We ate and drank too much on Thanksgiving. Friday, it was my turn to make dinner and since we had a big piece of pork shoulder in the fridge, I had a ready plan: green pozole.
Writing about green pozole was one of my first efforts as a food writer. It was never published. But that’s okay, because I much prefer eating pozole than writing about it. In Mexico, a very close cousin of pozole soup–menudo, made with beef tripe–is considered the ultimate hangover remedy. So why not my green pozole with pork shoulder to sweep away that fuzzy feeling left over from the Thanksgiving binge?
Pozole, a soupy stew traditionally made with pork and hominy, may be the closest thing to a national dish of Mexico that most Americans have never heard of. On Thursday evenings in the southwestern state of Guererro, pozole vendors pop up as if on queue, and townsfolk fall into line with buckets to collect their take-out dinner. At the ubiquitous pozoleria, lighthearted diners lean over their steaming earthenware bowls, adding heaps of sliced avocados, radishes, onion and crumbled pork crackling called chicharon.
Like our own chili, pozole is made in innumerable variations. Just about every household has its own version. Folks in the west and south of Mexico prefer the green pozole made with fresh poblano peppers, tomatillos and pumpkin seeds swimming with shredded pork shoulder. Red pozole is a simpler brew of garlic and dried chiles. For “white” pozole, a red pepper sauce is served on the side, along with a platter of stewed pork shoulder and pig’s feet.
Some families insist on presenting half a pig’s head with the stew. The cooked eyeball is reserved for the honored guest.
One reason you may never have seen pozole on a menu is because pozole has never achieved the rank of restaurant fare. Even in Mexico, it is more likely consumed at a market stall or a curbside vendor. This is one of those dishes best made at home.
Americans have been trained to expect Mexican food slathered in cheese and sour cream. Pozole celebrates that other Mexican food, the more traditional cuisine that evolved thousands of years ago. The Spanish introduced domesticated meats and dairy products in the 16th century. Before that, life revolved around corn.
The ancient Mayans believed that humans were fashioned from corn gathered from a mountain and mixed with the blood of gods. The Aztecs sacrificed a maiden by way of blessing the new corn. The peyote worshipping Huichol people of the Sierra Madre continue to hold that the transcendental soul passes through a corn phase on its path to enlightenment.
Even the name of the particular corn used in Mexican pozole recalls ancient cycles, sun worship, a fecund earth: cacahuacentli.
In Mexico and to the north, natives preserved corn by drying it. They processed the dried kernels in lye or lime to remove the tough hull, or pericarp. By a fortuitous quirk of history, this caustic bath–known as nixtamalization–made the vitally important niacin within the corn available for digestion. Nixtamalization also imparts a pleasantly acrid flavor.
In this country, we call this kind of corn hominy. It is frequently ground into grits. In Mexico, the dried corn is ground to form masa, a basic dough used to make the tortillas served at nearly every meal. The Mexican hominy used in pozole—cacahuacentli–is improbably large, about the size of a nickel. After soaking the dried corn, chefs pinch off the tip of the kernel so that it opens like a crocus blossom when cooked.
Making pozole is a good way to get out and see the displays of exotic products in Latin supermarkets. Finding all of the ingredients may require a bit of initial detective work. But the final result makes a great family-style fest: Once the stew is ladled into bowls, everyone gets to pass the condiments around while they create their own meal.
For condiments, choose from the following: Sliced radishes, diced avocado, dried oregano, chopped fresh tomato, shredded lettuce or Napa cabbage, chopped red onion, chicharon–or fried pork skin–and wedges of lime. And of course warm corn tortillas on the side are mandatory.
Traditional pozole is a simple, one-pot meal. But I like to cook the different elements–the corn, the meat, the vegetables–separately, starting days in advance. The stew just gets better with re-heating. I’ve also jazzed it up with a few spices—allspice, cinnamon, clove–that might make some Mexican chefs cluck with disapproval. But I think the extra flavor is worth bending tradition.
Pozole verde (green pozole)
6 cups cooked or canned hominy (Juanita’s is one good brand)
For the Broth:
I’ve eliminated the pig’s head, but there’s no reason to if you want to make an impression. Otherwise, the pork comes from the shoulder, a very inexpensive cut. Pig’s feet contribute gelatin for a richer broth, though they can be left out as tastes dictate. Latin markets sell them sliced into manageable pieces.
3 pounds pork shoulder
1 ½ pounds pig’s feet, cut into pieces (optional)
3 quarts (12 cups) chicken stock
½ large white onion, studded with six whole cloves
1 bay leaf
4 allspice berries, crushed
1 whole stick cinnamon
Combine ingredients in a stockpot. Bring almost to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer very gently for three hours. Remove the meat to a plate and set aside. Discard the onion. Strain the broth through cheesecloth or a fine sieve. When the pork is cool, shred it into pieces, discarding unwanted fat. Return the shredded pork to the broth. (I pick over the pig’s feet and save the edible pieces for those guests who volunteer for it. Otherwise, discard the cooked pig’s feet.)
At this point, add the hominy to the broth and refrigerate until the next step is completed.
The green chilies in this recipe are fresh poblanos, the kind typically deep-fried for chilies rellenos. They are sometimes erroneously labeled as “passilla” peppers. The poblano is broad at the stem like a green bell pepper, but much darker with a purplish tinge, and narrows to a point at the opposite end. Adding to the confusion, the poblano when dried is called “ancho.”
To prepare fresh chilies, roast them over a flame on the stovetop, or under a broiler, until the skins are blistered and charred. Place them in a paper bag to steam and cool. Then remove the stems; open the chilies and discard the seeds. Remove the skin with your fingers or the dull edge of a knife.
Tomatillos appear fresh in most supermarkets. They look like small green tomatoes wrapped in papery husks, but they are actually related to the Cape Gooseberry. They should be firm and unblemished, the husk loose and easily peeled.
5 fresh poblano peppers, roasted, peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium-sized jalapeno peppers (about the size of your thumb), roasted, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons lard (or canola oil)
½ large white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, diced
12 ounces fresh tomatillos, husks removed and chopped
2 cups broth (from that made above)
1 ½ cups hulled, raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds
Heat the oil in a large saucepan, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onions are almost translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chili peppers and tomatillos and cook an additional 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the pumpkin seeds in an ungreased pan over high heat until golden and crispy. Place in a food processor and chop to a fine grind. Add the cooked vegetables and some broth (you may need to do this in two batches) and process until the chilies and tomatillos are minced. Add this to the pot with the remaining broth, pork and hominy. Mix well and refrigerate.
A couple of hours before serving, remove the stew from the refrigerator and heat slowly. The final ingredient is epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), an important cooking herb in southern and western Mexico, a medicinal tea in the north. In this country, it grows wild as a weed called “wormseed.” The pungent flavor is somewhere between green tea, oregano and dill.
2 teaspoons dried epazote, tied in cheese cloth (I now use the fresh epazote that grows wild in my yard)
Add the bundle to the stew pot while it is reheating, then discard.
Serve the stew hot in large bowls, with warm tortillas and separate bowls of condiments on the side.