Seasonal Cooking 23 Sep 2007 06:59 pm
For the past couple of years, I’ve eyed with curiosity the jars of pozole, white and blue , on the shelf alongside the dried chiles in my neighborhood spice & and tea shop Two for the Pot. “Pozole” — such a great name, and it looks like, well, corn, and so certainly must be a close cousin to the other corn-based staples of Mexican food, like tortillas and tamales, which sit very high on my list of favorite foods. When this month’s Gourmet magazine featured a recipe for Pozole Rojo, I knew the time had come to find out what one does with these strange oversized corn kernels. It was Labor day, and I had a good long afternoon to devote to this dish, and as I found out I’d need it.
When I saw the pile of pork ribs that made up the four pounds the recipe called for I knew this was going to be a formidable project. The recipe’s first step was to cook up a broth from these ribs, along with bunches of cilantro and mint , onion, peppercorns, and twenty – yes twenty – cloves of garlic. After simmering the ribs for the two hours they got beautifully tender, and the broth got beautifully porky, especially after I let the ribs cool for a while in the broth. Once cool enough to handle, part of the broth went into the blender, along with the onion, garlic, and peppercorns that had cooked in it (the cilantro and mint were squeezed out and tossed). This mixture then went back into the pot, which now contained a truly flavorsome brew– rich from the pork, spiced from the herbs & pepper & onion, and just a little foamy from the whirl in the blender. This dish was off to a good start.
But this delicious liquid was not the completed broth — in order to become the rojo of the recipe’s name it needed an infusion of chiles. These were slit open & de-seeded, and toasted on a hot cast iron skillet — they were pretty thin-skinned, and so didn’t need much time on this makeshift comal before they became darkened and fragrant. They then soaked for half an hour in boiling water, which became a dark maroon brew, and which after cooling slightly went into the blender along with the chiles themselves and a bit more onion & garlic. This liquid was cooked down & condensed, and finally added to the pork broth. At this point the shredded meat from the ribs went in as well, and now the stew was rojo indeed – and delicious: spiced from the chiles and rich from the pork.
So far so good – but what about the pozole? I’d set an appetizing red stage with the porky broth, so what about the star of the show? I needed some investigation here, since I was determined to use the dried posole from my neighborhood shop, instead of the canned hominy called for in the recipe, or the frozen I sometimes see as a recommended substitute. The shop’s proprietor gave me only the advice to soak them in several changes of water. I knew they’d cook in boiling water like a pot of beans, and guessed they’d take about as long. With help from Google I dug around and found that they wouldn’t require the 50 minutes I’d give a pot of garbanzos – they needed to cook for 3 or 4 hours. Oops – it was already 4:00 when I learned this bit. Dinner was going to be a little later than planned.
Curious about this strange ingredient, while the kernels cooked I read on to learn more about what these weird, enlarged corn kernels really are. I had a vague and vaguely alarming notion that hominy is corn soaked in lye, something that always seemed surely to be toxic in a way that I couldn’t conceive of an ancient, traditional food to be. What is lye? What is this process exactly? It is, I learned, called (and this is my Awesome New Food Word of the Year) Nixtamalization, and it is a process that dates to more than a thousand years BC, and which transforms the nutritive value of corn so significantly that it becomes a fully sustaining staple grain. Without nixtamalization , a population that depends on corn as its staple grain would be malnourished; without nixtamalization, according to Wikipedia, the great Maya and Aztec civilizations of Mesoamerica could not have existed. Yes, the process involves cooking corn (dried field corn, I suppose?) in an alkaline solution, of which lye is one example. The earliest preparations were apparently derived somehow from wood ashes, tough other preparations use mined alkali substances like sodium carbonate. And yes, this same process allows my beloved tortillas and tamales (as in nixtamalization) to come in to being. In my mind I have an image I must have read somewhere, of offerings to the gods made from ritually prepared tamale masa — no doubt thanking them for nixtamalization, the sacred cooking technique, that magically transformed corn and allowed these great cultures to thrive.
But back to the recipe at hand, where I left my pozole cooking in a pot of water on the stove. I’d gotten the last of the stock at Two for the Pot, so I was using a combination of white & blue kernels, since the two types had to be pooled to make up the amount I needed. I was surprised to find that the white & blue kernels seemed to cook at quite different rates – the white ones having opened up in a flower-like bloom before the blue ones were completely softened. Unfortunately, this led me to stop cooking the kernels too soon, and some of the blue kernels were left unbloomed and a little more toothsome than I liked. I’m glad f I used the dry stuff though, as I found it to have a hearty cereal flavor and texture that I doubt I’d find in a can of hominy.
As they were, they went into the broth, which was then simmered for a final five minutes to combine the flavors and finalize the stew. The final result was certainly delicious – yet I felt that there was a bit of room for improvement for next time. First, because as mentioned some of the pozole kernels were a little undercooked and so too chewy – if they’d all bloomed as the white kernels did I would have been very happy. Secondly, I didn’t take to heart the recommended accompaniments – the cheese, crema, crisped tortillas, radishes, lettuce, etc would really have finished this dish. I’ll have a second chance to make that final touch pretty soon, as this recipe made a LOT of stew, and much of it is now packed up in my freezer.
I served this with the Arroz con Pollo recipe also in this month’s Gourmet, which was a more successful dish in my mind. It benefited greatly from some smoky chorizo and it required me to make a beautiful red oil from Annato seeds, which, ever–reliable, Two for the Pot also had on stock.