In the shadow of the cathedral just off the main square in Puerto Vallarata, Mexico, I searched for a place to rest my cobblestone-weary feet. I stopped in at El Campanario, a tiny restaurant favored by locals.
“You can eat here with confidence. Everything is very fresh,” assured an elderly local gentleman who was kind enough to give up his table for my family of five.
With my limited Spanish, some pantomime and plenty of smiles, the waitress assured me that the traditional Mexican pozole soup was ready. “Puerco o pollo?” my waitress asked. I chose pork.
The shredded, smoky meat was heaped generously into the oregano-flavored broth and surrounded by flower-shaped hominy. I squeezed in some fresh lime, and added the cabbage she brought along with a small amount of red chile sauce, unsure of just how fiery the kick would be. I eyed the crunchy corn tostadas that accompanied the soup – was I supposed to put these in the soup, or enjoy them on the side? I looked at Vidal, my new friend at the next table for direction. He smiled and nodded as I made a dipping gesture with the tostadas.
Maybe it was the noon-time hymns being sung from the cathedral across the street, or the sunlight streaming in through the windows, but the soup was heavenly. The combination of flavors and textures was unusual and satisfying. I was hooked on pozole.
The centerpiece of pozole (also spelled posole) is hominy, a type of corn from which the hull and germ have been removed. It was introduced to the colonists in early America by the Indians, who valued it for its nutritional value and storability.
Ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations looked corn as a blessing from god and a primary food source. Mexican hominy, or nixtamal, is corn that has been soaked in limestone and water. “This alkaline process softens and enlarges the kernels and imparts a unique flavor and aroma. When the kernels are boiled in water they are called pozole, like the popular dish served throughout Mexico,” explains Lynne Wiedemann, owner of Cook with Us cooking school in Todos Santos, Mexico. Wiedemann also teaches courses in Mexican cooking at the Greenbriar Inn in Coeur d’Alene when she is in town.
In modern kitchens, canned hominy often is used and is readily available in Mexican markets and some grocery stores. Simply rinse the canned hominy before adding it to the pozole. Although difficult to find, dried corn (sometimes called pozole corn) can be used.
“Canned hominy may be easy, but the aroma and texture of the home-cooked kernels make the longer process worth the effort,” writes Rick Bayless in “Authentic Mexican.”
“Pozole corn is wider and thinner than regular corn,” says Mario DeLeon, head cook for DeLeon’s Mexican Deli. The dried corn and limestone, or cal, are both available at the deli’s Francis Avenue location, although DeLeon acknowledges most people don’t want to go to the trouble. DeLeon’s carries canned hominy, dried peppers, pork leg and the spices necessary to make pozole at home.
Red, white and green
Pozole comes in all of the colors of the Mexican flag, giving testimony to its national popularity. Although pork and hominy are mainstays in most pozole recipes, the ingredients in this favored dish vary by region.
Tomatillos and pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) lend their green hue to pozole verde.
“Through the steeply mountainous terrain of Guerrero, Thursday is green pozole day, a day to close up shop in mid-afternoon and adjourn to small pozole restaurants,” Bayless writes. Parsley and fennel greens also add their color and flavor to pozole verde.
In pozole rojo, or red pozole, chiles are roasted, simmered in hot water and pureed. The strained puree is added to the soup, giving the pozole its red color.
Pozole blanco gets its name from the white (blanco) hominy and the clear broth in which it is served. In this version, the chiles may be served on the side for the diner to add at the table.
Toppings ‘al gusto’
“Pozole is the easiest soup to make. It’s the toppings that make pozole special,” said Cesar Martinez of El Gallo Giro restaurant. The condiments are so essential to this traditional dish that one often finds special pozole bowls with matching smaller condiment bowls for sale in Mexican markets.
The condiments served with pozole vary, but typically include shredded cabbage, lime wedges and chopped onions. Sliced radishes, dried oregano, ground red chile powder and corn chips often are served alongside as well. The various textures and flavors of the condiments add depth to the pozole, and allow each person to garnish the dish to his or her taste.
Perfect anytime dish
“It’s a get-together dish, perfect for a fiesta or casual company,” Wiedemann says. Like many soups, pozole can be made in advance. Most recipes easily feed eight to 10 people, making it perfect for company. Setting out small bowls of a variety of condiments adds to the fun.
Pozole has the reputation for curing a hangover. “Maybe it’s the heat from the chiles that wakes people up,” speculates El Gallo’s Martinez. His parents, Franciso and Cecilia, incorporate guajillo, California and New Mexican chiles in their pozole, and recommend a splash of Tapito hot sauce on top.
Pozole is traditionally served for lunch, says Carmelita Brito who makes the soup for La Michoacana Taqueria. Brito uses her mother’s recipe, which includes ground cloves and bay leaves.
For a taste of Mexico at home, invite some friends over, make a large pot of pozole and set the condiments on the table. Serve a simple salad, perhaps a flan for dessert and you’ll have an instant party.
Spicy Jicama Salad
Adapted from “Authentic Mexican” by Rick Bayless. If jicama is not available, you can make this salad with small fresh turnips or daikon radish.
1 small (1-pound) jicama, peeled and cut into ¾-inch cubes
½ cup orange juice
¼ teaspoon salt
1 red-skinned apple, cored and cut into ¾-inch cubes
½ small cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and cut into ¾-inch cubes
3 tangerines, peeled, broken into sections, and seeds removed (if you wish)
About 2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh cilantro
Powdered dried chile, about 1 teaspoon (use a milder chile such as New Mexcio or California chiles)
Romaine leaves for garnish
Place the jicama in a noncorrosive bowl, pour in the orange juice and sprinkle with salt. Toss well, cover and let stand at room temperature for one hour. Fifteen minutes before serving, add the apple, cantaloupe, tangerines and fresh cilantro to the bowl and mix thoroughly. Toss the mixture every few minutes until serving time. Season with powdered chile, and add more salt and cilantro if desired. Toss one final time and scoop the salad onto a large serving platter lined with romaine leaves.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
Pork and Hominy Stew (Pozole Rojo)
Recipe courtesy of Cook with Us Mexican cooking school. “The pureed chiles impart a red color and smoky flavor to this wonderful dish. It’s great to serve at a fiesta or for casual company,” writes chef/owner Lynn Wiedemann.
1 ½ pounds pork shoulder, cut into 3 or 4 pieces
3 ½ pounds pork shanks, cut into 1 ½ inch pieces
2 pigs’ feet, split (optional but authentic)
2 (29-ounce) cans hominy, drained
2 teaspoons sea salt
5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 white onions, chopped
8 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
Condiments: shredded cabbage, chopped onions, chopped radishes, lime wedges, dried Mexican oregano, ground red chile powder
In a large heavy soup pot, cover the pork shoulder, shanks and pigs’ feet with about 6 quarts water and bring to a boil. Add salt and garlic, cover pot and simmer for about 2 hours until very tender. Remove meat from broth, let cool, then separate meat from bone into small chunks. Skim fat and foam from broth, return meat to pot, continue to simmer.
While the soup cooks, rehydrate the ancho chiles. Place them in a bowl, cover with very hot water and soak for 15 minutes or until soft and pliable. Place the chiles, water and all, in a blender. Puree until smooth. Strain the mixture directly into soup pot.
Add hominy, salt to taste, and continue to cook for half an hour until stew has a soupy consistency. Add more water if necessary.
Prepare condiments and place in small bowls. Let each person garnish his or her own bowl of pozole. Serve with corn chips.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.
Pork, Chicken and Hominy Soup with Ground Pumpkin Seeds (Pozole Verde)
From “Authentic Mexican,” by Rick Bayless
8 ounces lean, boneless pork shoulder, in a single piece
About 8 ounces pork neck (or other pork) bones
1 small (2 1/2-pound) chicken, halved
2 2/3 cups (12 ounces) hulled, untoasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1 pound (about 11 medium) tomatillos, husked and washed, or 2 (13-ounce) cans tomatillas, drained
Fresh hot green chiles to taste, (roughly 6 serrano chiles or 3 jalapeno chiles) stemmed and seeded
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 large sprigs epazote (also called Mexican tea, or substitute parsley)
2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
4 quarts canned hominy, drained and rinsed
Salt, about 1 tablespoon
Condiments: 1 cup diced red onion, 1/3 cup dried oregano, 2 ripe avocados in ½ inch chunks, 2 cups chicharron (crisp-fried pork rinds) broken into 1-inch pieces (optional), 12 to 15 tostadas (crisp-fried corn tortillas), 4 limes, cut into quarters
Measure 7 quarts water into a stockpot and add the pork, bones and chicken. Bring to a boil, skim off the foam for the first 5 minutes of simmering, partially cover and cook on medium-low heat for 3 hours. Add water periodically to bring it back to original level. Meanwhile, toast the pumpkin seeds by heating a 12-inch skillet for a few minutes over medium-low heat. Add the pumpkin seeds in a shallow layer. When the first one pops, stir constantly for several minutes until all have popped and turned a golden color. Remove seeds to a large bowl.
While soup continues to cook, make the soup-base puree by cooking the fresh tomatillos until tender in salted water, about 10 minutes. Drain either the fresh or canned tomatillos, add to the pumpkin seeds, along with the green chiles, onion and herbs. Remove 2 cups of broth from the stockpot and pour over the mixture. Working in batches, puree the mixture in a blender, adding more broth if necessary to blend. Strain through a medium-mesh sieve.
Set a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the lard or vegetable oil. Add the puree to the hot skillet and stir constantly for 7 minutes, until it has darkened and thickened noticeably. Remove from heat and set aside.
Remove the meat and bones from stockpot after 3 hours. Set aside to cool. Stir the pumpkin seed mixture into the pot. Add the canned hominy. Let it simmer for an hour, stirring frequently to ensure that nothing is sticking to the bottom.
While the soup is simmering, skin and bone the chicken and pork, removing all of the fat. Shred the meat into large strands. Fifteen minutes before serving, season the soup with salt (hominy requires considerable salt) and add the shredded meat to the pot. Serve the pozole in bowls. Place the condiments on the table for each person to garnish al gusto.
Yield: 10 to 12 generous servings.
Orange Custard – Flan de Naranja
From “The Best Recipes in the World,” by Mark Bittman
1 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
2 cups fresh orange juice
Grated zest of one orange
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bring a kettle of water to a boil. Combine ½ cup of the sugar and ¼ cup water in small, heavy saucepan over low heat. Cool, shaking the pan occasionally (it’s best not to stir), until the sugar liquefies and turns clear, then golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and immediately pour the caramel into the bottom of a flat ovenproof bowl or 4 individual ramekins.
Beat the eggs and yolks with the remaining ½ cup sugar until pale yellow and fairly thick. Gradually add the orange juice to the egg mixture, stirring constantly. Stir in the zest and pour the mixture into the prepared bowl or ramekins and place in a baking pan, adding hot water to within about 1 inch of the top.
Bake for about 40 minutes for ramekins, 50 minutes for bowl, or until the center is barely set. It’s best to start checking after 30 minutes to avoid overcooking. Serve warm or at room temperature, or cover and refrigerate for a day or two. Serve from the ramekins or unmold by putting them in a bowlful of hot water for 30 seconds and then inverting. Spoon any melted caramel on top of the custards.
Yield: 4 servings.