An easy recipe for the classic seasonal dish.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Last Christmas I was seized out of the blue by homesickness. It felt like a dormant instinct had lit up. It was as if all my molecules had decided, cult-like, to line up with their own version of true north. In this case, true north was about 400 miles south and 1,000 miles east of here, right about where New Mexico is. I was yearning for a place I hadn’t lived in 12 years.
Lacking any other way to hook up with the homeland, I cooked. I cooked things I had never bothered to learn to cook while living there in the Land of Enchantment, the Land of Numerous Inexpensive But Delicious Restaurants.
Using two cups of frozen green chile hoarded from an autumn pilgrimage to the Southwest, I made a stew and served it with misshapen, oddly crispy flour tortillas. I made red chile sauce out of dried New Mexican chile powder and tried the tortillas again. I tracked down lard in the grocery store and used it to make biscochitos, tasty Christmas shortbread cookies flavored with anise and cinnamon sugar. It was the first time in my cookie-baking life that I did not eat any of the dough.
These were moderate culinary successes. But the posole—that worked. That, I realized, I’ll be doing again, not only because it’s basically idiot-proof, but because it’s the perfect holiday season food for friends dropping in.
These are some busy weeks coming up, but a pot of posole—hearty, simple and exotic enough to be festive—feels like special party food minus the intense labor. Eureka! You can see why generations of shrewd, overextended women throughout the Latin world have endorsed posole as a holiday dish, typically served on Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
The first thing to know about posole is that the main ingredients are pork, chile and posole (dried hominy corn), but that the variations are nearly limitless. I like to serve the chile on the side so people can make their stew as hot as they want it. Some recipes call for virtually no seasonings save salt, while others want coriander seed, ground cumin and dried oregano. Some cooks use a half pound of pork per serving, others a quarter of that. My friend Sylvia Perez of Watsonville likes to use chicken thighs. The incomparable Rosa S. of La Villa Taqueria in Seaside uses a combination of pork back, short ribs and trotters. I like pork roast or shoulder.
The second thing to know is that dried posole—the bags of big, tough kernels of yellow, blue or purple corn found in Mexican groceries—takes a while to cook. You’ll need to either soak it overnight or cook it with a little lime (as in calcium hydroxide, marketed as “cal” in the Mexican stores), or both.
The lime is an alkali that softens the kernels so they cook more easily. It also renders them more nutritious (it helps unbind the niacin).
Rosa says that when she was a girl in Villa Guerrero, Jalisco, she would use the purple posole, called maiz pinto, with about a half teaspoon of lime for a six-quart pot. I found that even with this miracle white powder, though, it still took three to four hours of cooking to get the posole tender enough to my liking. And you must rinse the posole really well several times after cooking in order to get rid of the lime.
If the soaking and the lime and the washing all sound like so much hassle, you can use a big can of hominy, and lots of people do. Hominy is like posole in that it’s corn treated with an alkali—hominy-makers use lye. But as usual the fresh stuff yields a richer result. Real posole has a delicious, buttery, almost caramel flavor and scent.
That’s the crucial information. Here’s the recipe I’m using this year. It’s based on three different recipes, including Rosa’s version, which she graciously shared one afternoon last week.
12 cups water
1/2 tsp. lime or “cal” (calcium hydroxide)
4 lbs. pork (any combination of back, short rib, roast and shoulder)
1 1/2 Tbsp. salt (or more, to taste)
8 dried guajillo or New Mexican chile pods, available in Mexican markets
3 dried chiles arbol (optional – very hot)
3 cloves garlic
optional: 1 medium onion, diced; 3 cloves garlic, minced; 1/2 tsp. dried oregano; 1 tsp. ground cumin.
Diced onion, shredded cabbage, lime quarters, sliced radishes, cilantro and dried oregano for garnish.
Soak the dried posole overnight. The next day, combine posole, fresh cold water and lime in a heavy 6- or 8-quart pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until posole kernels burst open (3-4 hours). Wash well several times in cold water to loosen skins and rinse off the lime. Drain and set aside.
(Or skip this part and open a 28 oz. can of hominy.)
Before posole is finished cooking, begin boiling meat and, if desired, onion and garlic in 12 cups of water until tender (1-2 hours). Add posole, salt and optional seasonings 20 minutes before the end of cooking the meat. Or brown meat in a skillet and then combine with water, posole, salt and optional onion, garlic and spices. Simmer another 1-2 hours.
For the chile, cover guajillo or New Mexican and arbol chiles with boiling water for 20 minutes or until soft. Grab stems and pull to remove veins and seeds. Put pods in blender with 3 cloves garlic and pulse, adding water if necessary, until a thick sauce forms. Add to posole a few minutes before serving. Or serve on the side along with garnishes of diced onion, cabbage, lime, radish, cilantro and dried oregano.
Serve posole with warm tortillas (Rosa likes tostadas instead) and cold beer. Serves 8. If you like your guests a lot, you can also serve them La Villa’s raisin and pineapple tamales, available for order at 899-7710.