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Pozole perfect for big parties, celebrations

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Pozole may be the perfect antidote to a stressful October plagued by dry winds, power outages and fires.

The traditional stew of Mexico offers a simple bowl of comforting broth, flavored by hearty protein, chile paste and hominy corn, surrounded by a rainbow of tasty and vibrant garnishes.

It’s also the consummate party dish, engineered to feed a crowd while leaving the host and hostesses free to enjoy their own party once the broth has simmered, the toasted chiles are ground and the garnishes are chopped.

“The beautiful thing is you do all the work, and then you have the party,” said Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food of Napa. “It’s also relatively inexpensive to make, and with all the chopped garnishes — the lettuce, cabbage and radishes — the table looks like it’s aching with tons of good food.”

In other words, you get a big bang for your buck, and everyone leaves the party thinking of you as the most generous, hard-working host they’ve ever known.

For Sando, the simple stew rates up there as one of the “great iconic dishes of the world.”

He loves it so much, in fact, that he decided to write a book about it, “The Rancho Gordo Pozole Book” (Rancho Gordo Press, $22.99.) It will be released Thursday at a party at the Rancho Gordo storefront in downtown Napa.

“I believe it to be on par with paella, cassoulet, pho and chili con carne,” he wrote in the book’s introduction. “It can be made modestly for a weeknight dinner, with enough leftovers for a terrific lunch. But it’s really a showstopper, designed to be enjoyed with a crew of people you love. For some of us, the mere idea of pozole puts us in a good mood.”

In his book, based on years of cooking and traveling throughout Mexico, Sando shares the history of the delicious dish, along with more than 20 traditional and non- traditional recipes for red, green and white pozoles from all over Mexico and the American Southwest. There’s a Shrimp Pozole from Jalisco, a Pozole Mixteco from Oaxaca and even a Mushroom Pozole for vegetarians.

Sando doesn’t claim to “own the story” of the dish, but rather describes his research and the resulting tome as “one obsessive footnote.”

“This is what I found, and it’s pretty cool, and I wanted to share it,” he said. “I’m a tourist — I’m not the last word on it.”

Sando had his first taste of pozole one warm evening in the early 1980s in Guadalajara, where a chile-red, pork-rich pozole is commonly served at local pozolerias. The native Californian had never heard of the dish before, and it was a revelation.

“For me, the appeal is that it’s like a secret revealed,” he said. “A lot of Mexican food is really regional, and this is really a universally loved dish. And people here have a warm and fuzzy feeling about it. This is a great food. Why isn’t this in every taqueria?”

Like red beans and rice and cassoulet, pozole is a celebratory food that requires an investment of time and a loving touch, both in sourcing the ingredients and in preparing them. It is often served at Christmas and other festive occasions in Mexico.

“I used to say that you had to have a great stock to make a great pozole, but then I realized that every single ingredient has to be top-notch,” Sando said. “You can’t scrimp on anything. You have to do a good job to make it a great dish.”

One of the key ingredients of pozole is prepared hominy — corn kernels that have been dried, nixtamilized with calcium hydroxide, left to soak, then stripped of the skin. At that point, the corn can either be ground to make masa for tortillas or cooked into pozole.

Most Americans are used to purchasing canned hominy, but according to Sando, the texture is all wrong and the taste is nearly flavorless.

“The real nixtamal tastes like corn, and when you cook it, it smells like a big wet tortilla,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

Rancho Gordo makes its own prepared hominy in a top-secret commercial kitchen in Sonoma County with a machine that Sando had custom-built.

“We can’t keep it in stock,” he said of the prepared hominy, which he sells alongside 35 varieties of heirloom beans at Rancho Gordo. “Now we’re using heirloom varieties, like the blue (corn) for the holiday season.”

Although Sando’s favorite, go-to pozole is a red one made with chicken, his friends from Mexico were shocked that he doesn’t prefer one with pork.

“Pork is predominant,” he said. “But a lot of indigenous communities prefer chicken because pork is hard to digest. In the state of Nayarit, I found families who do chicken and pork together.”

For the Xoxoc project — a collaboration between the Rancho Gordo and Xoxoc companies to help small farmers in Mexico continue to grow indigenous crops — Sando has traveled thousands of miles all over the country to meet with producers. Along the way, he started collecting pozole recipes, including the famous pozole verde from the state of Guerrero.

“I remember having the green pozole from Guerrero, and not understanding why it was hard to get,” he said. “Thursday is the day you get pozole in that state, and finally we hit it on a Thursday, and we had an amazing green pozole.”

The sauce of the green pozole is made with pumpkin seeds, herbs and vegetables, giving it a very rich, complex flavor. The red pozole incorporates a red chile paste made from dried chiles. The white pozole has a clear broth,and the chiles are added at the table instead of while cooking.

To make matters more complicated, the American Southwest has its own version of pozole, but they spell it posole, which is also how they refer to the prepared hominy as well. The dish differs from the Mexican pozole in the kinds of chiles that are commonly used.

“In the Southwest, the green is made with fresh green chiles and the red uses chile powder,” Sando said. “The cumin and the green (Hatch) chile is a killer flavor. It’s not as complex, but it’s every bit as good. It’s also beautiful made with poblano chiles.”

As for the garnishes, the choices seem almost limitless, from avocado and Mexican oregano to lettuce and corn tortillas. Oddly enough, cilantro is not traditionally served as a garnish, Sando said, but it is a key component of the pozole verde sauce.

“The absolute essentials are white onion and lime,” he said. “The onion adds a texture, and the limes cut through any fat in the most beautiful way.”

For an optional side of heat, a bowl of pequin chile powder, a fiery chiles de arbol salsa or a relish of pickled habanero chiles and white onions are often served.

Although Sando drills down deeply into the tradition of the dish in the book, he also included a nontraditonal pozole from former Napa Valley Chef Pilar Sanchez, who grew up in San Luis Potosi in Central Mexico. Her California pozole is studded with extra vegetables, from chayote to zucchini.

“Her version is very controversial,” he said. “It’s really unusual to have all those vegetables in it ... but some have said it was the best pozole they ever had.”

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The following recipes are from Steve Sando’s “The Rancho Gordo Pozole Book.”

“When cooking chicken pozole, it’s best to use dark meat, as breasts can overcook in an instant,” Sando writes. “I really like using chicken feet in the broth, and I save chicken backs in my freezer for just this kind of dish.

“I know of cooks who cook the whole dish in one pot, but I think it’s hard to de-fat the broth, and the flavors can get muddy. Preparing the different components, mostly a day ahead, and then marrying them right before serving time keeps the flavors more distinct.”

Red Chicken Pozole

Makes 8 to 12 servings

For the meat and broth

4 skin-on chicken thighs

4 skin-on chicken drumsticks

1 chicken back

2 chicken feet, chopped

1/2 of an onion, sliced

3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 bay leaves

3 black peppercorns, roughly cracked

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

For the chile paste

2 ancho chiles, wiped clean with a moist towel

1/2 of an onion, chopped

6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

2 tablespoons oil or lard

To finish

4-6 cups cooked, prepared hominy, plus 2 cups of the reserved cooking liquid (see recipe below)

Garnishes

— Radishes, sliced thin

— Onion, finely chopped

— Chile de Arbol Salsa (see recipe below)

— Dried Mexican oregano or Rancho Gordo Oregano Indio

— Romaine or iceberg lettuce, sliced very thin

— Mexican limes or key limes, quartered

— Avocado, cubed

— Tostadas (optional)

For the meat and broth (best done a day ahead):

In a large stockpot over high heat, combine the chicken thighs, drumsticks, back and feet; onion, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, salt and 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to a gentle simmer, using a lid to help regulate temperature as needed. Cook until the chicken is done, about an hour. If you’re substituting chicken breasts, remove them after 25 to 30 minutes so they don’t overcook.

Remove the chicken pieces to a platter. Once cool enough to handle, separate the meat, discarding bones and skin.

Strain the broth into a very large bowl; cool to room temperature. Chill in the refrigerator for several hours, or overnight, until fat rises to the top of the bowl and congeals. Remove the fat and reserve for another use.

For the chile paste: Cut chiles in half; discard seeds and stems. In a small saucepan, warm 2 cups of water over medium-low heat; turn off heat when the water is hot. Meanwhile, warm a dry comal or skillet over medium heat; toast the chiles quickly, taking care not to let the chiles burn. Soak the toasted chiles in the pan of warm water for 15 minutes. Drain chiles, reserving the soaking liquid.

In a blender, combine the chiles, onion, garlic, and enough of the strained chile-soaking liquid to allow the blender blades to move. Blend well, scraping down the paste as needed. Use a wooden spoon to push the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding skins and seeds.

In a large pot over medium heat, warm the oil until hot, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chile paste and stir immediately. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, stirring frequently, for 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, as desired.

To finish: To the pot with the chile paste, add the reserved meat and the drained cooked hominy. (If you are using canned hominy, rinse the kernels before using and discard the liquid.)

Slowly add about 6 cups of broth, enough to make a soupy stew, stirring constantly. If the pozole is not soupy enough to your liking, slowly add the reserved hominy-cooking liquid (or tap water, if you used canned hominy) or more broth, until you reach the desired consistency.

Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until all of the ingredients are warmed through, about 20 minutes (or a bit longer if you’ve pulled your chicken and corn from the refrigerator.)

Ladle into bowls and serve with your preferred garnishes.

_____

You can find Rancho Gordo Prepared Hominy online at ranchogordo.com or in various grocery stores and specialty stores. If you are in the Southwest, you can find it under the name White Corn Posole.

Cooked Prepared Hominy

Makes 4 cups

1/2 pound Rancho Gordo Prepared Hominy

1/2 onion, chopped

On the stovetop: In a large bowl, soak prepared hominy in enough water to cover by 2 inches; let sit 5 to 8 hours.

In a large stockpot over high heat, combine the prepared hominy and its soaking water. Add additional water, if needed, to cover the hominy by about 2 inches.

Add the onion; bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to medium-low. Continue cooking at a gentle simmer until the prepared hominy is tender, about 90 minutes. Partially cover the pot as needed to regulate heat, but don’t cover completely or hominy may turn gummy.

Check occasionally, adding hot water from a kettle, as needed, to keep the corn covered by about an inch. The hominy is done when it’s no longer chalky but retains some texture. The kernel will also pop at one end, causing the hominy to blossom.

Strain the hominy, reserving at least 2 cups of the cooking liquid for use in your pozole. Refrigerate or freeze any additional liquid for another use.

_____

Chile de Arbol Salsa

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 cup dried chiles de árbol, wiped clean with a moist towel, stems removed

1/2 cup pineapple vinegar or apple cider vinegar

— Juice of 4 Mexican limes or key limes

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 garlic cloves, peeled

— Salt, to taste

Warm a dry comal or skillet over medium heat; toast the chiles quickly, taking care not to let them burn.

In a bowl, combine the toasted chiles, vinegar and lime juice; let the chiles hydrate for 15 minutes.

In a blender, process the chiles, cumin and garlic until smooth. Blend well, scraping down the paste as needed. Use a wooden spoon to push the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl, discarding the skins and seeds. Taste and add salt, as desired.

_____

“Frozen, peeled shrimp are handy, but if you do this the slow, laborious way you’ll have a better final product,” Sando writes.

“Once you’ve done a few chores — making the broth and the salsa — the rest comes together quickly. But you can cheat and buy some fish broth, or even use chicken broth, if you must.”

Shrimp Pozole

Makes 8 to 10 servings

For the shrimp and broth

3-31/2 pounds shell-on shrimp

1 head of garlic, broken into cloves and peeled

2 medium onions, peeled and halved

1 stalk celery

1 bay leaf

For the salsa

10 ancho chiles, wiped clean with a moist towel

1-2 chiles de árbol, wiped clean with a moist towel

1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed

1/2 of an onion, chopped

1/2 cup white vinegar

To finish

4-6 cups cooked prepared hominy (see recipe above)

Garnishes

— Chopped lettuce

— Mexican limes or key limes, quartered

— Chopped onion

— Dried Mexican oregano or Rancho Gordo Oregano Indio

— Tostadas

— Chile Relish (see recipe below)

For the shrimp and broth: Peel and de-vein the shrimp, reserving the shells; refrigerate the shrimp until ready to use. In a stockpot over medium heat, combine the shrimp shells and 8 cups of water; cook for 25 minutes.

Strain the broth into a large bowl; discard the shells and return the strained broth to the pot.

Add the garlic, onion, celery and bay leaf. Simmer for 40 minutes over medium heat, uncovered. Strain the broth again into the bowl and then return to the pot; discard the solids.

For the salsa: Cut the chiles in half; discard seeds and stems. Warm a dry comal or skillet over medium heat; toast the chiles quickly, taking care not to let the chiles burn.

In a medium bowl, combine the toasted chiles with enough of the warm shrimp broth to cover chiles by 1 inch; soak for 15 minutes.

Strain the broth and return it to the pot. In a blender, combine the chiles, garlic, onion and vinegar. Blend well, scraping down the blender as needed.

To finish: Add the hominy to the simmering shrimp broth; cook for 10 minutes.

Taste and adjust seasoning, as desired, then add the reserved shrimp; cook, stirring, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Stir in the salsa.

Ladle into bowls and serve with your preferred garnishes.

_____

Chile Relish

Makes 8 to 10 servings

4-5 habanero chiles or manzano chiles, stemmed and sliced very thin

1/2 of a white or red onion, peeled and sliced very thin

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano or Rancho Gordo Oregano Indio

1/4 cup mild white vinegar or pineapple vinegar, or lime juice

— Salt to taste

In a small bowl, toss all the ingredients; allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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