Chicos and bolita beans: two ancestral foods of northern New Mexico

Bolitos

Photo: Tina Larkin

Originally published in Taos News

                                          Chicos

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 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 Native Americans 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 corn. Then make ristras with the cobs. Ristras should contain from 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 more 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 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)

Ingredients:

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

Preparation:

Soak chicos in cold water overnight, then cook with the water in a crock pot all day, on low. 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

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 Santiestevan. “Their flavor is richer than the Pinto beans. But the Pintos need less cooking time and nowadays, most cooks prefer them to bolitas.”

Santiestevan 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 Santiestevan, “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 recipe

Ingredients:

1 pound bolita beans

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 diced onion

4 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped

12 ounces bacon

1 can of peeled tomatoes

1 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 cups chicos

4 to 5 cups water

Preparation:

Soak the bolita beans overnight.

Sauté the onions and garlic in a large skillet until soft, then add the other ingredients, except for 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.

Bolitos

Photo: Tina Larkin

 

 

 

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About dovalpage

Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana and now lives in Taos, New Mexico. She has a Ph.D. in Spanish literature and teaches at UNM Taos. She also freelances for Taos News, Profile, Hispanic Executive and other publications. A bilingual author, she has published eight novels, six in Spanish and two in English, two collections of short stories in Spanish and one in English. Her English-language novels are A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) and Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010). Her collection of short stories The Astral Plane, Stories of Cuba, the Southwest and Beyond was published by the University of New Orleans Press in 2012. In her native Spanish she has authored the novels Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana, Anagrama, 2006, a runner-up for the Herralde Award in Spain), El difunto Fidel (The late Fidel, Renacimiento, 2011, that won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009), Posesas de La Habana (Haunted Ladies of Havana, PurePlay Press, 2004), La Regenta en La Habana (Edebe Group, Spain, 2012,) Orfeo en el Caribe(Atmósfera Literaria, Spain, 2013) and El retorno de la expatriada (The expat’s return, Egales, Spain, 2014). Her short novel Las Muertas de la West Mesa (The West Mesa Murders, based on a real event) is currently being published in serialized format by Taos News.
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