Last year or so when visiting Santa Fe, the other city that holds my heart, my dear pal L___ and I visited the farmer’s market. Coming from SF farmers markets are a favorite haunt, but here in SFe they are not common. In fact, this was the first one, ever. Can you imagine? They had a spanking brand new building just for the market, and a new outdoor concrete apron for more stalls, along side the historic tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railway, now used by the Santa Fe Southern line.
(update: this was the first season of the farmer’s market in their new building. SFe is such a cool place, they have had farmers markets since the ’60s. Thanks, L___, for researching this for me!)
It was Fall and the few stalls there were bursting with the bounty of the season: apples, potatoes, and corn. One stall in particular was fascinating. A wizened Indian man and his wife were selling their produce. He pulled out his well-worn Buck knife and carved off succulent pieces of his apples, very imperfect apples but so juicy and sweet. They had been planted on his land a long time ago and were nearing their end. We got to chatting, it wasn’t very busy, and I picked up a bag of dried corn. I asked him, “What do you make with this?”, and he looked surprised. “They’re chicos!” he said, as if *everyone* knew this and that explained everything. I smiled and told him I was from SF and we had hominy there but not chicos. He didn’t know about hominy, but after I described it, he smiled and said, “Oh, posole…”.
(inside the farmer’s market)
I bought a bag of chicos, and a bunch of apples, and then he told me that the chicos were from corn he grew himself. I munched an apple and listened, enraptured. His farm used water diverted from a tributary of the Rio Grande, he was lucky, he had water most of the year. He planted corn, and when it was ripe he cut it and laid it out in the field to dry a bit. Then, he dug a large pit and filled it with piñon branches and set them alight.
Piñon is the best smelling wood on the planet and they regularly shed branches in the harsh winters so it seems that everyone has a bounteous supply without killing off the piñon “forests”. It also burns fast and hot, and makes gorgeous glowing embers.
The farmer then laid sheets of corregated metal over the coals. Then, a layer of burlap went on, and the corn ears on top. More burlap and the whole thing was covered up with earth, like a big corn luau.
The next day or so, when the coals had burned out, the now dried and smoked corn was unearthed. At his leisure, sitting in some shade over an oilcloth, he would rub the dried cobs against each other to release the kernels from the cob. The cobs were used for fuel and the chicos were ready to be stored. He said this is always how they dried the corn and I just wonder how many generations back this process had been repeated. I had a sudden image of a man like this kind soul, sitting in the shade of a hogan, singing and rubbing corn. New Mexico does things to you, everywhere you look you see the spirits from hundreds of years ago suddenly standing near you, or you sense them from a whiff of smoke from a long extinguished fire.
I also purchased dried beans, snake beans he called them, I’ve seen something similar here from Rancho Gordo called rattlesnake beans. The farmers wife rummaged around in a box under their folding table and pulled out a little slip of paper with her posole recipe and handed it to me with a smile. “It’s good,” she said, “just simple food.”
Later during my stay, L___ made me her posole, which was so delicious. We started dinner a bit late and watched silly movies and ate way too many blue corn tortillas with locally made chipotle salsa waiting for the soup to finish. Cooking at high elevations also requires longer cooking times so it must have been 10:00 pm before we had dinner, but what a dinner it was and it was fantastic to slurp such good soup made by a friend.
Alas, I had to head home. Another souvenir I brought back was an ice cream pint container filled with mild fire-roasted Hatch green chile. I froze it before heading home and triple-wrapped it in plastic and nestled everything in my suitcase. Despite a five hour delay on the way home the chiles were still mostly frozen and had not leaked! I have been rationing them like gold and had just a half-cup left.
So, yesterday, while rummaging through my pantry I found the chicos and beans and realized I really needed some posole, despite the warming weather. It never really gets all that warm here anyway, with a few rare handful of days, and I enjoy soups and stews any time, even for breakfast!
Before I went to bed I set the beans and chicos to soak. This morning I drained and rinsed them and popped them into my crockpot. I had also thawed the chiles and two humongous Dakota smoked sausages from Lockeford. Sadly, there was no pork in the freezer but I had chicken breasts.
I wasn’t exactly following the farmer’s wife’s recipe with the sausage and chicken, and I add a bunch more things to jazz up the posole, so I hope she (and you) forgive me for the embellishments.
A strong Spanish onion was halved and sliced, a few carrots and celery ribs were dispatched, and the chicken cubed up and added to the pot. The green chile and their gooey juice were poured in, half of one of the humongo sausages and a couple winter tomates were diced for general purposes. The seasonings went in next: garlic, oregano, salt, bay leaf, black pepper. Then 8 cups of chicken broth were poured over all, I put the lid on and remembered to turn the thing on (for a change!) and went for a walk in the balmy sunshine.
When I came home the posole was coming along but the beans weren’t tender yet so I endured the incredible scents wafting from the kitchen rather ill-humoredly until 7:30 pm when everything was finally ready.
Everything was meltingly tender, including the chicken, which was not dry, by the way. I ladeled up a bowl, added a handful of cilantro and a diced avocado and dug in. The chiles were just perfectly warm, like sunshine in your mouth. The chicos were chewy and slightly smokey with a distinct corniness. I love these beans too, they retained faint pink spots from their former ruby dappled marks and were so creamy. The broth was divine, the best part, rich and spicy without being hot with the fresh bite of the cilantro and a cool unctous bite of avocado.
I almost forgot the sounds of the traffic outside and the hissing of the radiator and thought I heard that vast silence of the high desert, silent except for the singsong of coyotes and the loud flapping of the ravens flying overhead. It was a bowl of home, or rather a home I long to have.
REC: Heather in SF/SFe Posole.
1/2 c chicos or posole or hominy
1/2 c dried beans (I used rattlesnake beans but pintos or white beans would be good instead)
2 T salt
12 cups of water
2 chicken breasts, cubed, and 8 oz smoked sausage (kilbasa), sliced
— or —
2 boneless pork chops, cubed
1 T olive oil
1 Spanish or red onion, halved, then sliced
3 carrots and 2 celery ribs, halved and sliced
2 tomatoes, diced
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 c Hatch mild green chile, or 1 small can mild Ortega chiles, or hotter chile – to your preference
1/2 tsp Mexican rubbed oregano
A few grinds of black pepper (I used ___ lavender pepper)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
8 c chicken broth
1 bunch of cilantro
2 avocados, halved, seeded, diced then scooped out of the shell with a spoon
1 lime, cut into sections
In a large bowl pour in the chicos, beans, salt and water and let soak overnight. Drain and rinse.
In a small skillet sauté chicken breasts in the olive oil with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
In a crock pot, place soaked beans and corn, then meats, vegetables, herbs, spices and broth. Turn on high and cook 4 hours or until beans and corn are tender.
If you aren’t using a crock pot, then in a soup pot sauté the chicken as above and then remove. Add vegetables and sauté briefly with a bit of salt and pepper. Add herbs and spices, the meats, the beans and corn and broth. Cover and simmer for 60 – 90 minutes or until the beans and corn are tender.
Ladle the soup into each person’s bowl, top the soup with a handful of cilantro leaves and a mound of avocado. Add a squeeze of lime and serve.
If you want more of a stew, increase the beans and corn to 1 cup each. I’m more of a brothy girl myself.
Technically, posole is both a soup and the ingredient used in the stew, e.g., corn kernels soaked in lye and then dried. Hominy is a Mexican preparation and has a softer consistency. Posole corn can be hard to find outside of New Mexico and I have never seen chicos outside of the Santa Fe farmer’s market, so the dried hominy is a great substitute. But if you ever see posole or chicos for sale, snap them up!
(the piñon forest, do you see why I miss Santa Fe?)