Do you ever wonder why dried foods are traditional holiday staples? Sure, they’re warm, cozy ingredients in our fall and winter meals. But they also have practical origins.
Drying foods is one of the earliest preservation techniques and it lives on in New Mexico. Most of what we see now are more decorative, like chile ristras or corn bundles, rather than utilitarian, but you can still find these items at local food outlets. To use most of these dried items, you can rehydrate them by soaking them in water. Dried beans and corn often need overnight soaking, but chile rehydrates quicker.
- Corn. Indigenous communities that subsisted on corn hung it to dry by tying the husks together.The many ways of preserving corn make it extremely versatile. It can be preserved whole, as kernels, and ground into meal that can be used for for baking flour, masa or dough for tortillas and tamales, and for champurrado or atole (thick, but drinkable cornmeal mush).In northern New Mexico, chicos are popular in soups and stews. Chicos are made by taking green corn and baking it in an horno (adobe oven). Hominy is white corn that can be dried or preserved by canning for posole.
- Chile. Ristras are iconic parts of New Mexican culture and are more than pretty hanging decor. Ripe red chiles are tied on string and dried to ripen in the sun for future use, such as making red chile sauce that can be used for enchiladas , or as a base for soup and stews. Make sure to ask the farmer you buy your ristra from is for cooking and not sprayed with shellac like the decorative ristras are.
- Beans. One of the most shelf stable foods, beans can last a very long time once they are dried. A wide variety of beans are grown in New Mexico and pinto are often the most popular. Soak dried beans overnight and then cook them whole, adding salt at the very end to keep them tender.
- Garlic and onions. When garlic and onions are harvested, the farmer will cure them for a few days and this allows them to stay fresh for months. These alliums are protected by a papery skin and their green shoots (called scapes) are braided and can be hung in your kitchen. Onions store better in a cool, dry, and dark place like a pantry.
- Herbs. Dried herbs bring so much flavor to winter meals and provide the aromas you associate with the holidays. Oregano in posole, rosemary with turkey and other meats, and anise in biscochitos are some examples. If fresh herbs are available at your market in fall or winter, tie the ends together with some cooking string, hang them up, and allow them to dry completely. Try this DIY Herb Wreath for a fun project. Use them until you run out, then head to your local market for more.
The best part about these dried foods? Many of these culturally relevant, New Mexican favorites can be found for good prices at local farmers markets, farm stands, and grocery stores. When purchased locally, these foods taste better, last longer, and are incredibly versatile in feeding yourself, family, and friends all year round. Find your nearest local food outlet and these dried foods to fill your pantry!