Small, Good Things: A Kernel of Comfort

Pozole Verde con Hongos (Green Pozole with Mushrooms)

Pozole Verde con Hongos (Green Pozole with Mushrooms)

For such a simple dish, pozole (or posole) is surprisingly exotic to many.

Admittedly, the lexicon of the dish is confusing: Pozole can refer both to the recipe — a hearty soup/stew of deep Mexican heritage — but also to a processed grain itself called pozole and Anglicized to hominy, confusing things further with its echoes of the rural American South.

You may have noticed a qualifier there — processed — for as venerable as pozole’s primary native ingredient is, the specific method of its manufacture — nixtamalization — dates to 1200 to 1500 B.C., making pozole an example of one of the earliest processed human comestibles.

Nixtamalization involves soaking and boiling dried flint corn — not sweet corn  — in an alkaline solution (limewater or the like) and drying it again, creating nixtamal, the original Aztec-Mexican name for pozole.

Pozole

Corn (left,) Pozole

The process accomplishes a couple of propitious functions. First, it loosens the hull and softens the kernels, making the final product easier to grind into masa for use in breads and other preparations (tamales, tortillas). More important, the process removes fungal toxins that could cause spoilage, and improves the quality of nutrients (primarily niacin), making it easier for the human body to process. In the early 20th century, non-nixtamalized corn caused many deaths in the U.S. before the niacin connection was discovered by studying the pre-Columbian source.

What’s so special about pozole, the dish? For one, it is comfort food of the first order and a cause for celebration. (It appears on Christmas and New Year’s tables throughout Mesoamerica.) The basis and namesake of the stew are whole cooked kernels of hominy that, through slow simmering, “bloom” or blossom into tender but substantial morsels redolent of the corn they began as.

Most pozole recipes are labor-intensive, meat-based red chile sauces, but this holiday version is kinder and gentler: green sauce (made from tomatillos, green chilies, ground roasted pepitas, aka pumpkin seeds) is just as traditional, and this one features mushrooms in place of meat.

Please note: Yes, canned pozole is “a thing,” but it’s not a thing you want to subscribe to. If you’re going to do this, it’s worth working from scratch. Look for quality raw materials; I can’t make a better recommendation than Rancho Gordo’s product, found online.

Cook the grain a day or two before to save time. Refrigerate the corn in its cooking liquid. The sauce and final dish come together in a snap and make for almost better leftovers. You can take comfort in that.

Pozole Verde con Hongos (Green Pozole with Mushrooms)

Adapted from Rancho Gordo; serves 6

2 large white or red onions, peeled, ½ onion chopped; the remainder cut into thick slices
1 cup dried prepared hominy cooked to make 3 to 4 cups (pozole)
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1½ pound tomatillos, husks removed
½ cup toasted hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas), ground fine
4 to 6 cloves, crushed
2 to 4 jalapenos en escabeche, drained, capped, split and seeded
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (stems OK)
2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano (substitute marjoram or verbena)
5 to 6 cups vegetable broth (or broth prepared from dried mushrooms — porcini suggested)
2 sticks Mexican (or Ceylon) cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 to 5 cups (about 1½ pounds) white button mushrooms
2 tablespoons olive oil

Garnishes

Toasted pepitas
Red onion, finely chopped
Persian or Key lime quarters
Cleaned cilantro leaves
Optional: shredded napa cabbage, sliced radishes, avocado, chicharrones, crumbled queso blanco or other cheese, sour cream, tortillas

  1. Cook the hominy: In a large pot, add hominy and enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Cover and set aside to soak for at least 6 to 8 hours and up to 10. Transfer the pot to the stove; add the chopped onion and more water as needed to cover by 2 inches. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat; cook for 10 minutes and then lower heat to medium-low. Simmer until the kernels are tender and split open (blossom) with no chalkiness, 2 to 3 hours. (Check occasionally, adding more water as needed to keep covered by about 1 inch.) When done, drain the hominy on a strainer over a bowl. Set aside the hominy and reserve 2 cups of the cooking liquid. (While the corn cooks, roast the whole mushrooms in a 350-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes to concentrate the flavor. Let cool, slice into large chunks and reserve.)
  2. For the green sauce: In a dry a skillet over medium heat, pan-roast onions, garlic, and tomatillos in a single layer, turning regularly until charred and soft (about 15 to 20 minutes). Transfer vegetables to a bowl to cool.
  3. In a food processor/blender (working in batches) process the vegetables and accumulated juices, cilantro, oregano and 2 cups reserved hominy-cooking liquid for the blades to move. Scrape down the sides as needed until everything is pureed.
  4. Warm the oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Add pureed vegetables and adjust heat to maintain a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Stir in ground pumpkin seeds and cook, stirring, for another 10 minutes. Add 2 cups of broth to achieve a thick soup-like consistency. Add the cinnamon sticks; keep sauce at a low simmer while you prepare the mushrooms.
  5. In a medium bowl, toss the roasted mushrooms, olive oil and a bit of salt. In a medium skillet over high heat, cook the mushrooms until just browned, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium; cook for 5 minutes more. Remove from heat.
  6. Add cooked hominy to the simmering puree. Cook 10 to 15 minutes; add mushrooms, adjust seasoning and return to a simmer; thin with additional broth if necessary. To serve, ladle into bowls and serve with preferred garnishes.

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