When the Spanish marched into the Southwest more than four centuries ago, pueblo dwellers expanded their culinary repertoire to include ingredients that many of us assume are indigenous. Chilies, for example ― the Spanish brought them up from Mexico along with Old World foods such as wheat, rice, lamb, and chicken. The tale of these foods’ integration into pueblo culture was shared with me long ago by Helen Cordero and was later confirmed by Juanita Tiger Kavena, two fine Native American cooks.
In the Cochiti Pueblo of New Mexico, I lent a hand as the now-late Cordero, fabled potter, cooked for a feast day. Among the dishes was chicken and rice (arroz con pollo), which had a pleasant, subtle flavor that puzzled me. The chicken was seasoned with onions, mild chilies (fresh green and powdered red), and a wild herb (the mystery taste).
From Kavena, who married into the Hopi Pueblo and has studied and written about native and cultivated plants, I learned that the mysterious nuance was likely from a wild mint (Mentha arvensis). She also taught me that wild onions (Allium cernuum) abound in the region and that wild greens are often added to chicken and rice for a one-pan meal. Lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album, also called wild spinach) is the probable choice ― I’ve seen it at the farmers’ market in Santa Fe ― but regular spinach substitutes nicely. Native piñones (Pinus edulis), or any market variety of pine nuts, make a dressy finish.
Cordero used a whole chicken that had scratched in the earth for its living and required a fair amount of cooking. I’ve adapted the recipe to modern time constraints by using just thighs or breasts ― a reasonable compromise in the interest of getting a traditional dish on the table quickly.