New Mexico chicos del horno at Farmers Chile Market in Albuquerque

Chicos Food

Few foods outside of red and green chile will evoke such a comfortable and homey feeling as chicos and pinto beans. Pinto beans are a staple in New Mexican cuisine, with people getting very excited for new crop beans in late September. Chicos are another thing that New Mexicans go wild for, and are typically ready a few weeks after the corn harvest. When you pair beans and chicos together, magic happens, and it tastes far better than beans with ham hocks or any other addition, though extras like that can also be included in a bowl of chicos & beans and taste wonderful. Beyond just beans, chicos are a great ingredient to add into many dishes, particularly soups.

What are chicos?

Chicos are a wonderfully delicious New Mexican food item. They are essentially a slow roasted and dried corn. Chicos del horno as they are called refer to the method of cooking and drying. Horno means oven in Spanish, but in New Mexico, it often refers to a traditional adobe oven that you will see a lot of in Native American reservations and small farming communities in New Mexico. Adobe is a large part of our architecture in New Mexico, even down to our ovens. While cooking in the oven, it will get a very nice savory and smoky flavor profile. Adding chicos to any soup will kick the flavor up a notch, but chicos are quite hard and need to be cooked for a while to become tender. They also don’t puff up while cooking like posole does.

A handmade horno oven found in northern New Mexico, which is used to make chicos del horno
These hornos are made by many families in Northern New Mexico

How are Chicos Made?

They are packed into hornos like the one above and roasted with the husk on, typically overnight. After that, they are removed and tied up to hand and sun dry, similar to chile ristras. After they have dried completely, they are shucked from the corn and bagged up to be used in cooking throughout the year.

How to use chicos in cooking?

Chicos are amazing for just about any strongly flavored soup. They are quite flavorful, and might overpower a more simple soup base. Be sure to soak chicos overnight, as they are VERY dense, and need time to absorb water and soften up. Chicos should be cooked for about 4 hours to achieve an ideal texture, though they are acceptable after boiling for two hours, if they were properly soaked before. Because they take much longer than most dried foods, I recommend to start boiling chicos when you begin preparing other ingredients in your soup. That way, the dense dried corn can get the extra cooking time it needs, while not slowing down your cooking process too much. The most common way we use chicos in New Mexico is cooking them with pinto beans. The flavors synergize incredibly well together, and and the sum is certainly greater than its parts.

New Mexican food

New Mexican cuisine is unique related to other cuisines like Tex-Mex and Mexican food, primarily because of the unique ingredients we possess. Although Mexico has many different chiles available, none of them really compare to our New Mexican chile. First of all, our chile is much bigger an meatier. Another thing is that we roast chile in a very different way. In Mexico, many restaurants might offer a flattop grill roasted jalapeno or serrano pepper with your meal. In New Mexico, although plenty of Mexican food trucks sell food this way, we also have a large chile roasting industry, using mostly fresh green chile from Hatch or other growing regions in the Rio Grande valleys of New Mexico.

Beyond just chile, we also have a big corn tradition similar to Mexico. Although flour tortillas are more commonly used here than our Southern neighbors, we also have a great fondness for corn in every way. Enchiladas, whether red or green, need corn tortillas because they keep a nice texture even when smothered by a chile sauce!

Corn in New Mexican food

A bowl of posole is just one of many ways that New Mexicans enjoy corn!

In various central and northern regions in New Mexico, there are a good amount of corn farms, growing yellow, white, blue, and multicolored corn. We also have plenty of different local cornmeal, masa, and nixtamalized corn, posole. With all these different varieties of corn commonly used in our food, it should be no surprise that we also have our own specialty corn products like chicos as well. Few products express the depth of corn flavor as strongly as chicos however. The process to make them imparts a smoky flavor, but the sugars in the corn also reduce into savory flavors as well. It gives a really unique but very strong corn flavor.

Where to get chicos and beans in Albuquerque

During the chile season, we will have New Mexican chicos and pinto beans available at 2010 Eubank Blvd NE in Albuquerque. We will also have them on our online shop, which should be up and running by September 2022. Unlike prior years, it seems like chicos will be more readily available in New Mexico beginning this year. Pinto beans are never in short supply, and we work with the best bean farmer in the state, Ness Farms. Unfortunately, other New Mexican delights such as piñon will continue to be sparse, as the last few years have had very few cones dropping.

Other New Mexican specialties

New Mexico has many great things besides chicos, and they mix well together too! Chile ristras are a decoration that is as New Mexican as it gets. New Mexicans are proud of all things chile, and ristras a both a great decoration and a fantastic way of storing red chile for when you need it in a red chile sauce. Few things make the state come alive more than the chile season! Other than that, piñon is something we go wild for at the end of the year, when it is cold enough for developed cones to start dropping. We are very proud of chile rellenos, the stuffed and fried chile peppers, most commonly using Big Jim chile. Red chile pork tamales are another corn and chile based New Mexican dish that we are quite proud of. The red chile and pork base is also quite common for things like carne adovada and posole soup.

a Hatc chile relleno plate at a New Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque
A chile relleno like this is something you could only find in New Mexico!

Both of these dishes, although Mexican in origin, are made quite uniquely in New Mexico, even compared to Chihuahua and Sonora, the Mexican states we share borders with. These, along with many other New Mexican delicacies are due to New Mexico’s long legacy as a melting pot of many different peoples. We have a lot of tradition in our food which we are proud of. Although New Mexico isn’t the most well known state, and other Americans sometimes compliment my English, our food stands up to anywhere in terms of flavor and quality. Whether it is chicos, pinto beans, posole, red chile enchiladas, a green chile cheeseburger, or something else, we have flavor in spades. See for yourself when you visit New Mexico if you don’t believe me. We are a great destination for a fall vacation!