It is my fiancé, who hails from Southern California, who first introduced me to the miraculous comfort food that is pozole; I had never even heard of it before—perhaps because I was born and raised in New Jersey—but since then I’ve been wondering how I’ve lived without it. This traditional Mesoamerican dish consists of a hearty stew of hominy (its name is actually the Nuhuatl word for hominy), meat (usually pork), and garlic. The chili peppers and spices impart a rounded richness, and every bite is a fresh exploration of flavor and texture thanks to the variety of tabletop garnishes. But for me, at least, the star is definitely the pillowy hominy, which soaks in every nuanced flavor.
If you’re not in the know, hominy is essentially corn ascended to a higher level of being. Long before the birth of Christ, Mesoamericans had developed a treatment known as nixtamalization, in which corn (maize) is soaked in an alkaline solution of lime or wood ash; in addition to giving hominy its unique puffy shape and doughy texture, the process releases the vitamin B3, increases the food’s calcium and protein quality, and reduces toxins. So, while cultures that didn’t learn to treat their corn in this way were starving from nutrition deficits, Mesoamericans were thriving. It’s no wonder that maize (and its incarnation as hominy) was associated with the deity Centeotl, creator of humanity. In a very real way, indigenous peoples felt that maize was in their blood, a vital part of human life.
There are rumors of a darker side to this dish, however. Fray Bernandino de Sahagun’s 16th century General History of the Things of New Spain claimed that, in keeping with pozole’s connections to human life, the dish was originally cooked with the flesh of human sacrifices1 mixed with hominy, to be consumed in religious communion. He believed that the Spanish Conquest brought about two important changes to the tradition of pozole: first, the practice of cannibalism was prohibited, which supposedly led to indigenous peoples seeking a substitution for human flesh, and second, pigs were introduced to Mesoamerica, which indeed would have provided a decent substitute due to its “very similar” flavor. I would note that it’s easy (and often tempting) for us to brand cultures that we don’t understand as “other,” perceiving them as both exotic and titillatingly taboo. Regardless of whether or not it had its origins in Mesoamerican ritual sacrifice before the Spanish Conquest, pozole undeniably derives its cultural significance from hominy’s lifegiving nature, and it is for this reason that the dish continues to be used today as both a comfort food and a celebration of vitality.
We like to make our recipe with pork shoulder, homemade pork broth, and ancho chilies. In addition to the hominy, I add roasted corn, which may seem redundant (as my fiancé once teased me), but adds another layer of flavor and reverence for the native cereal grain. Older recipes for pozole used pig’s heads rather than pork shoulder for their source of meat. Depending on the region, many pozole recipes include cabbage.
Yet as Priya Krishna observes in the very title of her Food & Wine article, “Posole [is] As Much About the Soup as It Is About the Fixings.” The tabletop garnishes play a crucial part in the enjoyment of the dish. Our pozole is topped with avocado, fried corn tortilla strips, some chopped scallions, cilantro, and crumbled queso fresco. Sour cream, lime juice, and/or radishes are also good toppers, if you like. Mix and match the garnishes as you please to create the perfect experience.
Adapted from David Bonom’s recipe from Cooking Light
2 ears of corn, unshucked
3 (6”) corn tortillas, halved and cut into strips
3 stemmed, seeded, dried ancho chilis
4 cups homemade pork or chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 TBSP neutral oil like canola, divided
2 lbs boneless pork shoulder (Boston butt), cut into bite-sized pieces
Salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large white onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 TBSP oregano
2 TBSP ground cumin
1 ½ tsp ground coriander
1 (14.5-ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
2 (15 oz) cans white hominy, rinsed and drained
Sliced avocado, lightly salted and peppered, to garnish
Green onions, thinly sliced, to garnish
Fresh cilantro, chopped, to garnish
Queso fresco, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 450F. Place the corn, unshucked, on a baking sheet and roast 25 minutes or as needed, turning the corn once in a while, until the husks begin to char. Remove corn from oven and peel off husks and silk. Allow to cool, then cut off the corn kernels and reserve in a medium bowl for later. I highly recommend saving the corn cobs, as well as your other vegetable scraps, to make chicken, vegetable, or pork stock later on.
Lower oven heat to 425F. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray, lay out the tortilla strips on it, and pop into the oven for 7 minutes, or until strips are brown and crisp. After this, you can set aside the strips for later and turn off the oven.
Meanwhile, heat a small skillet with the chiles over medium heat. Cook the chilis for a few minutes, turning occasionally, until toasted. Next, bring a small pot with the stock to a boil, turn off the heat, and add the toasted chilis. Let steep for 15 minutes, or until soft and pliable. Pour the stock and chilis into a blender and blend until homogenous and smooth. Set aside.
Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon oil. Sprinkle the cubed pork with a healthy dose of salt and pepper. Add enough of the cubed pork to the preheated Dutch oven so that it covers the bottom but does not overlap, and brown all over; remove to a medium bowl and repeat with the next batch, until all of the pork is browned and has been added to the bowl.
Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, still over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic; cook about 5 minutes, until softened and slightly translucent. Add the oregano, cumin, and coriander, and continue to cook for 30 seconds, until fragrant, stirring constantly. Add the chili-stock mixture, fire-roasted tomatoes, pork and its juices, and another few dashes of salt, to taste. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour.
After 1 hour, stir in hominy and corn; continue to simmer, partially covered, for another 20 minutes or until pork is tender.
Serve hot, topped with tortilla strips, avocado, sliced scallions, cilantro, and queso fresco.