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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Pozole: Deceptively Simple But Big on Comfort

Growing up with a Mexican mother is like being under the constant and watchful eye of a gentle foreign dictator. A constantly-in-action presence, sporting yellow rubber gloves and smelling faintly of bleach on bath-cleaning days; bleach is the scent of all Mexican mothers, and despite the chemical harshness of it, a scent that I find to be hugely comforting. An all-knowing, impossible-to-fool being, yet good natured enough to laugh when picking me up from kindergarten, discovered me clutching my jacket over my formerly white overalls, concealing the little piggy tag attached to them over recess, white overalls being the perfect thing to roll down a giant dirt hill in the back of the school.  She laughed, knowing full well she had a never-ending supply of bleach back home to set things right with the white overalls.


I think of my mother as the “Mexican Martha Stewart,” a reference she will dislike immensely due to her strong dislike of the lifestyle maven for her habit of condescendingly commenting to her guests ‘Well, I do it this way…’, but is perhaps far more appropriate that she realizes.  Years ago, having sent her a clipping of MS Living on how to make adorable radish mice, she carried out her own I do it this way, adding black peppercorn eyeballs to the previously sightless mice.


Walking into her kitchen is like walking into a perfectly decorated TV kitchen, with foods of every type filling it: pistachios and pecans waiting to be shelled, four or five kinds of fresh fruits, three kinds of cookies, a bigger tea variety than Starbuck’s, and a fridge so well stocked, even now that my parents have become empty nesters, opening the door reveals a faint light, hidden by a great mass of foods ready to assemble breakfast, lunch and dinner at a moments notice. There is never a “we have nothing to eat” moment at my mother’s house; she’s not a food hoarder, just likes to be prepared, but never to the point of causing food wastefulness. Head to my mother’s house if the apocalypse ever does arrive, she’ll take care of you.


I’ve known several chefs my mother could have trained in food purchasing, quality control, and giving that patented penetrating and terrifying Mexican mother glare, the one that says “I knew what you are about to do five minutes ago, young’n.”  But in Spanish, of course.


I’ve grown to think of my mom as my first chef, as the person that taught me that the experience of cooking is always an opportunity that goes beyond simply making food, being an opportunity to learn something new, or to nourish a loved one. This was never spoken consciously, but it was there at every meal as she effortlessly willed ingredients into meals. Her style of cooking was the first I ever tried to replicate, yet almost never the exact same dishes as her.  Despite working hard to produce and plate the same dish over and over, ticket after ticket, day after day at a restaurant, and doing so in stressful service situations, I still hold an irrational fear of not being able to produce any dish my mother makes as well as she does in the relative peace of my home kitchen.  The cilantro-spiked chicken and rice soup that was my comfort through many a cold Michigan winter, simple but amazing in a way only a hand held food can be beef, onion and olive empanadas, flan covered in dark, glistening caramel. And pozole, a deceptively simple spiced stew eaten piping hot topped with a small mound of accompaintments! That is the most fearful of all. I’ve never made these foods, and probably never will, even having her exact same recipe, that recipe will be missing the key ingredient of my mother. Replicating the hand of someone that cooks not by formulas, sous vide packs or circulators, but by subconscious thought is nearly impossible, until you yourself become as much as possible like this person. This is the reason that comfort is not found in the latest trendy multicourse tasting menu, but in the home of mothers and grandmothers everywhere.


Sonoran Pozole


For the stew:


2 lbs. pork neck (espinazo) in 1.5-2 inch cubes

2 lbs nixtamal

6 quarts cold water

2.25 lbs pork stew meat in 1.5-2 inch cubes

2 tablespoons kosher salt


For the chile:


10-15 red Anaheim chiles (chile cholorado), stems and seeds removed

4-6 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon dry Mexican oregano


For serving:


Finely shredded iceberg lettuce or green cabagge

Finely sliced radishes

Finely chopped white onion

Roughly chopped cilantro

Lime wedges


Nixtamal refers to the reconstituted dry corn, soaked in water and lime (calcium hydroxide), cooked, and hulled.  It is easily found in Mexican grocery stores, as well as cuts of pork labeled as being for pozole. A similar amount of canned hominy may be used, but will not be added to the recipe until after the pork neck has been simmering for half an hour.  The number of dried chiles for this recipe is variable, as the flavor of the chiles themselves is also variable, ranging from mild to hot from one chile to another.  More or less chiles than indicated can be used, keeping in mind that Sonoran pozole is not meant to be an extremely spicy stew, rather a flavorful one.


Place the nixtamal in an 8 quart stock pot, adding the cold water, and setting over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer, cooking until the nixtamal begins to open up. Skim the surface of the liquid frequently with a fine mesh strainer to remove any scum that may appear.  Add the pork neck bones, simmering for an additional 30 minutes, while continuing to skim the surface.


While the nixtamal and neck bones simmer, bring one quart of water to a boil.  Place the chiles in a non-reactive bowl, and completely cover with hot water, placing a dish or strainer over them to ensure they remain submerged, soaking for 20 minutes.  Place chiles, oregano and garlic cloves in a blender, adding one or two tablespoons of the chile soaking liquid to keep the blender blades moving.  Process until smooth.


Add the pork stew meat and the pureed chile.  Continue to simmer until the meat is tender and the nixtamal is fully cooked through and has opened up on the top surface of the grain.  Add two tablespoons of kosher salt and allow to dissolve in the hot liquid.  Do not add the salt before the grain has opened up, as it would prevent it from softening, much in the same way as beans.


Serve the pozole in thick walled bowls to help maintain the heat of the stew once served.  Top with shredded lettuce or cabbage, onions, radishes and cilantro, and season to taste with a squeeze of lime.


Radish mice are of course optional.




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