January 6, 2017 | Frank Bonanno
I’m on a little cooking show called Chef Driven. The show was a envisioned as a way for me to take people on a food journey–no, an ingredient journey–through the lens of chef who’s also a restaurateur. I’d get to trace the food I serve in my restaurants back to its origins, to put faces and settings to the spirits, breads, wine, and seasonings . . . to talk to who’s growing, raising, butchering, and generally elevating Denver dining. I wanted to demonstrate how, maybe, a home cook might be able to execute some of the same dishes we serve in restaurants. I’ve loved every moment of Chef Driven, not least because it feels like a public valentine from me to some of the people who inspire me most.
As my restaurant group has expanded, so has the scope of the show. This past season, we got to travel outside the Colorado borders. Chef Driven afforded me the opportunity to go to farms and factories, stills and kitchens, and see first-hand where the some of the foods I import originate. It was cool, because these were farmers and makers whose products I’d used, but whose faces and processes were new to me.
I learned about corn sweet enough to eat raw, and science dedicated to growing wheat for Armageddon. I learned about pigs, and I learned about whiskey, and I learned about the dangers of a tiny boat in a rough ocean. I learned about flavor profiles of honey. I learned about firing shots into a strawberry field, and, well, I learned so much that we had to break the show down thematically. The first focus of this season is corn, and while we were filming the show, I found an iteration of corn that was utterly new to me: chicos.
I’d ordered chicos before from Casados farms and we cooked in a stew at Russell’s Smokehouse the way we’d cook hominy. In fact, I thought chicos and posole (hominy) were one and the same. They aren’t. I assumed the flavor and cost difference had to do with how they’re farmed. It isn’t and it is.
Posole is ripe corn that’s been hulled and soaked in lye. The lye penetrates the outer layer of the kernel and strips it of the bran and germ—the lye gives it that uniform, chewy texture. For chicos, the corn is still green, the whole ear steamed with water in its entirety on the husk, then dried out in open air kilns, bran and wheat intact. Chicos can be stored indefinitely, shriveled little kernels that are deeply flavorful, and they’re meant to be rehydrated later, puffing up to their former corn-glory, but with a new history and smokiness waiting to be released. Julia Child used to say something to the effect that if a food was beautiful, it’s because someone’s fingers have been all over it. That’s chicos, fingers all over it.
I especially love the discovery of chicos because it feels like an endangered food to me. I want to bring them back to the Smokehouse and to spread the word so you’ll try them at home. Peter Casados himself was kind enough to show me around his farm, he talked about how generations of his family have grown, stored and cooked chicos in New Mexico, about the time-consuming process, how the cobs are tied on ristras by hand, and farmers tend to the wood fire, tenderly raking the embers to keep steam at a consistent temperature–how the corn is then racked to dried, and the racks rotated daily for consistency, how the kernels are later released from the cobb by hand. Consider again that Julia Child sentiment and consider, then, the human contact that goes into chicos–labor, that, as Peter pointed out, is becoming cost prohibitive—exclusive—and the time-honored but time-consuming process that is more and more rare in this modern era.
When I got back to Denver, I made chico stew at home. This time, I was acutely aware of the swathes of land it takes to grow row after row of corn, of the fires kept burning to steam it, and the racks turned to dry it, and the history that made such a method necessary, as well as people like the Casados who keep that history alive. I’ll finish this post with a plea to you to keep the tradition of chicos alive, to maybe order some to try at home, to give it as gifts and to keep stored for a cool summer night.
Just before I left Casados farm, Peter introduced me to his mother Juanita, who gave me a tiny cookbook of New Mexican Delights. Here is Juanita’s chico stew recipe, deliberately vague, the way grandmothers make recipes, to encourage you to spice it and tweak it and own it for the next generation. My own iteration follows hers. Please, spread the love.
6 cups water
1 cup chicos
1 lb pork rind
1 lb pork meat
Tools: Large pot, ladle, serving bowls
Procedure: Cook chicos, meat and rind in water until kernels soften, then season to taste with salt and chile molido.
A note: I’d never made chicos until I was inspired by my New Mexico visit. This is a variation of a recipe I found on Edible Santa Fe.
2 cups chicos
2 quarts water
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound pork, cubed
1 medium onion, sliced
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced
1 ancho chili, roughly diced
2 cloves garlic, mashed
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon oregano
1 tsp red chili flakes
Bunch fresh cilantro
Tools: Sharp knife, stock pot, iron skillet, serving spoon,