As I was preparing my move to New Mexico, a Blackfoot Indian woman came by to see about renting my house in Missoula, Mont. She didn't rent the house but we became friends, and before she left she gave me some bright red kernels of dried corn she got at a powwow.
I have no way to tell her, other than hope she’s reading, how awesome her corn is. I'll call her Corn Maiden, based on a Pueblo legend about a woman who gives corn to the people. Corn Maiden’s gift has led me on a cool journey of corn discovery.
Also known as maize, corn has been an important component of the indigenous American diet for centuries. Lately the plant has become a darling of the processed-food industry because of its versatility as a sweetener and thickener, but the modern varieties in use by the corn industry are a far cry from the ruby kernels that Corn Maiden gave me. With red stalks, red husks and red veins crisscrossing the green leaves, the plant is a feast for the eyes as well as the belly.
This isn't sweet corn, the kind you boil and slather with butter. The kernels are hard and dense, even when fresh, and are thickly starchy. The corn's tough nature put me in uncharted culinary waters. I didn’t have enough for grinding. I wasn't sure what to do with the beautiful ears or kernels, other than leave them in visible places where they could be ogled. It was from these helpless beginnings that I began the path that eventually led to my discovery of “cinco de maize,” a corn soup recipe.
My first breakthrough came when it occurred to me to rub some dried kernels off a cob and add the kernels to a pot of posole. The red corn added an intriguing texture to the hominy-based stew, as well as a mild corn flavor and brilliant color. It wasn’t long until I was adding chicos—oven-dried corn nibs—to it, for a tri-corn stew I called “tres de maize.” Other corn from my garden, like Oaxacan blue corn, or even sweet corn, also has a place in my stew. Achieving “cinco de maize” isn’t unusual. Each new corn adds its body and soul to the soup.
With red stalks, red husks and red veins crisscrossing the green leaves, the plant is a feast for the eyes as well as the belly.
Start by soaking your dried corn—be it posole, chicos and/or plain dried kernels. Doing it overnight is ideal.
After soaking the corn as long as possible, begin simmering your soaked corn in water with a little stock or bouillon with salt and garlic powder. Brown some cubes of meat and add it to the stew. Tough meat is OK, because the stew is going to be cooking a long time—however long it takes to soften all that corn and meat.
While that's going, clean some dried red chile pods, removing stem, seeds and inner membranes in a manner appropriate to the hotness of the chiles and heat-tolerance of your audience. Soak them in warm chicken bouillon. After 30 minutes, put the chiles in a blender with raw garlic and oregano and, adding some of the red soaking bouillon as necessary for a good vortex, blend until it's a smooth, red paste.
As the kernels cook together, a complexity emerges from the repetition of parallel but different corn vibrations. Many of the kernels are smaller and chewier—not to mention different colors—from the corn most of us are used to in our posole, which is why I don’t call this posole, even though it’s prepared similarly.
While some corn will soften to the point of disintegration in just a few hours, other kinds will hold their form and toughness longer. Cook until none of the kernels are hard, then add some chopped onions and your red chile paste to the pot. Let it cook together until the onions are translucent. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with chopped raw onion, a squeeze of lime and a good supply of chopped green chile so you can go Christmas on it. (A nice dollop of mayo or sour cream makes it a white Christmas.)
Whatever you want to call it, this is a brothy, hearty, spicy and utterly fulfilling corn comfort food. And since many of the ingredients (corn, chile, garlic and onions) can all be grown at home and stored for months, it’s a homegrown dish you can eat year-round.
After the second harvest of Corn Maiden’s ruby red corn, I’m making chicos out of it this year. I bake the ears of corn, husk on, in a covered baking dish at 350 degrees. After three fragrant hours in the smoldering husk, I remove the corn from the oven, let the ears cool and pull off the husks. Then I let them dry in the sun for a few days.
It will be interesting to see how the chico version of Corn Maiden’s corn compares to the dried kernels of her corn that I used last year. And that’s just one of the many tests I’ll be conducting this winter, when posole-like soup becomes more and more essential. This multi-corn chowder is a young science, and there’s so much work to do.