A bowl of pozole, with its colorful elements of yellow hominy, emerald cilantro flecks and white onion pieces, can look as if it has been dusted with fiesta confetti. And that’s entirely appropriate. The rib-sticking Mexican stew stars at festivities including quinceañeras and New Year’s celebrations.
“Pozole is a party dish,” says Pati Jinich, the locally based, Mexico City-born PBS personality and chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute. “It’s partially because it takes a long time to make, and it can feed a crowd.” She and her husband even served it at their wedding.
In the pre-Columbian dish, the hominy (dried, hulled corn) “blooms” and becomes meaty when cooked in liquid, usually chicken or pork stock. (Pozole takes its name from the Nahuatl word for “foam,” which appears in the liquid after the blooming.) The kernels are “basically like small corn dumplings,” says Colin King, head chef at Oyamel in Penn Quarter, where he serves a serrano- and tomatillo-powered green version in warmer months and a pozole rojo (red pozole) infused with guajillo chilies in fall and winter.
Besides hominy and chilies, pozole traditionally features pork shoulder or a combination of pork and chicken, though hundreds of years ago “it would’ve been made with wild meat — turkey, boar — whatever people had on hand,” Jinich says. (There’s even a perhaps-apocryphal 16th-century report by Spanish missionary Fray Bernardino de Sahagún claiming that the Aztecs prepared pozole using human flesh.)
A chili puree brings mild to moderate heat, depending on the regional recipe — green in Guerrero, red in Jalisco. Garlic, onion and herbs such as oregano and cilantro also can figure in the mix. “This soup evolved from house to house and from grandmother to grandmother,” says chef Victor Albisu, who features a cumin- and garlic-spiked red pozole — developed with input from an abuela from Puebla — at Falls Church’s Taco Bamba.
And, as with many Mexican soups and stews, the garnishes enrich pozole’s flavor and texture. Shredded cabbage or romaine lettuce add crunch; limes zip things up; and fried pork rinds or tortillas soak up the layered flavors. “Pozole is hearty, spicy and appealing, thanks to that complexity,” says Oyamel’s King.
No wonder the concoction is also known as levantas muertos, “which means ‘wake up the dead,’ ” Jinich says. “At weddings or parties, you have dinner and dance, then have pozole to perk yourself up. Oh, and it’s also great for a hangover.”
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