On the flight from Oregon to Santa Fe, I glanced around to rows of military badges and backpacks. Perhaps it was my Canadian city girl upbringing, but the sea of digitized desert camouflage made me a touch uneasy and I began to wonder what exactly I would find in New Mexico.
The youthful-looking man beside me began with a well-rehearsed conversation starter, something about his deceptive age, and I soon had him divulging all the strange foods he had eaten during his service in different countries, from eyeballs to worms. The latter, he admitted, was provoked by curiosity alone while fishing, and I must also admit that I have a not-so-secret love for extracting stories from unsuspecting victims, food being my tool of choice and honest curiosity being my motive.
We disembarked into a one room Pueblo-style structure with a manual “conveyor belt” consisting of a friendly gentleman calling out luggage descriptions. After collecting my rental car, I began my drive North to Georgia O’Keeffe County in search of inspiration, as I imagined the solitary landscape, one that imbued the artist with so much creativity, wouldn’t be a shabby place to start.
Strip malls delineated the outskirts of Santa Fe, not unlike most North American cities, but here I noted the addition of quirky commercial combinations such as “donut & coin” shops and descriptors like “authentic” and “Navajo” on large signs seeming as mass-produced as the trinkets they sold.
Looking to be awestruck by pastel landscapes and distant dusty mountains, during my first weeks I saw them, but scattered with seemingly-abandoned homes holding only faint clues of life: broken windows, peeling paint with driveways parked with glossy pick-up trucks. With a poverty rate hovering just above 21% according to the 2015 US Census Bureau, I realized that I had been driving around one of the poorest areas in the country, contemplating and simply conflicted about the “Land of Enchantment” that O’Keeffe depicted in her paintings.
One morning, the owner of the acreage I rented offered to show me the caves carved by Ra Paulette on an adjoining property. Self-taught, Paulette hand-sculpted dozens of caves within rugged hillsides, creating church-like sanctuaries so beautiful and otherworldly, it was impossible not to feel reverence within them. She led me up a little mesa, explaining to me why the area was called “Il Nido” (or “The Nest”) as the canyon wrens made homes in cavities on the arid rock faces. Nearing the top, a thick arched wooden door nestled perfectly into the stone with a heart-shaped window that had been broken. The keyhole was damaged and the door released – another break-in – and my guide lamented about how desperately she wanted to preserve the artwork from further vandalism.
We walked in, it felt cold in contrast to the warm desert outside and the oval skylights carved above casted ethereal light. Reality suspended as I took in the intricate cathedral ceilings carved into melodic heart shapes, the organic columns shaped like trunks of tropical trees. In a nook, I saw a small nest with a few blue eggs laying in the cradle of its branches, something I had an impossibly fleeting desire to find for sentimental reasons, mentioning it to no one. And New Mexico started to seem too magical to explain.
After weeks of rural silence and in need of a little civilization, I drove to Santa Fe for a meal at The Compound, a local favourite with a James Beard award-winning chef, Mark Kiffin, an incredible barman with a knack for starting conversations, and a very loyal following. I sat at the sunken U-shaped bar and interviewed locals over dinner. “What do you love about New Mexico? How would you describe it? Where are you from and why did you stay?”
Sharing over the best onion rings I’d tasted, schnitzels bathed in butter caper sauces, and juicy kielbasa with house made sauerkraut, I spent many evenings digging up stories from elderly couples holding secrets to a lasting marriage (commitment), retired traders starting solar energy companies with a genius who worked for NASA, and a mysterious cowboy listening in a quiet corner. Repeatedly, these characters all had the same chapter, winding up in Santa Fe with no other explanation than “I came and just never left.” When I asked why, most simply replied “city different,” a local nickname for its unique and indescribable draw. And the more this ambiguity presented itself, the more stubbornly I sought to define it.
Julian Sibony, owner of Arioso Restaurant, recounted a similar history over a slice of his chocolate tart with orange confit. Along a wary dirt road lined with curls of barbed wire, Sibony’s gate opened as I drove in for dinner at his home-turned-garden-to-table-bistro near Abiquiú. I had heard of this chef, who was a classically trained pianist, holding concerts in his elaborately designed space, like a European oasis in the desert. The walls were hung with portraits and abstract paintings and pianos anchored each of the two dining rooms. Sibony explained that he was a painter, having studied in Vienna where his love for pastries and coffeehouses began, as evidenced by very specific instruction on how to eat Dobos Torte with coffee. While painting his way through the country on a road trip, he had arrived in New Mexico and bought a house the same day, 35 years ago.
It was the same with Chef James Campbell Caruso, owner of two of Santa Fe’s best restaurants, Spanish and Latin influenced La Boca and Taberna. Growing up in Spain, Caruso described driving through Santa Fe and finding himself a week later with his entire life packed up and moving as mysteriously as the others had.
And for those who managed to escape the enchantment for a short time, they would find themselves returning to New Mexico, year after year for longer periods, like Georgia O’Keeffe herself, waiting for over a decade to finally settle. While visiting her Abiquiú home, preserved in time the way she left it in 1984, I looked for clues of inspiration, to determine the source of New Mexico’s allure. Indeed I saw the rugged peacefulness in the hazy desert landscapes behind her bedroom windows, the elegant severity in the bleached animal skulls, and the layered cultures of Spaniards, Native Americans and Mexicans still lingering in the architecture and the red chiles in her kitchen. And when the light hit the mountains at dusk, turning them shades of violet and peach, I was left with a yearning that I had not felt since I graduated from art school nearly two decades ago: I wanted to paint.
In the end, I was left without an answer, still unable to solve its mystery. Nonetheless, I flew home wholly enchanted by the city different, with a sneaking suspicion that maybe its magic was the mystery itself.
The Shed Restaurant
Tip: order the red chile dishes
La Boca & Taberna
Tip: order the Enchiladas de Mole Negro paired with sherry
Tip: order the onion rings and Schnitzel on the bar menu
Tip: No menu and bring your own wine
Radish and Rye
Tip: Order whiskey cocktails and the wilted chicory, smoked pork belly salad
Tip: Order the squash tamale
Inn of Five Graces
Seret & Sons
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
Tip: The Abiquiu home is open for tours one hour North of Santa Fe
Tip: visit the rug room
Tortillitas (Shrimp Pancakes)
Chef James Campbell Caruso Boca & Taberna Restarant
Tapas bars in the Jerez region serve these lacy garbanzo shrimp pancakes with chilled glasses of Fino or Manzanilla sherry.
1/2 cup (125ml) chickpea flour
1/2 cup (125ml) white flour
1/2 tsp (2.5ml) baking powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup (250ml) water
1/3 cup (83ml) onion or scallions, roughly chopped
1/2 cup (125ml) raw shrimp, roughly chopped
3 tbsp (45ml) chives, parsley, thyme or cilantro, roughly chopped
Olive oil for frying
Stir together the flours, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Add water and stir; the mixture should resemble heavy cream. Stir in the onions, shrimp and herbs. Coat the bottom of a medium-sized nonstick pan with olive oil; bring to high heat. Pour in half the batter, until it fills the center of the pan. Spread gently with a spoon to form a large pancake. Cook about 3 minutes, or until the pancake is set around the edges. Flip the pancake and cook for 3 minutes, then flip it again and cook it for another 30 seconds or so, until it is crisp on the outside but still moist inside. Remove from the pan and serve the first pancake immediately. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Duck Breast with Orange & Olive Tapeneda
Chef Mark Kiffin of the Compound Restaurant
This is a modern variation on Duck à l’Orange with the addition of punchy Mediterranean flavours like olives and fennel.
For the Tapenade:
1/4 cup (63ml) pitted green olives
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
1 small jalapeno, stemmed and seeded, sliced thin
1 shallot, finely minced
Pinch red chile flake, to taste
1 tsp (5ml) minced fresh thyme
1 tsp (5ml) minced fresh chives
1/4cup (63ml) Extra virgin olive oil
Season to taste with salt and pepper
For the Tapenade, mix all the ingredients and hold at room temperature. Can be done up to 3 days ahead and kept refrigerated.
For the Duck Breast:
2 CaraCara oranges, zested
1 tbsp (15ml) coriander seeds, ground
4 single duck breasts, approximately 1.5 lbs (680g)
1/4cup (63ml) chicken stock, preferably dark
2 tbsp (30ml) Madeira wine
1 tbsp (15ml) unsalted butter, cold
Mix orange zest with the toasted coriander seeds in a bowl. Rub the mixture on the skin of the breast and let sit unwrapped in the refrigerator for 2 hours prior to cooking.
Place the duck skin side down in a medium hot sauté pan and spoon the rendered fat over the top, never turning the meat. This keeps the breast from drying out and also cooks it to a perfect medium rare.
Peel and cut the segments from the zested oranges, set aside. Take the remaining pulp and squeeze the juice into the chicken stock. Bring the stock to a boil and reduce until thick, finish with Madeira and the cold butter, season to taste with salt and pepper and keep warm.
For the Fennel:
1 bulb fresh fennel, sliced thin
2 cups (500ml) baby kale leaves
1 tbsp (15ml) orange olive oil
1 tbsp (15ml) extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Prior to serving sauté the fennel and kale leaves over high heat with the olive oil. Divide the sauté on 4 warm plates. Slice the duck and lay on the kale, top with tapenade and orange segments, pour the reduced orange chicken stock over each plate and serve.
Chocolate Tart with Orange Confit
My rendition the tart Julian Sibony’s served me from Arioso Restaurant with a “cheaters orange confit” which is slightly less complex than a traditional recipe but doesn’t lose flavour and retains a candy-like texture
4 naval oranges
Juice of 2 lemons
1 vanilla bean husk
2.5lbs (1.13kg) granulated sugar
Bring water to a boil in a large pot and blanch the whole oranges for 1 minute. Remove the oranges and drain the water. Bring another fresh pot of water to boil and blanch the oranges again for 1 minute to remove more of the bitterness in the skin and drain the water. Quarter the oranges along the stem, place in the pot and add the sugar and lemon juice. Add water to cover the oranges and slowly bring to a very low simmer. Simmer, uncovered, until the skins begin to become translucent looking, the oranges are tender but still hold together adding more water if needed, about 6-8 hours. If you cannot tend to the burner for the entire 6-8 hours, turn off the burner, cover the pot and resume the low simmer when you are able. To store, place them into a canning jar with the segments and syrup. You can now process them to can them or keep them refrigerated for weeks.
0.25 lbs (120g) butter, room temperature plus more to butter tart ring
1/2 tsp (2.5ml) fine sea salt
2/3 cup (167ml) confectioners’ sugar
3 tbsp (45ml) almond flour
1 large egg
2/3 cup (167ml) + 1.5 cups (375ml) all purpose flour
1/4 cup Dutch processed cocoa powder plus more for dusting
14oz (400g) dark chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup (380ml) whole milk
2 tbsp (30ml) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
Place butter, salt, sugar, almond flour, egg, 2/3 cup (167ml) flour and cocoa powder in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix until well incorporated. Add the 1.5 cups (375ml) flour and mix until just incorporated. Wrap the batter into a disc with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 1 hour to 2 days.
Preheat the oven to 325F (163C). Butter a 9” fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Roll out the tart dough to 1/8” (3mm) thickness onto a surface dusted with cocoa powder. Line the tart pan and refrigerate for 15 minutes to harden slightly. Line the inside with parchment and fill with beans or rice to weight it down and bake for about 20 minutes or until the tart seems to be dry and hardened. Remove the weights and parchment and set aside.
Lower the oven to 275F (135C). Place the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Heat the milk and butter in a microwave until it is just steaming and pour over the chocolate. Whisk the chocolate mixture until it is smooth and shiny, add the egg and whisk until well incorporated. Pour into the tart shell and bake in the oven for about 30-35 minutes or until the chocolate is just set and the centre is still wobbly.
Allow to cool to room temperature and keep in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, dust the entire tart with cocoa powder, top with each slice with triangle of orange confit peel and serve.