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Biting into a juicy ear of sweet corn is a highlight of summer. But, like a summer romance and things that happen in Las Vegas, its fleeting. And you can't take it with you when the vacation ends. But thanks to an Anasazi trick, you can enjoy your corn all year long, in a fresh-y sort of way.
You've heard of tortillas and tamales, and perhaps even corn syrup. But in terms of non-fresh uses of corn, these foods are just the tip of the corndog. Prepared via an ancient technique, chicos are still made by residents of the Upper Rio Grande, but they could, and should, be made by you too.
Corn has a dual nature. There is corn the commodity, aka big corn, grown with all sorts of infamous, large-scale farming practices. It's the corn that fills Midwestern silos, is sold by the bushel, and fed to animals, or turned into sugar syrup or ethanol to fuel cars.
And there is little corn, aka the original soul food of America. Bred into existence in what is presently known as Central Mexico, maiz, as its creators called it, became the lifeblood of native tribes throughout North and Central America, and played a pivotal role in the Pilgrims surviving in the new world.
Whichever paradigm it was grown under, corn will produce more calories per acre than any other food but the potato. In its ancestral Southwestern homeland, corn remains the heart of the regional cuisine, embracing vegetables and meat in tortillas and encasing it in tamales made of ground corn from the previous summer's crop. Most dietary corn comes in the form of ground corn, but there are also a few forms of corn that are preserved and prepared intact. The most well-known of these is posole (or the Mayan-style pozole), which refers to large kernels of corn that have been treated with lye or wood ash to remove the skins and soften what remains. The swollen posole kernels are used to make a stew of the same name.
Posole's less famous little brother goes by the name chicos, Spanish for "little ones," or more colloquially, "pals." These are the dried kernels of sweet corn that has been roasted all night in a Pueblo-style horno mud oven, and then sundried and stripped from their cobs. They are thought to be an Anasazi invention, as chicos-like remainshave been found among the remains of hornos in Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and other strongholds of the ancestral Puebloan Indians. Today dried corn has gone global (as has corn itself, obviously). But depending on how dried corn is prepared, it may or may not be chicos. Real chicos will melt when you add them to food, while typical dried corn will taste like rocks.
Chicos are more than a historical staple food. They are a regional treasure, the darlings of farmers markets from Santa Fe to Durango. They remain a form of dry storage through the winter, and are an indispensable ingredient in some of the most treasured dishes of southwestern comfort food. Despite this niche origin, chicos can be easily prepared at home from any sweet corn you can get your hands on.
Pound for pound, a few pieces of corn can pack an impressive punch. A handful of kernels tossed into soup converts it to corn soup, thanks to a powerful, umami-rich flavor. Add potatoes too, and you've got corn chowder.
Chicos rehydrate quickly, and then can be tossed into soups and stews with the spontaneity that's typically reserved for fresh corn, sliced from a cob. In winter, those sweet, smoky kernels are like packaged drops of sunshine.
Today, we refer to the corn belt as a lateral figment of the mid-west, but the original corn belt extended south-to-north, from the Mexican crucible to a northern extreme at the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Southern Colorado. This northern edge of ancestral corn country is the 120-mile long San Luis Valley of Colorado, where the Rio Grande gathers steam at an average elevation of nearly seven thousand feet. This is hardly typical corn country, and the varieties that grow there are not the usual ones. They are short season varieties, able to withstand large swings in temperature between day and night.
One of these short season varieties, a type of white corn called Maiz del Concho, is the kind that's most commonly used to make chicos in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. However, I know from experience that any cob that you bring home from market can be made into chicos. And if you have multiple varieties, including multiple colors, all the better. A diversity of corns will increase the flavors and funs to be had in the kitchen.
An horno oven isn't necessary either. The corn can be roasted in the oven, or better yet a pit in the ground, where the ears are buried with juniper and pinon embers. The ears should be soaked before being roasted.
If you aren't going with the pit technique, and you don't have an horno, then 300 degrees in a normal oven will suffice. Place the corn unpeeled in a covered baking pan or wrapped in foil. Bake it for 3-4 hours, checking occasionally to make sure it doesn't blacken. Turn the oven off before bed, but leave the corn inside the oven overnight. It is this cooking step that separates chicos from dried corn.
In the morning, take the corn from the oven, pull back the husks, and hang them or lay them out in the sun for a week or two. Brace yourself: the flies will notice your setup approvingly. You can cover the cobs with cheesecloth if you wish, but I just let the flies do their thing as the corn dries out. Whatever nastiness the flies deposit will dry and die and get washed off.
After they are bone dry, put on some clean work gloves and rub the kernels off the cob. Clean them in front of a fan, or on a windy day, so the flecks of husk and whatnot can fly away. Store the dried kernels in freezer bags or jars in a cool, dark place until needed. When it's time to cook, give them a rinse and a soak...and maybe a final rinse to lift off any remain silk or husk or fly turds, and add them to things, from ramen to frittata. Can them in salsa. Sprinkle them, pre-soaked, in stir-fries.
Traditionally, chicos are often cooked with red chile, onions, salt, oil, and some kind of meat. If it's a tough cut, do whatever you need to do to make it tender, like braising or pressure cooking. Traditionally venison or lamb was used, but today people use pork, chicken or beef. Ribs are a popular cut to use with chicos. Make sure it's cut into chunks. Cook the meat in the oil with cut onions and chicos. Stir in some chile powder, and some garlic powder if you wish (I would), and some oregano if you want some herbal aroma. Make it as thick or brothy as you wish, adding bullion if necessary.
This is the base of a very old recipe. And like many old recipes, it's not as fancy and complex as what they're serving at the local bistro. Dress up your ancient little pals in whatever fancy outfits you wish. Call it Anasazi fusion. Call it summer, any day you want it