June 20, 2015
When I was in Tucson a few months ago, I was lucky enough to go to the Anita Street Market. As I was paying for the spectacular tacos, I noticed little bags sitting next to the cash register, filled with a substance that looked like broken amber beer bottles. The shapes were shiny, irregular. "What is that?" I asked.
The cashier glanced down at the bag. He shrugged. "Chicos." He pointed to a shelf. "These are ours. Those over there are from a local farmer. I like ours better. They're smokier."
"Add them to my bill," I said, sticking the little plastic bag in my pocket book. Where I promptly forgot them.
I found them the other day, still hidden in the bottom of my purse. With no idea how to deal with them, I did a little research. The dried, smoked, broken corn kernels are an ancient ingredient beloved by the Indian nations of the Southwest. Apparently they're easiest to find in New Mexico.
Unsure of what to do with them, I made up my own version with what I happened to have on hand. I'm sure there are better ways to cook chicos, but everyone who came to dinner last night loved my thrown-together dish. I did too.
I began by soaking 2 cups of chicos overnight, as I'd do with beans. In the morning I drained them.
I chopped a couple of onions and a few cloves of garlic and sauteed them in a couple tablespoons of duck fat. (I'd cooked a duck the night before, and just happened to have it sitting by the stove. Ordinarily I'd use vegetable oil or bacon grease. But duck fat adds its own wonderful layer of flavor. )
When the alliums had given their fragrance to the air, I added the soaked chicos, a teaspoon of salt and a bay leaf, along with 6 cups of the duck stock I'd made with leftover duck bones. (Chicken stock or water would undoubtedly work well too.)
I cooked the chicos for about 3 hours, until they were soft. Next time, just for science, I might try cooking them a little less, so they maintain some crunch. The recipes I've found online seem undecided on this point.
But then, the piece de resistance. I'd been cooking some pork skin, and when the chicos were done I chopped some up and stirred that in. The cracklings were the same color as the chicos, but they added crunch, fat and flavor to the smokey goodness of the chicos. It was absolutely delicious – and not like anything I've tasted before.
Crackling Pork Skin
I'd bought a pork shoulder from North Plains Farm, who raise the most delicious pigs. At home I decided to slice off the skin and cook it separately. So I salted it really well, rolled it up like a jelly roll and left it to sit in the refrigerator, well wrapped in plastic, for a few days.
Then I put it into a gratin dish (so I could capture the fat as it melted) and left it in a slow (325) oven for four hours, turning it every hour or so. Halfway through it was almost submerged in its own fat, making this essentially confit.
When it came out of the oven the crackling was so delicious we pounced on it, devouring it with such glee we barely left enough to shred over the chicos.
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