Writing about a stew that is rich with history and tradition, that is symbolic of a disappearing way of life, that is made from local ingredients, has evolved over generations and is worthy of honoring a saint on his feast day, is not so easy. Indeed, assembling these varied ingredients into a single story is a most challenging undertaking.
This is the story of a little known stew (caldo) that was traditionally made with heritage Sonoran wheat. Today, white Sonora wheat is the heritage variety that is most common, but in a pinch any type of wheat berry will work. There are also other varieties of Sonoran wheat, but they are much less common and difficult to find.
It is obvious to most that bread is made when wheat is ground into flour. But this article is about a stew that is known as posole de trigo or wheat posole, in which the newly harvested wheat berries are substituted for the corn. Traditionally the posole is made with a beef base and includes a variety of ingredients that can include corn-on-the-cob (elotes), garlic (ajo), onions (cebollas), wild and domestic greens (bledos y verdolagas), potatoes (papas), squash (calabazas), carrots (zanahorias), cabbage (repollo), tomatoes (tomates), and green chiles (chile verdes).
This particular posole is the fiesta food for the feast day of San Ysidro Labrador or St. Isadore, who is the patron saint of agriculturalists. His feast day is essentially a harvest festival for winter crops such as wheat. In rural Sonora, this feast day is still widely celebrated on May 15th, and always accompanied by this stew. Traditionally, many families would go to their fields, or milpas, and prepare it there.
It is easy to understand why farmers in Sonora, who regularly face the challenges of very dry spring weather and unpredictable summer rains, were quick to call upon San Ysidro for whatever help he could offer.
Legends have it that angels walked behind his oxen plowing the field while he prayed and that he fed the birds with his employer’s wheat, only to have it miraculously replenished.
In essence, this is a story about the kind of food that is rooted in Sonora’s rural culture. For me personally, caldos—the soups and stews of Sonora—tell the story of the complex combination of historical, climatological, technological factors and the efforts of the Europeans, indigenous, and Creole peoples.
Given the arid climate, scant resources, and lack of agricultural diversity, it took a great deal of imagination and resourcefulness to create what we think of as Sonoran food. Farmers and ranchers, who were scattered along the river basins in small villages and towns, had to work in conjunction with seasonal variations and rainfall patterns, while blending together European and indigenous cultivated crops with a variety of wild foods. Wheat, cattle, figs, grapes, and pomegranates combined with corn, bean, chiles, chiltepines, and quelites.
I think the main reason Sonoran soups and stews truly embody the essence of Sonora is that they repeatedly combine the same basic ingredients in a variety of different ways. These combinations are far from what one would call sophisticated and exotic, but they are seasonal, simple, flavorful, filling, balanced, and nutritious. In the words of my friend the Sonoran cultural anthropologist Ernesto Camou, “Sonoran food is straightforward with a dignity and seriousness that is quietly assumed.”
In this grouping of soups and stews, one finds the classics such as menudo, posole, and albondigas. Caldo de queso, made from queso fresco, is classically Sonoran. Cazuela or caldillo, which combines machaca (shredded dry beef), potatoes, green chiles, tomatoes, and onions, is nothing less than pure Sonoran in character.
Posole de trigo closely resembles two other Sonoran stews. The first is known as cocido, which combines beef and a similar combination of vegetables. The other is known as guacabaque, which closely resembles cocido and is traditionally served in Yaqui and Mayo communities on the last day of the Easter Holy Week.
If you are motivated to try posole de trigo, you have several options. The first is to make it using the recipe below. (Vegetarians, don’t shy away—simply eliminate the beef base and substitute something else.) But if you’re up for a little adventure, you might visit one of the small rural Sonoran towns and ask on the street if anyone in town is making the posole. You just might find yourself delightfully surprised and at someone’s table for the midday comida.
If you find yourself in Magdalena, Sonora, visit a small food stand on the street behind the main plaza. The proprietor always has large caldrons of soups and stews cooking on his wood fired stove. There is a good chance that on May 15, he will be serving posole de trigo. And although the stew is not commonly served in restaurants, it can be found at the restaurant Viva Sonora on the outskirts of Hermosillo, Sonora, on the road to Ures, as well as any of the small restaurants in Guadalupe de Ures.
An easy way to make this stew is to combine the wheat berries and a selection of seasonal vegetables in a pot and season it according to your tastes—you’ll have your own personal posole.
I like to begin with the traditional version of how a food is prepared, figuring that after centuries of tradition, cultures tend to evolve their traditional dishes to near perfection. I abide by the words of Picasso: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them as an artist.”
To capture the true essence of this stew, an excellent choice is to use heritage White Sonora wheat, which can be purchased through Hayden Flour Mills. Visit HaydenFlourMills.com to find retail outlets. If you cannot immediately secure some of the white Sonora wheat, don’t be deterred, as any wheat berry will work with this stew.
For the recipe below, I went seeking the guidance and expertise of someone who has made it all of her life. I called upon our friend Armida Elena Contreras de Maldonado, from the town of La Estancia on the Rio Sonora. Of course there are many fabulous cooks from that region, but in my small world she has no equal. She is especially known for her cakes, which are served at birthdays, quinceañeras, and weddings up and down the Rio Sonora Valley.
At a snail’s pace, we have been helping her create a printed version of her handmade cookbook, Sabrosas Tradiciones de Mi Pueblo, which focuses on foods from the Rio Sonora. In her words, “This collection of recipes has been created realizing that with time, things change, often for the better; our customs and traditions are lost but who doesn’t affectionately remember that rich cazuela (soup from machaca) that our mothers prepared, that wonderful postre de nubes (pudding) made by our grandmothers, and the melindres de bellota (emory oak acorn cookies) made by our aunts.”
This recipe for posole de trigo comes from her cookbook. Of course, the way this stew is prepared varies according to the maker, the town, and the available ingredients. Feel free to experiment
and modify this wonderful dish to your own liking.
1. In a pot that has a capacity of at least 6 quarts, put the bones, water, and salt. When foam appears at the top of the pot, lower the flame and remove all that you can. Add the beans, garbanzos,
garlic, and onion, if included.
2. Cook the wheat separately in 2 quarts of water until it flowers (opens).
3. Put the purslane and wild amaranth in a container and pour boiling water over them, Leave for a short time, then remove and drain.
4. When the meat is cooked, add the vegetables. Armida doesn’t specify any particular order, but it seems that the potatoes, carrots, and green beans would be the first, and then after 5 minutes or so, the peas, squash, amaranth, and purslane.
5. Add the wheat, salt, additional water if needed, and cook until the vegetables are tender, approximately 30 minutes.
6. When ready, the ideal accompaniments include tortillas de harina (flour), queso fresco, chiltepines, and perhaps a squeeze of lime. ✜