When Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba, having set sail from Cuba in 1517, met a Maya in a canoe off the island of Cozumel, he was given gourds of water and balls of ground maize. This Mayan keyem, more commonly called by the Nahuatl name posolli, was the sustenance food carried by travelers in pre-Hispanic Mexico.
Culinary anthropologist Sophie Coe writes that it was most often mixed with water to form a gruel, and was so venerated by the Chamula people that they placed bits of it in the mouths of the dead so that, just as in life, they could rest and be refreshed with posolli when they got tired. The Lacandon also had a high regard for posolli, offering it to the gods and saying, “If there are no women (to grind the corn), there is no posolli; if there is no posolli, there are no gods; if there are no gods, there is no sun.”
While modern Mexicans might not put it exactly that way, there is a great nationwide appreciation for pozole, the thick soup-stew descended from that ancient food. The chief similarity is that the basis of the dish is nixtamalized corn that is cooked until softened. (The word posolli came from the Nahuatl potzonti, meaning to boil or bubble.)
Nixtamalization, the process by which dried corn is soaked with cal (builders’ lime, calcium hydroxide) has been used by all Native American cultures that depended on corn as the basic carbohydrate. The soaking of the kernels with an alkaline substance such as lime, wood ash or natural soda releases the store of niacin in the corn and is necessary for softening it to make masa for tortillas and a whole range of other foods, including pozole. Each region of Mexico has its own version of pozole, but the soaking of the corn is essential to all of them.
The large-kernelled, white corn used for pozole, called cacahuazintle, can nowadays be found ready to cook, having gone through nixtamalization, in the refrigerated section of supermarkets all over Mexico and north of the border. However, carrying out the process of nixtamalization at home is uncomplicated, as well as being a hands-on lesson in food chemistry, perfect for kids who are budding chefs. (Authentic Mexican home cooking is somewhat labor intensive, which is why it is a family affair.)
Whether you start from scratch by processing dried corn, or buy the vacuum packed bags of nixtamal in the supermarket, or even substitute canned hominy, do make a large enough batch of pozole to feed friends or have leftovers. It is the perfect winter one-dish meal, with the “comfort food” qualities of the corn stew and the warming effect of the chile. Perfect for entertaining, pozole can be made ahead and reheated, and requires no side dishes except the condiments that are set out for people to add individually.
Setting out a big, earthenware pot of steaming pozole, surrounded by plates of the traditional condiments of lime wedges, cilantro, dried oregano, shredded lettuce or cabbage, chopped onion, sliced radishes, crumbled dried chiles and crisp fried tortillas, is an act that almost shouts “party” and would be ideal for January’s Super Bowl get-togethers, which are becoming increasingly popular here in Mexico. Soup bowls and spoons are the only tableware necessary for this wonderfully informal dish, which in Mexico is served in rounded clay bowls called pozoleros.
Although more commonly made with pork, pozole is also good with chicken. At many pozolerías (pozole restaurants) huge pots of both kinds simmer on the burners and customers can choose which they prefer. Pozolerías usually open in the evening and serve until late at night. The warmth and aroma of these places is enticing in the cool, crisp winter climate of Mexico’s high central plateau, although people in the warm coastal areas are some of the country’s biggest consumers of pozole.
Posole Rojo Recipe
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours
Yield: Serves 12, plus plenty for leftovers.
4 ounces guajillo, ancho, or a combination of both, chili pods
1 large (108 ounce, 6 lb 12 oz, 3 kg) can white hominy, drained and rinsed
3 lbs pork shoulder (preferably with bone), cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch cubes (can also use pork shanks), make sure to use a cut well marbled with fat
8 cloves garlic, 4 cloves roughly chopped, and 4 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 Tbsp of dry oregano (Mexican oregano if available)
Garnishes (can prep while pozole is cooking):
Half a small cabbage, thinly sliced
One bunch cilantro, chopped
1/2 white onion, chopped
2 avocados, chopped
4 limes, quartered
A bunch of red radishes, sliced thin
A couple dozen tostada shells*
*Tostadas are crispy fried corn tortillas. They are sold packaged and can often be found in the same section of your grocery store as fresh tortillas, or can be found at Mexican markets. You can make your own by frying stale corn tortillas (or tortillas that have dried out a bit in a warm oven), in hot vegetable oil until stiff.
1 Fill a large 10-12 quart stockpot with 5 quarts of water, bring to boil.
2 Heat a cast iron pan on medium high and lightly roast the cleaned and seeded chili pods for a couple minutes, until they begin to soften. Do not let them burn. While the chilies are heating, bring a medium pot with 3 cups of water to a boil. Once the chiles have softened, submerge them in the pot with the 3 cups of hot water, cover the pot and remove from heat. Let the chiles soak in the hot water for 15 to 20 minutes.
3 Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of a large sauté pan). Pat the pork pieces dry with paper towels. Sprinkle them generously with salt. Working in batches, brown the meat on all sides. When browned, add the roughly chopped garlic to the pan with the meat, let cook for about a minute.
4 Transfer browned meat to the large stockpot of boiling water. Scrape up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan, and any garlic, and add those to the pot as well. Add the rinsed hominy. Add bay leaves, cumin, and oregano. When you put the oregano in, smoosh together with your hands so that the oregano breaks up more as it goes in. Add a tablespoons of salt. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat and cook for 15 minutes.
5 Prepare the red sauce by puréeing in a blender the chilies, 2 1/2 cups (not all at once) or so of their soaking liquid, a teaspoon of salt, and 4 cloves of garlic. Strain the red sauce through a sieve, discarding the tough bits of the sauce.
6 Add the red chili sauce to the pork and hominy. Add another couple teaspoons of of salt. Return to a simmer, lower the heat to just high enough to maintain a simmer, partially covered. Cook for 2-3 hours until the pork is completely tender. Skim away excess fat. Taste for seasoning and add more salt to taste. The resulting soup should be rather brothy, as you will be adding a lot garnishes. Add more water if necessary.
7 To serve, arrange the garnishes in bowls on the table and serve the pozole soup into bowls. Let your guests pick and choose which garnishes they would like on their pozole. Serve with tostada shells (or tortilla chips if you can’t find tostada shells).
This article is brought to you by the Sonoran Resorts Sales Group, www.sonoranresorts.mx, Jim Ringquist, Director of Sales and Marketing.