The world's most versatile stew: Puchero
In the month of January, cold winds from the north blow down across the altiplano of central Mexico, and those of us lucky enough to get away for a few weeks or so gravitate toward Mexico's beaches or to the southern and western parts of the country. Staying home can be fun, too, though, especially with a warm fire in the chimenea and a bowl of the ultimate Mexican winter comfort food, puchero. Although found in warmer parts of the country as well, this hearty favorite is especially appreciated in the cooler months here at the higher elevations.
Brought by the Spaniards and adapted to suit the tastes and ingredients found in different regions, puchero has come to be associated primarily with Mexican cooking, although variations on it can be found any place touched at one time or another by the long arm of Spanish colonialism. Named for the clay stewpot in which it was traditionally cooked, puchero has found a home in nearly every country in South and Central America, as well as the Philippines and Canary Islands. The puchero originally introduced to the colonies by the Spaniards was long ago brought back to Spain enriched by the addition of New World ingredients such as potatoes and squash.
In Mexico, puchero varies from place to place, but always contains some kind of meat, vegetables, spices and sometimes fruit. From the simple beef puchero of Mexico's cattle ranches to the nearly baroque combination of meats more common in central Mexico, puchero is truly an example of how a dish can be transformed by the creativity of regional cooks and, even more specifically, from household to household. The New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook states that "puchero is to Mexican cooking what pot-au-feu is to French. The difference lies in puchero's imaginative combinations...." Puchero may be served as a one-dish meal, although in central Mexico it is quite often presented in three courses, with the cooking broth eaten first as the soup course, followed by the vegetables and the meat on two separate platters. The broth may be accompanied by chopped onions and cilantro, sliced avocado, and a selection of salsas.
Whichever variation of this stew appeals to you the most, remember to serve it with plenty of warm tortillas. It is even more delicious the second day, so plan on making enough to have tummy-warming leftovers.