How to make pozole — Mexican chicken soup for the soul

It’s time to give up on dining out, at least for a while, sheltering in place to help lower the curve of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re in for a few difficult months, but at least we’ll get to cook.

It’s still cool enough that it remains stew season, and stews are great for feeding groups of self isolating families. One of my favorite stews is pozole. I consider it a kind of Mexican chicken soup for the soul, and our souls can use all the therapy they can get right now.

Pozole has three meat components: Meat, spicy chili broth and hominy. 

The meat is simple. It’s traditionally pork, but chicken, turkey and beef all work in a pinch. And for you hunters, pozole is the perfect way to honor that last venison roast before freezer burn claims it as its own. You’ll probably need to augment the broth with some gelatin, however, to compensate for the lean meat.

You develop the broth with a long braise that renders the meat cut-with-a-spoon tender, along with the judicious use of chilies.

Hominy is just corn. Field corn actually, dried, then boiled in a lye solution. It’s a process called nixtamalization which breaks down the tough hull of the grain, and releases nutrients in the corn so they can be absorbed in our digestive system. Corn tortillas, masa and grits are all products of nixtamalization.

I generally use canned hominy, and it tastes fine. But if you can get your hands on dried hominy, especially dried blue corn hominy, it will have a more toothsome bite. But the dried stuff is an order-online product, and in these trying times I’m not going to add to our delivery system’s overwhelmed capacity. Necessities only.

I don’t really have a recipe for pozole as I prefer to wing it a bit. I do follow these general guidelines.

Start with a chunk of pig protein, about 4-5 pounds. The pork shoulder or Boston butt roast is best. The pork you see packaged as country style ribs actually comes off the butt, and I’ve had good results with it as well. But bone-in is important here. Marrow and the connective tissue of the butt roast (really the pig’s front shoulder) release collagen during the long braise, and collagen is key to a thick, rich broth.

Avoid loin cuts or chops. They’re great for grilling, but are too lean for this dish. A braise leaves these cuts dry and cottony, with little flavor.

Liberally salt the pork. Put some heat to a dutch oven, add oil and give the meat a nice sear. Don’t skimp on this step. Pork browned to a deep mahogany makes a fine pozole broth. Gray pig makes a thin, insipid broth. You don’t want that.

Take the meat out of the pot. If there’s a lot of fat left that’s a sign you picked the right piece of pig for the job. If there’s too much fat, pour some off and save it for a future culinary effort. Add a diced medium onion to the pot, along with a clove or two of crushed garlic. Turn the heat down and sweat the onion. At this point I add spices, which I’ve never measured so I’m really approximating here, but probably a tablespoon of cumin, a tablespoon of ground chili and maybe a half teaspoon of smoked paprika.

I loved the aroma of smoked paprika when it hits the heat, but don’t go crazy with it. Your pozole shouldn’t taste like barbecue.

A palm full of Mexican oregano wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Once the onion has wilted and you’ve given the spices a good toast, put the meat back in the dutch oven, add a couple bay leaves, and, if inclined, a can of beer, especially if there’s some Mexican lager about. But stay away from the strong stuff. This isn’t the place for a hoppy IPA (the proper place for a hoppy IPA is in your belly, in case you didn’t know). 

I usually use Dos Equis amber. Corona works too, though not as well. And some folks might flinch right now.

I also like to add some good chili/enchilada sauce. El Pato is my favorite and worth tracking down. You can make your own sauce by toasting, hydrating and processing some good dried chilis, but El Pato is a worthy stand in. Don’t add too much, maybe 15 ounces or so, especially if you’ll be feeding folks who can’t take much heat. You can always add more later.

Then add water, but don’t fully cover the meat. Three quarters of the way is fine. Bring it to a boil on the stove, then put the pot it in a 300 degree oven for three or four hours. I start checking it after two and you’ll know its ready when the meat pulls loose from the bone.

Take the pot out of the oven. Pull the meat and let it cool. I like my pozole broth free of chunky bits, so I strain it at this point. But you could leave the onion in if you like. That’s just not how I do it.

Put the strained broth back in the pot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add more El Pato if it needs heat. Shred the meat, leaving it a bit chunky, and put it back in the pot. Pour three 12-ounce cans of white hominy into a strainer and give the corn a good rinse, then add to the pot. Bring it back up to a simmer and cook for a half hour or so to take the sharp edge off any added chili sauce, and you’re ready to eat.

I like to garnish with cabbage, cilantro, radish slices and a squeeze of lime. Pickled jalapeños and avocado also have their devotees.

Ingredients

4-5 pounds bone-in Boston butt

Medium white onion

1-2 cloves garlic

Bay leaves

Ground cumin

Ground chili pepper (Pasilla or guajillo are good. Be careful with árbol, it packs a punch)

Smoked paprika

Mexican oregano

28 oz can El Pato chile sauce

3 12 oz cans white hominy

Garnishes of your choice – My fave is cold beer

Letter to my younger self

For my column last week I wrote a letter to my younger self. I'm not sure where the memories came from, but I suppose that's a thing I like about writing — it allows me to access memories I'd never retrieve outside the process of putting finger tip to keyboard, deadline looming.

I recently read one of these letters of reflection written by Italian football great Gigi Buffon. Athletes, especially those who play at the highest level, are not always comfortable being so frank about this kind of self-awareness; it can upend the fragile in-the-moment mentality they need to compete. Gigi is nearing the end of his magnificent career, however, so it may be easier for him to now confess those moments that haunt his past.

The photo is of my daughters and I on a fishing trip, but not the one mentioned in the letter. Instead, this photo was taken on the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the gorge where it pours out of the Yellowstone Plateau near Clark, Wyoming. That was another good day I didn't want to miss.