I hope you'll enjoy Fork in the Road, a series of posts in which I recount the places we've been, recreate the most memorable meals we've enjoyed, and rehabilitate the ones we'd otherwise rather forget. The Roadtrip Dinner Redux kicked off in North Platte, Nebraska with a dish of Shichimi-Spiced Soba Noodles; now, we head south to New Mexico to revisit a simple side dish that stole the spotlight . . .
Santa Fe-inspired Posole
I can see clearly now, the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright, bright
-- "I Can See Clearly Now" by Johnny Nash
It was going to be a wonderful day.
Mr. Noodle and I left North Platte, Nebraska early that morning, well-fortified from an enormous pancake breakfast that helped dim the memory of the previous night's microwaveable noodle dinner. Ahead of us lay over 600 miles and 10 hours of driving through the length of Colorado before we would reach our destination in Santa Fe, New Mexico. No worries, though - we had our omnipresent bag of Goldfish for snacking, some old-school tunes (Beastie Boys for him, Guns 'n' Roses for me) to keep up the tempo, passing scenery more beautiful with each mile, and enough excited energy to keep either of us from dozing off in the passenger seat and thereby depriving the driver of some chatty company.
As the Big Maroon made steady progress down the interstate, we were entranced as the landscape changed from green Nebraska farm fields to the desolate, rolling grasslands of northern Colorado and the distant snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. This was no foreign land filled with unfamiliar exotica, yet there was always something new to experience with each mile. Far from a stranger to strange sights from his global travels, Mr. Noodle was nonetheless utterly fascinated by the cacti that dotted a random hillside behind a rest stop near Pueblo, Colorado; in the meantime, I was alarmed by signs urging caution for poisonous snakes and scorpions that were regular denizens of the area. These were not the pine trees and mosquitoes that we had left behind in Minnesota.
How much we miss by flying to our destinations! From the air, we can see the vastness of our beautiful land, but only on the ground can all of our senses fully revel in it. Noisome fumes from roadside cattle pens were soon dissipated by a fresh, cool breeze across the open prairie, while the muted roar of water cascading through a river gorge was accompanied by the steady hum of tires on asphalt. The smoothness of an interesting pebble found along a riverbank radiated the captured warmth of sunshine and was tucked away as a remembrance, but the rough grumbling of my stomach soon reminded me that the best souvenir would be a plate of Southwestern food.
Ristras: Old Tradition in New Mexico
Garlands of dried chili peppers. Mexican-influenced cuisine. Maize. Arid landscape. Artists. Adobes.
These were some of the images that came to mind when Mr. Noodle put New Mexico on our itinerary and were formed secondhand through travel guidebooks, websites and photos of this Land of Enchantment. Sure enough, we marveled at the landscape of vibrant red rock outcroppings, but were also delighted by surprisingly verdant scenery as we drove through Cimarron Canyon State Park on our way to the town of Taos. For over a century, the area has attracted artists of every medium, from painters to sculptors to weavers, but it was a traditional culinary form, borne of necessity and practicality, that caught our eye and made real the essence of New Mexico.
Chile and garlic ristras, New Mexico
Inside a small, non-descript kiosk in the middle of a municipal parking lot, we found Isabelle Duran of Ristras de Taos, sitting at a table and nimbly assembling dozens of ristras (Spanish for "bunch") - the strands and wreaths of sundried chile peppers that have become an instantly recognizable motif of the American Southwest. Although ristras are popular today as decorations signifying hospitality and good luck, stringing together chiles, along with garlic bulbs and ears of Indian corn, and hanging them to dry outdoors is a long-standing method of preserving these pods, which are so intrinsic to New Mexican cuisine:
"It is said that the length of a ristra was traditionally related to the height of the person stringing it: Supposedly, a ristra as long as a person was tall would meet his or her chile needs for a year . . . Pods are pulled off as needed and added whole to a pot of posole (hominy stew) or beans, crumbled to make the red flakes called caribe, or ground into molido for the red chile sauce (chile colorado) that's eaten on a daily basis all over the state."
-- Deborah Madison, "Chimayó's Chile Culture"
The thought of savory, chile-spiced food quickly set us back on the road from Taos' charming shops and galleries toward the day's true destination - Santa Fe. World-renowned as a cultural and artistic center, this state capital is also home to some of the very best in Southwestern cuisine, drawing from Mexican and Native American culinary traditions as well as leading the way in innovative and uniquely New Mexican cookery. Among the most popular food destinations are the small town of Chimayó, just north of Santa Fe and best known for its namesake heirloom chile, and the Santa Fe School of Cooking, which draws some of the city's best chefs as instructors, including Oliver Ridgeway, Executive Chef of the Anasazi Restaurant & Bar. With its contemporary New Mexican menu, the Anasazi joins other critically-acclaimed dining rooms such as the Coyote Café and Ristra, a French-Southwestern fusion restaurant, in excelling at modern interpretations of local/regional ingredients and traditional cooking styles.
(Photo credit: Edith Han at Travelust)
Yelped, single-dollar-sign, family-owned-and-staffed little restaurant adjacent to a strip club with the cheeky name of Cheeks. If you manage to walk through the correct doorway, the only saucy sights you'll see are the plates of enchiladas smothered in chile verde (made with roasted green chiles), chile colorado (made with ground dried red chiles), or Christmas (one of each).
We were seated and served in short order with Mr. Noodle diving into a chile relleno while I made quick work of an enchilada. Both were quite good, but it was the side dish that grabbed my attention. Instead of the usual blob of refried beans, Café Castro served posole (also spelled pozole*); however, this was not the the steaming bowlful of spicy broth, fragrant herbs, tender pork and pleasantly chewy hominy that I so enjoy ordering at Mexican restaurants.
(*Spelling with 's' is most commonly used in New Mexico.)
Think you know posole? I certainly thought so, but it turns out, I didn't know the half of it - or two-thirds, as the case may be:
(Photo credit: Wikipedia.org/Posole)
Posole the Ingredient refers to dried corn that has been nixtamalized, a process dating back to ancient Mesoamerica in which kernels are soaked in a lime solution then dried. The word posole is derived from the Nahuatl pozolli (or posolli), meaning 'foamy', which may refer to the foam that forms when the corn is boiled. The cans of big, puffy-looking corn with which you may be familiar are hominy - essentially cooked posole.
Posole the Soup traces its origins to a pre-Hispanic Mexican foodstuff of ground maize called keyem by the Mayans and pozolli by the Aztecs. Today, it is a mainstay of Mexican cuisine, popular as a fiesta food and readily available at restaurants devoted solely to serving countless variations of the stew (pozoleros). The central traditional ingredients are pork and, of course, posole, but regional renditions abound: pozole blanco is simply stewed with herbs and various pig parts while pozole rojo gets its red hue from dried red chiles that are either ground or softened and puréed, and pozole verde recipes use tomatillos and/or green chilies for its coloration. This was what I was most familiar with as posole.
Posole the Side Dish, from what I gather, is more common in New Mexico than anywhere else:
"[Posole is] served at the restaurant generally as a starchy accompaniment . . . " (from The Rancho de Chimayo Cookbook, p129)
"You'll often see posole as a side dish along with pinto beans (frijoles)." (from Santa Fe Flavors, p10)The side dish served at Café Castro appeared to be a blanco version that had a mild, almost bland flavor. In fact, I may have been more enamored by the idea of posole as a side dish than overly impressed by its taste, which is why I decided on a redux of this particular dinner element in the hopes of cooking up a simple, savory accompaniment to put on the Noodle house menu.
Browning-Blas, Kristen. "Ancient Stew, Modern Style" DenverPost.com, 1/27/10
Garber, Karen H. "Red, White or Green: Warm Up the Winter with Pozole" Mexconnect.com, 1/1/06
Santa Fe-inspired Posole
Posole blanco is often the base upon which other ingredients are layered to create the even deeper flavored rojo and verde soups. Although there are countless variations of this 'basic' recipe, most use pork, oregano and onion in their preparations. For this dish, I omitted the pork meat, opting instead to use chicken broth, and I added zucchini and tomato for more color and texture. Finally, even if it has absolutely no precedent in any known posole recipe, I couldn't resist adding cheese ...
1 medium zucchini, leave unpeeled, washed and diced small (about 1 cup)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced small (about 1/2 cup)3/4 cup chicken broth
1 tsp ground chile powder (such as ancho or chipotle)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp dried oregano29 oz can hominy, drained and rinsed
1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped
optional: 1 tequila-soaked chipotle
Queso blanco (crumbled)
1. Sprinkle diced zucchini with salt, toss well and place in a colander. Set aside for 20 minutes to draw out moisture from the squash, then pat dry;
2. Heat oil in a small Dutch oven or pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until softened but not browned;
3. Add diced zucchini and cook until softened, then add broth, chile, cumin and oregano (and chipotle, if using), and bring to a gentle simmer;
4. Add hominy and tomato and stir to heat through, about 5 minutes.
5. Top with fresh chopped cilantro and queso blanco and serve as an accompaniment to your favorite main dishes, such as roast chicken.