Red chile ristras are the strung pods of dried red chiles you frequently see displayed near arches, doors and windows all over New Mexico. They are an iconic decoration in New Mexico, especially during the harvest months and holidays serving as a symbol of “welcome.” Ristras also have their practical uses as the star ingredient of the delicious red chile sauce and other New Mexican dishes.
New Mexico’s arid climate and abundant sunshine create ideal conditions for annual chile crops; producing about 80,000 tons each year. In late summer and early fall our unique type of large chile pepper is harvested and is frequently picked fresh, roasted and eaten as green chile. When the fruit is left on the plant a little longer to ripen it turns a vibrant red. When this happens, the fruit completely changes properties and must be dried to be eaten. The red chiles are often strung up into a chile ristra to dehydrate in the sun.
The traditional method was to sun-dry the fruits by laying them out, however, contamination among birds and rodents prompted people to begin tying the together in strings and hanging them on a wall. As the ristras dry they become a darker, subtle red color. At this point, they are ready to be used for cooking or displayed as decoration in the form of a ristra.
Throughout the fall, you can find ristras at farmer’s markets and roadside stands around the state. You will commonly see ristras used for decoration and they are said to bring health and good luck. If you are interested in taking one of these good luck charms home with you to decorate your own home, remember that they look beautiful and vibrant red in New Mexico’s arid, dry climate, but might not do so well back home. If you are visiting from a state with humidity, it is suggested that you have your ristra treated with lacquer before you take it home. That will help preserve the fruit from the moisture in the air and avoid a mess.
In order to use the dried chiles in cooking, they are either crushed into chile powder or rehydrated, blended, boiled and strained to make red chile sauce (also just called “red chile”). The sauce, along with green chile, is a staple in New Mexican cuisine. The red chile may be ladled over dishes, such as enchiladas and tamales; be the base for stews, such as posole; or as a marinade for meat, as with carne adovada. Green chile, however, is most often used in soups and chowders along with other vegetables or meats, stuffed and fried for rellenos, or used as a garnish on just about everything!
For instructions on how to create a chile ristra, follow this guide.