ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Just in time to give winter another nudge toward spring, award-winning cook Monica Tolleson will bring her fiery red chile and sizzling chicharrones to the chile cookoff at the Cabin Fever Festival Saturday in Jemez Springs.
“I’m known for my homemade chile,” says lifelong Jemez Springs resident Tolleson, 43, who is also a secretary at Jemez Valley High School. She adds that she often gets tapped to make her chile for all kinds of family and community gatherings.
Although she learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, she’s added cumin and a little oregano to her recipe, offering a different red chile sauce than her mother’s recipe of the New Mexico staple.
“My son likes to give me a hard time,” she says. “He’s says mine is not as good as Grandma’s. But I like to add my own creativity. I tweak the recipe my mom gave me.”
She’s the cook to beat at the Saturday festival. In previous years, professional chefs also entered the competition, but her chile was the popular favorite, she says.
Festival goers can purchase tasting tickets for a dollar or so and then cast their vote for their favorites in red, green and vegetarian chile categories. Along with the competition, plenty of food from vendors will complement the flavors of New Mexico red and green, she says.
“It’s all authentic New Mexico chile,” she says. “I cook from scratch. I don’t use chile powder.”
Instead she prefers whole dried or lightly roasted chile pods, cleaning and stemming them before blending them with water, salt, garlic, oregano and cumin. She added cubes of cooked pork and creates a roux with the pan drippings before simmering both together for about 45 minutes.
“It’s fun and for a good cause. I think everyone is ready for spring,” Tolleson says.
Organizer Leone Wilson, who with her husband owns the Laughing Lizard Motel, says she is definitely ready for winter to end: “The end of February is a great time to get out and see your friends and neighbors and get rid of the winter blues.”
The festival, previously know as Fire and Ice, usually attracts about 400 or 500 people to the village that has perhaps 200 or 300 permanent residents, she says.
“It’s not a huge festival, but we enjoy it very, very much.”
Although Jemez Spring temperatures don’t fluctuate much from the Albuquerque foothills, because the village is in a canyon the sunlight doesn’t linger as long. “We’re at 6,000 feet. We had some good snows this year, but there’s not much left. There’s still a lot of snow on Valles Caldera and the higher elevations.”
Another organizer, Cody Lewis, says the traditional winter events, even Super Bowl, have passed, so the last Saturday of February seemed like a great day to celebrate the end of winter, with spicy chile and fun. “The lull between winter and spring makes many of us stir crazy. This family-friendly event is a great way to come alive in winter.”
MONICA TOLLESON’S RED CHILE
3 cups roasted red chile pods
Several fresh garlic cloves
1 fresh onion
Pinch of oregano, to taste
Salt to taste
Dash of cumin, to taste
2 cups diced pork
½ cup flour
In a separate pan brown pork. Save drippings in pan for later.
Put roasted red chile pods in blender with onion, garlic, oregano, cumin and salt with water to cover. Blend well for at least five minutes.
Put pan drippings on medium heat and stir in flour, add chile from blender and about three cups of water, depending on desired thickness. Let chile and pork simmer for about 45 minutes and serve.
MONICA TOLLESON’S CHICHARRONES
5-6 pounds fresh cubed pork belly, mostly fat, from butcher
In a cast iron skillet on the stove or an outdoor disco stove add a little water and the pork pieces, cook on medium for a couple of hours until the fat is rendered out and the crispy chicharrones are left. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Roll the crispy bits with red chile into a tortilla.