Annie Somerville’s New Mexican Border Stew

There is grating sanctimony in the general intent that you must eat something because it is good for you. Taking this quite rigourously to heart, well-meaning yet hapless parents have urged scores of chilidren over millenia to tuck into things that they have no natural affinity for. Unfortunately, the things children do make a beeline for, like sugar and chips, are quite bad for them. This makes for the eternal tussle between harried parents and their stubborn progeny who firmly refuse to open their mouths when they see suspicious and unknown things on their plate. Most children must feel that there is an inescapable, unseen plot to ensure their gastronomical suffering. As a child, I know I often did.

Eating a thing just because it is good for you makes little sense to me, though it is a sentiment with which I’ve made peace with some difficulty. I’ve been taken in by needing to eat purely for health, forcing myself at one point to try to eat fish. It was an experiment that ended in disaster, as it was doomed to from the start. We refuse to eat lots of things as children, sometimes growing to like them as adults. Yet grown-up children all around tell me that they do not like something because they were force-fed it as children. I suspect this is only half true, as I had to admit after my tryst with “chicken of the sea”. The moment you step out into the world on your own, you take the reins of your life into your own hands. This includes what you will or won’t eat, and honestly, how long are you going to blame your palate on the actions of a well-intentioned parent?

‘Calvin & Hobbes’ comic strip by Bill Watterson

There are also, on the other hand, scores of adults who will commit to the martyrdom of eating things that are good for them with an obsessive fervour. This, I have to admit, confounds me completely. In a world filled with a variety of food and countless modes of preparation, it is not at all difficult to find fruits, meat, seafood or vegetables that are not only good for you, but also taste good to you. Why persevere in punishing yourself by living by someone else’s rules? You can find exactly what works for you, is healthy for you and will keep you happy eating it through a lifetime. This doesn’t take a lot of time or effort on your part, just a little exploration. Think about that the next time you find yourself wishing you liked radish, because everyone is raving about it. You really don’t have to.

Stews or multiple-ingredient soups are great way to try something new if you really aren’t sure about it. They offer you a way to add a little bit of the new ingredient to a bunch of tried, tested and liked ingredients. A dish focused on a new element might end up wasted if you just don’t take to it. In the broad confines of a stew, however, you could either eat it or around it. Consider it a safe haven of newer things, one where they are a part of the whole, rather than the entire deal. This stew is one that lends itself well to this philosophy.

Stews are brilliant, whether you’re trying to feed a bunch of hungry friends or a small army. (I first tried this one when I organised a surprise birthday party for Amey last year, aided by our friends.) They can be made a day ahead. In fact, they are all the better for being made in advance since the different elements have time to lend their flavour notes to the ultimate symphony. The secondary ingredients are often interchangeable with others. They also the ultimate in comfort food. Nothing spells warm and cozy better than fragrant bowls filled with generous helpings of steaming stew. This particular one is high on the warming list, since it gets its base notes from two different chilli purées.

You will find that the stew certainly cannot be filed under ‘quick and easy weeknight recipes’, not unless you have all the prep work done up in advance. Starting from scratch, this will take you some time. You need to make the base chilli purées, then use them to make the plantain-chilli sauce that defines this meal. There are several vegetables that go into it, that have to be part roasted and part stir-fried. Then the whole thing comes together and boils for a bit before you can eat it. Is it worth it? Oh yes, most definitely. The chillies are more smoky than hot when you use them with discretion and they produce this unforgettable, original and lingering taste. The birthday boy couldn’t get enough of it. What else would look for in a surprise party meal?

New Mexican Border Stew
Adapted from Everyday Greens by Annie Somerville
Makes six servings

For the Plantain-Chilli sauce:
Ancho Chilli purée – 1 tbsp (see recipe below)
Chipotle purée – 1 tsp ( see below)
Plantain, very ripe – 1/2 pound, diced
Canned tomatoes – 28 oz can, coarsely chopped, reserve juice
Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Dried Oregano – 1/2 tsp
Salt to taste
Water – 1 cup

– Boil the water. Add the plantain and lower the heat to a simmer.
– Add the remaining ingredients and cook for about 20 minutes.

For the stew:-
Butternut squash – 1 medium, cut into 1/2″ cubes
Yellow Onion – 1 large, chopped
Zucchini – 2 medium, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced on the bias into 1/2″ thick slices
Yellow or red Capsicum – 1, cut into thick strips, then squares
Hominy (canned) – 1/2 cup, rinsed
Garlic – 2-3 cloves, minced fine
Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Dried Oregano – 1/2 tsp
Water – 1 cup
Lime juice – 1/2 lime
Cilantro –  3 tbsp, chopped
Olive Oil – 2 1/2 tsp
Chipotle purée – to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

– Preheat the oven to 400°F.
– Toss the squash with some salt and pepper, 1 tbsp oil and 1/2 tsp of garlic and spread in a single layer on a baking sheet in the oven. Roast for 10 minutes, then turn the pieces over and rast for another 10 minutes.
– Heat remaining oil in a pot with a heavy base, on medium high. Sauté the onions with a pinch of salt and pepper until they soften a bit.
– Add the reserved galic, cumin and oregano and mix.
– Add the pepper pieces along with some water and cook a few minutes.
– Pour in the hominy and the plantain-chilli sauce prepared earlier. Add the roasted butternut squash, zucchini and the remaining water. Season with salt and pepper.
– Lower the heat and cover the pot. Simmer the stew for about 20 minutes or so.
– Uncover and add the lime juice. Add more chipotle purée if you need a stronger chilli flavour.

Garnish with cilantro before serving.

Ancho-Chilli purée:-
Makes 1/2 cup

Ancho Chillies – 2, dried
Boiling water – 1 cup

– Toast the chillies on a skillet or pan (even on a flame) without burning, until they puff up a bit.
– Take off the stem on top and empty out the seeds inside the chilli.
– Put the chillies in a bowl and cover with boiling water to soften for 15-20 minutes.
– Whizz up the chillies in the food processor with a few tbsps of the soaking water to form a thickish paste.
– The purée will keep, covered and refrigerated, for about two weeks.

Chipotle Purée:-
Makes the same amount as the contents of the can

Chipotle chillies in Adobo sauce – 1 can

– Whizz the contents of the can in a food processor to form a smooth sauce.
Stores in the fridge for a long, long time. Cover the surface with a little oil before storing

Cook’s notes:-
The multitude of ingredients and steps involved here might give the most enthusiastic cook pause. However, the results make the work worthwhile. Besides, there are various ways to make your job a bit quicker. When I made this for the party, I used the cut butternut squash cubes available at Trader joe’s (refrigerated, not frozen) along with frozen ready cut pepper strips. It was one of many dishes I cooked that morning and I started from making the purées. (Ideally I would have preferred making it the day before but this risked Amey discovering it, thereby unravelling a very carefully laid birthday plot). The second time, I used a whole butternut squash. This jacked up the time required to cook this dish to almost double, with little difference in the final tasting. I’d say go for the precut veggies and make your life a bit easier. Unless you like wrestling with a squash. I didn’t think the effort was worth the outcome in this case.

You can also quite entirely change out the vegetables for others. I’ve used yellow corn instead of hominy once, threw in sweet potatoes instead of squash and carrots instead of zucchini. Carrots are actually dynamite in this stew. I used some leftover mushrooms that I had once. Keep the sauce about the same and you can get great results with several veggie combinations. Feel free to make up your own. You need soft textures contrasting with something that will lend a bit of crunch, and you’re set. The plantains used should ideally be the really ugly over-ripe ones. This gives a hint of sweetness to the sauce. If you can’t find ripe plantains, use what you find and add a touch of honey to the sauce.

The chipotle purée lasts forever, or at least a very long time. It’s quite fiery, so use it wisely depending on your tolerance. The ancho purée goes a couple of weeks. It is very mild, almost sweet and works great in just about anything so it is easy to use up. If you’re worried about storage, make the purée using only one ancho chilli. Both ancho chillies and the chipotle in adobo sauce are easily available in supermarkets (at least in the states that share a border with Mexico) or online. Both ingredients are great finds.

This recipe is sublime in winter, served with cornbread or couscous or over steamed rice. It makes cold fade away for a bit. Your health will be happy with all the fiber and anti-oxidants while your tastebuds will be having such a rocking party, they will thank you too.


  1. Hilary

    Good point about stews. I discovered the other day that I don’t hate lamb – all thanks to an Indian coconut milk and lamb stew.

    Gorgeous photos. I could look at your pics for hours.

  2. Sudha

    I’ve been making a lot of these stews this winter with whatever vegetables are in season from the local farmer’s market, along with either canned black beans, garbanzos or hominy. I find that cooking in a pressure cooker shortens the cooking time considerably. As for squash, I precook it in the microwave for about 4 minutes (after giving it a poke with a knife to let the steam out). That makes it very easy to cube, and I leave the skin on too.
    Great writing and photos, as usual!

  3. Sharmila

    HIlary – Stews have led me to try hitherto (heh, hitherto) hated vegetables. Some stay stew specific, like turnip. Others, like fennel have found their way into other dishes. Glad you like the photos. My hubby’s a genius with the camera 🙂

    Sudha – Thank you! I’m going to try that trick with the squash. I really don’t like grappling with it when it isn’t the primary ingredient in something. Feels not worth it somehow 🙂 I would use the pressure cooker except that the onions had to be sautéed, so did the same to the other ingredients.

    • Sudha

      I saute the onions and vegetables in the pressure cooker before adding the water. Of course you have to be careful not to let it steam too long, or the stew turns to mush. That’s happened to me too!

  4. Sharmila

    Sudha – yeah, that’s happened to me too 🙂

    Stella – Aww, thanks Stella. It will certainly hit the spot if you’re hungry!