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Soup's on

Photos by Laura Silverman

March 10, 2014

I recently returned from a trip to Oaxaca, the southeastern state of Mexico renowned for, among many other things, its delicious moles [PRON: MOH-layz]. I brought back with me a renewed appreciation for those deeply complex and artfully spiced sauces, but also a rotten case of the flu. As I lay semi-delirious in my sickbed, subsisting on cold oranges and hot ginger tea, I envisioned at the end of this miserable road a big bowl of the hearty and restorative stew called pozole [PRON: poh-SOHL-eh]. It’s made with whole grains of maize—also known as field corn, or hominy—that have been treated with a highly alkaline solution of slaked lime and/or wood ash. This process of “nixtamalization,” developed by the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, loosens the hulls from the kernels, softens the corn and increases its nutritional value.

As the flu reaches epidemic proportions around the country, I can only hope there are many bowls of nourishing soup being ferried to sickbeds everywhere. Even if you’re not sick, they can have prophylactic qualities. Stock made from bones especially helps support the immune system. In Mexico, pozole is generally a brothy stew, most often with several cuts of pork, but it’s also made with chicken or turkey. I think of it as my own Latina take on Jewish penicillin, further underscoring this with the addition of what’s known in Yiddish as gribenes—crisp chicken skin cracklings that make a wonderful garnish for this fortifying dish.

My recipe for pozole is simpler than many but delivers plenty of flavor. If you follow all the steps, you’ll be richly rewarded. Besides, is there anywhere you’d rather be on a frigid Saturday morning than in front of a warm stove? Put the dried hominy in to soak the night before. If you can’t find it dried*, canned hominy is often available near the Goya section in the supermarket and it will do. Fastidious cooks like to remove the hard, pointy end from each kernel so that they splay into a rough flower shape as they cook. A fingernail works well for this job, along with a lot of patience. You can also just forget this step with little consequence.

Use good quality chicken stock—homemade is best—and tender local chicken. For the chili sauce that gives this pozole its reddish tinge and infuses it with a gentle heat, I recommend fairly mild but earthy New Mexico chilies. You can substitute California or ancho chilies if they are easier for you to find. Warm the dried chilies briefly in a hot skillet to bring out toasty notes, then soak them until softened. These, blended with their soaking liquid, some garlic and salt, create a classic red chili sauce.