eyed, self-proclaimed "hyperactive" whom everybody calls "Bell," is all business; she says she not only pays her own husband for his work, but sells his two albums at the restaurant, making a $2 profit off each. These are the same albums Mondragan sold as fundraisers for his campaign--functions for which his wife often prepared the food.
Politicking and entertaining are not new to Bell Mondragon, who would help plan menus for parties with the governor's wife when her husband was lieutenant governor of New Mexico in the '70s. More recently, the political circle has moved to her own restaurant, where Mondragan's old cronies in the state legislature eat her carne adovada--meaty chunks of marinated pork with a generous red chili spike--and discuss Hispanic issues.
Bell Mondragon wishes her husband had won the national election and not just for the obvious reasons. She wanted to move to Washington so she could open another restaurant--especially after learning from her East Coast connections that the District could use more authentic Mexican eating spots.
As for now, she's the sole cook in "the gaudiest kitchen," an apartment-sized cooking area where pans of refritos vie for space with ground red and green chilies. The restaurant, located on Agua Fria outside of town, is adobe (everything in Santa Fe is adobe, even the Safeway), furnished modestly and decorated with colorful murals.
"If you come right down to it, I would consider New Mexican food mostly Indian," Bell Mondragon said. It is a blend of Spanish and Mexican as well--a mirror of the state's history and people. In 1540, the Indian-inhabited area first was explored by the conquistador Coronado and his band of hopeful gold-diggers from Mexico. By the early 17th century, it had become an established Spanish colony and by the end of the century, the native Indians had revolted, forcing the colonists to leave. The Spanish soon reconquered the area and it remained a provincial outpost until the United States seized it from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War.
During those shifts of ownership, there was trading going on in the kitchens, too. The Spanish brought with them the chili pepper, pork and lard for frying; the Indians had the corn, beans, squash and potatoes. Some of the recipes took on new wrinkles; for Spanish carne adovada, the Indians used the beef or venison jerky they dried in the sun instead of pork, and bear grease in place of the marinating oil. Other recipes raise the whose-was-it-first question; Indian fry bread is similar to the deep-fried dough squares the Spanish call sopaipillas. And sopa de pan--a Spanish bread pudding made with cinnamon and cheese--is also made by the Indians.
But it is the chili pepper, which seasons practically all New Mexican dishes, that Mondragon and other Santa Fe restaurateurs are so particular about. In the northern part of the state, the chilies are not as hot or as large as the ones grown in the soils around Las Cruces, in the southern part of the state, where Mondragon says she buys her supply. Because the green chili has such a short ripening season (July and August) and is difficult to roast and peel, Ysabel receives it frozen and already ground. The red chili, which is simply a dried green one, she processes herself. (In all the city's restaurants, you get your choice of "red" or "green" when ordering a dish; the red is thought to be the hotter of the two.)
Although the kitchen is her career now, Bell Mondragon says people often think the restaurant is owned and run by Roberto Mondragan. But his wife is quick to set the record straight. "It's my restaurant," she says. "I dropped out of politics."
Here are some New Mexican specialties: MARIA YSABEL'S SOPA DE PAN (Bread Pudding) (4 to 6 servings) 2 cups water 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon rum or more to taste 1 tablespoon cinnamon 8 slices white bread, toasted Butter 1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar or longhorn cheese 1/2 cup raisins Cream for serving (optional)
In a saucepan, combine water, vanilla, sugar, rum and cinnamon and heat until sugar dissolves, stirring, about 3 minutes. Butter toasted bread and break each slice into 6 pieces.
Spread a layer of the toast pieces in a buttered 1 1/2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with a layer of cheese, raisins and a third of the sugar solution. Repeat process two more times until all the ingredients are used. Heat in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until cheese melts. Serve warm with or without cream. CARNE ADOVADA (6 servings) 1 teaspoon coriander seeds 6 loin pork chops, cut 3/4 inch thick 5 tablespoons dried, crushed red chili peppers (substitute flakes)* 1/3 cup finely chopped onion 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/4 cup vinegar 1 cup chicken broth
Measure coriander seeds onto a work surface and crush them well, using a rolling pin. Arrange chops in a shallow pan. Combine crushed coriander seeds and sprinkle them over the chops, along with the red chili and chopped onions. In a bowl, combine oil, salt, vinegar and chicken broth; pour the mixture over the chops. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Arrange chops and marinade in a 9-by-13-inch casserole, cover and bake in a 375-degree oven for 1 hour or until chops are very tender. Remove chops to a platter and boil down pan juices, if necessary, to form a sauce. Pour over chops and serve.
*This amount of red chili makes a very hot dish. It can be reduced to taste. SOPAIPILLAS (Makes about 2 dozen) 2 cups flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon sugar 3/4 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons lard 1/2 cup water or more, if needed Oil for frying Honey for serving
Sift dry ingredients together. Cut in lard until crumbly. Add water and mix until dough holds together. Knead 10 to 15 times until dough forms a smooth ball. Cover and let stand for 20 minutes. Divide dough into two parts. Roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness on lightly floured board. Cut into 3-inch squares or triangles. Do not allow to dry; cover those waiting to be fried. When ready to fry, turn upside down so the surface that was on bottom while resting is on top when frying. Fry in 3 inches of very hot oil until golden brown and puffed into a pillow shape, turning once. Add only a few at a time to maintain proper temperature. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with honey.
Adapted from "Simply Simpatico"