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.
As for the cracklings? You can skip them if you like and just top your pozole with fresh radishes and a sprinkling of cilantro. But there’s something about the crisp, fatty crunch that makes an ideal counterpoint to the tender, chewy corn. Or maybe the fact that I’m the product of a Jewish father and a Mexican mother makes me see it that way. However you choose to serve your pozole, enjoy it in sickness and in health.
*Excellent dried pozole is available online at www.ranchogordo.com .
2 1/2 cups dried hominy
2 medium yellow onions; one peeled and quartered, the other peeled and diced
2 boneless chicken breasts, skin removed and reserved
5-7 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon dried oregano (Mexican, if possible)
4 cloves garlic—2 smashed, 2 diced
2 New Mexico chilies (dried)
6 radishes, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
Cover the pozole kernels with water and soak overnight.
Drain the pozole and place in a large pot with the quartered onion and enough water to generously cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered until tender, about an hour. Drain, reserving the liquid.
(If using canned pozole, start here. Substitute water or stock for the soaking liquid.) Return the pozole to the pot along with the diced onion, smashed garlic, chicken breasts, chicken stock and oregano. The kernels should be covered, so if needed, add some of the reserved pozole liquid. Simmer gently to bloom kernels and cook the chicken, about 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, stem and seed the chilies and toast briefly on both sides in a hot skillet. Place in a small bowl and cover with water. (The seeds are where most of a chile’s heat resides, so if you like it spicier, leave them in.)
While the chilies soak, make the cracklings. Cut skin into strips, removing any shreds of meat. Heat 3 tablespoons of neutral oil in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add skin, seasoning lightly with salt. Stir every 5 or 10 minutes, being sure to scrape the bottom. Once the pieces of skin start to get sticky and clump together, increase stirring to break them apart. Keep cooking and stirring, until skin turns a deep golden brown and becomes crispy. You can turn up the heat to speed up the process, but be very vigilant. When they’re done, drain on paper towels.
Remove softened chilies from soaking liquid and place in a food processor along with diced garlic, 3/4 cup of soaking liquid and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Puree into a thick sauce, adding more liquid as needed.
Remove chicken breasts from pozole and shred. Return to pot. Taste and season with salt. Stir in 1/4 cup of chili sauce.
To serve, ladle pozole into bowls and top with a drizzle of chili sauce, sliced radishes, cilantro leaves and cracklings. Pass more chili sauce at the table.
*Pozole keeps in the fridge for 5 days and the flavors continue to improve; it also freezes well so go ahead and make a double batch.