I walked into my local German Pork Store, having parked beneath the cheerful, plastic, lederhosen-clad icon of the joint, shopping list in hand, dutifully copied from my 1st edition copy of Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican. A few days before, the weather had turned cool and I wanted to fill my house with something delightfully aromatic, something to compliment the decaying oak leaves in my desiccated herb garden.
Beef Bourginon? Eh, I’ll make that a hundred times before the first crocuses of 2012. No, I wanted something more foreign, exotic. I wanted a bowl of pozole. I was introduced to po-ZO-leh at a tiny Mexican eatery in my former Jersey City neighborhood. Now, farther out to pasture, Chipotle is as close to authentic Mexican as I can reliably find.
Advertised as the Mexican cure for the hangover, pozole roja is deep red broth, with few ingredients floating in: shredded pork and hominy. The required condiments bring crunch and freshness: thinly sliced radishes, avocado, shredded cabbage and the traditional dried oregano. Memories of slurping of a second helping at Taqueria Downtown on a Sunday morning made its way into my conscious as the sun slanted slightly lower through the trees.
So, pork stew. Easy enough, I’m a seasoned cook and I teach other people how to cook. I can knock out Thanksgiving dinner for 25 in my sleep. I didn’t anticipate the challenge pozole would pose as I slid the jacket-less, rummage-sale-find cookbook from Mr. Bayless off my shelf.
“1/2 a small (about 4 pounds) pigs head, well scrubbed and halved OR 3 medium pigs’ feet, split lengthwise, plus 1-1/2 pounds meaty neck bones plus a boneless pork shoulder.”
I scribbled onto a post it and headed to the pork store. The meaty guy behind the counter finished up slicing an order of vinegar headcheese, so I was surprised by his reaction to my request for half a pig’s head. He looked at me like I had a pig’s head. Ok, well, how about feet plus neck bones? Nope. Not even in the freezer. If I gave him a week, he could special order for me. I didn’t have a week. I wanted pozole now.
A farther drive out of town is Bravo, the Latino supermarket that stocks an entire aisle of competing brands of 6” corn tortillas. I parked next to a bunch of guys staring under the hood of a malfunctioning red sports car.
Inside, in the butcher’s case, lined up edge to edge, about a hundred on a tray, were perfectly manicured pigs feet. My Spanish isn’t great but I know numbers and gestured to my throat. Neck bones were in the meat aisle, not behind the butcher’s counter, mami. My kind of meat aisle. As the butcher split my trotters on a band saw, I made my way to the neck bones. Two dollars, ninety-nine cents a pound.
“They expensive here!” exhaled a large woman to no one in particular. I found a package with about a pound and a half of red, bony meat and retrieved my feet.
Next: find hominy. I was confronted by a choice: canned or dried? The recipe was asking that I cook the hominy for hours with the meat and I’d no way to guess the consistency of what was in the cans. Like canned beans, soft and ready to heat-and-serve? Or crunchy and just rehydrated? In my pantry at home, I’ve had a one-pound bag of dried hominy for years after a particularly delicious Colombian meal inspired me to pick up a bag.
I had googled what to do and the results turned back lots of recipes that call for slaked lime. That I didn’t have and there was no indication on my hominy package of whether it had already been made edible, or mais nixtamal. I figured I could ask in the market.
Sure enough, two women were in the hominy aisle when I rolled my cart up. Combined, they spoke about as much English as I do Spanish and I learned, in no uncertain terms: buy the canned. “Mucho tiempo!” She explained and pointed at the bag of giant corn kernels I help in my hand. The can went into the cart.
I smiled more warmly at the guys standing over the red car in the parking lot. They didn’t know, but I felt great knowing I was going home to make their version of chicken soup for the soul.
At home, I dumped my pigs feet into a colander. Know that I have gutted whole fish, taken a chicken from life to a dinner plate, and that I know my way around a deer carcass. My best friend and I bonded over casing sausage in culinary school. And yet, having a pile of split pigs feet, with their pink toenails still in place, was a little… gross. Not gross in a way to turn me off the dish, but gross enough that I felt superior to other people who would be.
Into my biggest pot went the feet, the neck bones, and the pork shoulder, some chopped garlic, and several quarts of water. Up to a boil it came, and the house filled with a warmth, the delicious autumn hominess I was seeking. But in there, under the garlic and the cumin and porcine sweetness there was something undeniably… feety.
But I’m the kind of person who likes feety! I scoff at other thirty-something women as they pick boneless, skinless chicken breasts out of the chiller while I proudly select the darker, gamier thighs. Breasts! Ha! Might as well eat tofu! I snidely comment to myself.
My stock boiled for hours, the occasional half-foot lolling by the surface. And at this point, I had pozole blanco, or white pozole, a finished dish in itself. In the simmering, among the hominy kernels that percolated by, came the occasional shred of pig skin that had broken free of the feet, connective tissue all released into the hot liquid. Pozole blanco, with or without the mask of refreshing condiments did not look like something I was all that eager to eat.
I was still another step away: make blanco into rojo. Toast a few dried chile peppers in a cast iron skillet (open the windows and don’t be concerned if it is suddenly harder to sing along with Gloria Estefan on Pandora.) Soak the chiles in some of the hot pozole blanco, then purée and pass through a fine-mesh sieve back into the soup.
While the chiles are soaking, before you’ve rojo-ed, from Rick Bayless:
“Remove the pig’s head (or pigs’ feet and neck bones) and the pork shoulder from the simmering broth. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the pig’s head discarding the bones, fat and cartilage (or, for pigs feet, remove and discard the cartilage and bones, then chop what remains into 1” pieces.) Roughly shred all the meat.”
This sounds easy enough, except that after hours of simmering, the bits fell apart and plopped back to the hot broth, splattering the underside of my vent hood, ensuring that the feetiness will stick around.
I decided to strain. Yes, I would lose the hominy that had been bubbling away for hours, but having tasted some straight from the can, I’d could run out to Goya aisle of my local supermarket and get another can to warm-and-serve. And so I strained.
In the instructions, it sounds a lot like Rick wants me to chop the pigs’ feet skin into 1” pieces. I tried a piece and while deep fried, puffed and crispy cracklins are one of my favorite things about a trip down south, the gelatinous and broth-logged skin was not reintroduced to this batch of pozole.
I picked neck bones out of the strainer, which with the brown masses of meat looked a bit like the La Brea Tar Pits with vertebrae of some long-dead animal sticking up at odd angles. If La Brea had a layer of hominy to excavate.
I stood at my counter, and watched out the window as a small herd of deer made their way through the long-flattened fence that surrounds my chicken run. The chickens flew over it anyway and so when the deer came through and flattened it, I lacked the energy to prop it back up every evening.
There the deer stood in my compost, picking through potato peels and avocado pits. In my mind I shot them, dressed them, fabricated them into their primal cuts and brainstormed dishes. Perhaps a venison tenderloin with juniper-infused blackberry sauce and bulgur pilaf would be delicious on Christmas Eve. I watched my pet hens darting out of the way of the hooves and determined for certain that naming them was a bad idea. However adorable, it was now impossible to get this elderly flock into the stew pot.
These thoughts bothered me not, like muscle memory. Yet, when I looked down, even briefly into the pile of brown bones, once-white hominy, and pigs feet that were falling apart at the seams, I couldn’t help question why I hadn’t just driven back to Jersey City when the pozole craving struck.
Into the blender went the pliable peppers, pureed then passed through my finest chinois and into the broth. And an amazing alchemy occurred. Instantly, the feety smell I’d been enduring with a withering smugness vanished and was replaced subtly at first and then overwhelmingly with the smell of Pozole Rojo, the thing I craved, the dish I wanted, the autumnal feast of odd bits that I preach full use of in my “Sustainable Eating” series of classes.
I sat down with a perfectly garnished, steaming bowl of homemade richness. I named every item floating in my bowl, nothing mysteriously gelatinous of dubious origin here! Extra radishes and just a little oregano, exactly how I like it. The strainer contents discarded, the vent hood wiped clean, I enjoyed my bowl of pozole rojo and wondered if pigs had sweetbreads.
Update May 24, 2012
Emily Peterson was featured in the Chef2Chef.net guide to the top 50 culinary instructors on Twitter!