“Like all kitchens, we love our Mexican stew,” says Alex Raij, co-chef and co-owner, along with her husband, Eder Montero, of the NYC Spanish restaurants Txikito, El Quinto Pino and La Vara.
One of NYC’s newest earners of a Michelin star, Raij is a veteran of the Big Apple restaurant scene, and she has a great affection for the tradition of staff meal. “I think the family meal really started with the fact that people who are relegated to the industry come from cultures where sustenance is taken at midday,” she explains. “So it's natural to eat at 2:00 or 3:00 and have a big meal. And then at night on your way home, you grab a taco or a sandwich.” Recognizing the importance of the day’s main meal, she encourages her staff to spend the time to make it special and delicious.
“As a young cook, I liked doing it because it was the only time I could ever be creative,” Raij remembers. “And I liked to see how fast I could do something really delicious, seeing how curious and industrious I could be, thinking out of the box so that we were not always having the same things over and over again.” Not to say that every family meal is perfect, however. “There’s always that one person who makes the most boring pasta dish ever. It’s usually the skinny guy,” she jokes.
There is always bread and always salad at Raij’s family meals. But she particularly enjoys when a pork head is involved. “We do a lot of suckling pig at the restaurants and we save the heads and we freeze them. When we have enough of them, we make a family meal favorite, posole with pig head,” she says. “It has a lot of personality, and you could also use pork neck, pork shoulder, crosscut pork ribs or any sort of cheap cut of meat you want.” Even a whole chicken will work, she adds.
The other key to the “express” posole, besides the pig head, is the use of a pressure cooker. The pressure cooker is known as an “olla express” in Spain, because it cooks things quickly. “We're in love with it,” Raij says, “And I think Latin cooks are not intimidated by it at all. I love that it naturally clarifies your stock, so that the fat floats to the surface and you can just scoop it off.”
The intense broth that results serves as the base for the stewy pleasure of meat, chickpeas, and hominy, spiced up with some guajillo chile. A white or green rice is always served on the side.
Garnishes make the meal festive. “There’s radishes, onions, cilantro, and little wedges of lime. Sometimes we turn the meal into a taco salad type of thing,” she says.
Though this posole is a hearty and comforting winter dish, Alex’s favorite time of year for staff meal is in the spring and summer, when the staff plays soccer in the alley out in back of Txikito when they are finished. Patrons walking by between lunch and dinner service who may hear exuberant cries of “Gooooollllllllll!” throughout the streets will know: that particular afternoon, for Raij’s staff, was a win-win, of good food, and good fun.