September is the best time to harvest corn. And for those interested in making chicos (dried kernels of corn), this is also the right moment to start the process. Just be prepared — it can be time consuming. “But the results are worth every minute of it,” says Benji Apodaca, head of the Culinary Arts Program at Taos High School and at UNM-Taos.
“Chicos are great comfort food, particularly during the fall and the winter.”
Chicos used to be a typical, everyday food for Hispanics and American Indians throughout the American Southwest.
“Corn was a staple of their diet because it could be used in a variety of forms,” Apodaca said. “Unfortunately, not many people take the time to make chicos anymore.”
Chicos seem to belong to a time when life was slower and people devoted endless hours to cooking. Yet making chicos is a tradition that should be kept alive.
“It is actually quite simple,” Apodaca said. “Just follow these steps and you will end up with enough chicos to last you all winter long.”
How to make chicos the old-fashioned way, in an horno (oven):
1. Get the horno ready. Plaster it and make sure it is sealed.
2. Make a fire with apple, cherry or any other hard wood. Keep a very intense fire going until the outside of the oven is really hot. Depending on the day and the weather, this may take four or more hours.
3. While the oven is being heated, the corn (white corn, not sweet) should be soaked in water for at least a couple of hours.
4. Once the oven’s temperature is sufficiently hot, take most of the ashes out, leaving only some inside.
5. Throw the ears of corn, with their husks still on, in the oven.
6. Seal the front of the oven with a metal tray and then put zoqueta, or adobe stucco, around the door so it is completely closed. Leave the corn in the oven overnight.
7. Next morning, unseal the oven, open it and pull the corn out.
8. Remove the husks from the corn. Then make ristras with the cobs. Ristras should contain six to eight ears of corn.
9. Let the ristras of corn dry out in the sun for a day or two.
10. When they are thoroughly dried, shock the ristras to get the kernels off the ears. The best way to do this is get two ears of corns together over a tray, and rub them against each other so the kernels come right off the cobs.
11. Put a handful of kernels over a quilt or a sheet. Get two people to hold the sheet and throw the kernels up. If there are still some little pieces of husk left, they will fly away and only the “clean” kernels will drop back to the sheet.
12. At this point, you have chicos ready to be stored if you want to preserve them. And, naturally, ready to be cooked right away, too.
How to cook chicos — the modern way
Chicos add a sweet, fresh taste to the dish as well as a slightly smoky flavor. They are usually cooked in combination with beans.
“Another way of eating them is putting the chicos in a caldito, a broth, with pork shoulder,” said Benji Apodaca. “You will need to boil them for an hour and a half. They are also a great addition to stews.”
Here is a recipe for chicos taken from the cookbook “Cocinas de New Mexico” (Public Service Company of New Mexico, 1990)
2 cups chicos
10 cups cold water
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 pound pork
1 medium onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
4-5 dried green or red chiles, crumbled
Soak chicos in cold water overnight, then cook , on low with the water in a crock pot all day. If you prefer, just simmer them on the stove for about 3 hours after soaking.
Heat the oil on medium flame and sear the pork. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until translucent. Add the salt, oregano, chiles, and the chicos with all their water.
Cook for 20 minutes (or longer, as desired) to blend the flavors and rehydrate the chiles. Serves 4 to 6 people.
Bolita beans are known for their high protein content. At one time they were extremely popular in Northern New Mexico, but, just like chicos, their popularity has decreased.
“And it shouldn’t be this way,” says ethnobiologist and farmer Miguel Santistevan. “Their flavor is richer than the pinto beans. But the pintos need less cooking time and nowadays, most cooks prefer them to bolitas.”
Santistevan is the founder of AIRE (Agriculture Implementation Research and Education) a local nonprofit organization.
“We want to reconnect people with the land, their food and ecology,” said Santistevan, “while addressing the growing problems associated with the industrial food system, climate change and nature deficit disorder.”
Getting a taste of ancestral, nutritious foods like chicos and bolita beans may be a good start.
Bolita beans with chicos
1 pound bolita beans
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 diced onion
4 medium garlic cloves, finely
12 ounces bacon
1 can of peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 cups chicos
4 to 5 cups water
Soak the bolita beans overnight.
Sauté onions and garlic in a large skillet until soft, then add the other ingredients, except water, and cook briefly to combine.
Place all in a large pressure cooker and start adding water until the beans are well covered. Cover and cook, following your pressure cooker’s instructions, on high pressure for 20 minutes. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and allow the pressure to come down naturally for at least 15 minutes. Quick-release any pressure left in the cooker before removing the lid.