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Friday, October 29, 2010

Pig Redux: Pozole Rojo

Back in August, when I celebrated my 40th birthday, My church's Fellowship Commission and I hosted a "pig pickin'" at church. I enlisted the help of Bill Solder from the Norwalk Exchange Club (who had been a Barbecue Pit competitor at last year's Oyster Festival) and he provided a 100lb hog (which he stuffed with hot sausages!!!) for the occasion, which attracted visitors from as far away as five hundred miles.

There's a "pound of pig per person" rule that generally applies to such events and we ended up with 98 people showing up for dinner. There were lots of pot-luck side dishes and a tray of fried chicken for those who might find it daunting to look their dinner in the face, so we actually ended up with a couple pounds of pork left over. I took the leftover pork and a bunch of the bones home, cubed up the pork, made stock from the bones, and froze the lot in a pair of gallon zip-lock bags, with a plan to make pozole rojo at some point in the future. After two months of waiting for the right time, the future arrived yesterday! I took out the two bags that had been filling our freezer and started making dinner.

The pozole, itself, is whole-kernel white hominy (corn kernels that have been soaked in lye and, if dried and ground, become the Southern US staple, grits). When prepared as pozole rojo, it is a festive stew made with some sort of meat (traditionally pork or chicken) and red chile peppers. There are also pozole verde (green) and pozole blanco (white) variants. I have this recipe printed out and saved in our family's recipe box but, as my mother always taught me, "Recipes are merely suggestions." Having been so well instructed as a child, I played fast and loose with the recipe.

I ripped open the bag of pork stock and started melting/simmering it in the big cast iron dutch oven, then diced up five good-sized onions and sauted them in olive oil, along with about a half a head of peeled and minced garlic, thinking the whole time that lard would be a tastier and more traditional choice than the olive oil but, alas, I had no lard.

A Word on Lard: Contrary to what you may have always been told, lard is no worse for you than butter. Anyone who tells you differently would probably also tell you that red wine, dark chocolate and sunny days are hazardous to your health, too. All lard is not equal, however, and you need to choose your lard carefully. American style lard, which is easily found in any supermarket in boxes that look identical to one-pound butter boxes, is the product of overengineering. The pork fat is rendered and then all of the good bits are filtered out, leaving behind pure fat that I'm sure is good for making pastries or something, but that doesn't really have any flavor that is useful for Mexican cooking. Mexican-syle lard (manteca), which you will have to search out in your local mercado is the real deal, made from rendered pork fat, but without the filtering that removes all of the piggy goodness from American lard. If you can get good manteca, which has a brownish color and contains bits of crispy pork from which the lard was rendered, then you'd be a fool to not use it. Either that or a vegetarian. Or both.

Though my recipe called for using some chile powders and some whole chiles, I stuck with dried chilis, using three different kinds: anchos (5), a couple chipotles (2) and some chiles de arbol (5), with each one providing a different flavor. The anchos, which are dried poblano peppers, gave some sweetness to the pozole, with just a bit of heat. The chipotles (which may be my favorite pepper on the planet and without which chicken quesadillas would be a sad shell of what they should be) are smoked jalapeños and impart a rich smokehousey flavor, and the chiles de arbol had a bit sharper heat. Rather than toasting them and grinding them to a powder as some recipes call for, I just de-stemmed them and threw them in, seeds and all. As they cooked, they broke down just fine.

I set the stock, onions, herbs, peppers, cumin and garlic to simmer in the big stock pot and added four 12oz cans of hominy to simmer and then realized that I had two major problems. First, I didn't have enough hominy to balance out the amount of pork that I was going to use and, second, I didn't have enough dutch oven to hold everything. Problem one was solved with a quick trip to one of our neighboring Mexican markets and the second problem was remedied by a trip to the garage, where I rooted out the big 20quart stock pot that I had bought a few years ago for brewing beer.

With all of life's major problems solved, I transferred my pozole to the big pot, added the newly acquired extra big can of hominy, and the gallon-bag-full of cubed Wilbur and left things to simmer for a couple hours while Ian was at band practice.

Since we've got the pozole simmering, let me tell you about the first time I made pozole several years ago. Pozole was one of those dishes that I had encountered maybe on a menu or on a cooking program on television, but had never eaten. Said I to myself, "Self, you should make some of that allegedly yummy pork and hominy stew," so I did. The problem was that I had failed to realize that, as good as pozole is by itself, it shouldn't be served by itself. It NEEDS mix-ins. Traditionally, these mix-ins include things like diced radishes, cilantro, slices of jalapeño peppers (fresh, not pickled), finely sliced cabbage, white onion, lime wedges and avocado pieces. These items add layers of texture and flavor that transform the pozole from a rather nice stew and turn it into a spectacular one.

So, last night, while I drove to school to pick Ian up from band practice, Kimberly got out the chef's knife and started chopping. On the way back from getting Ian, he and I stopped at a second Mexican grocery to buy a pound of queso fresco as an additional mix-in for our pozole rojo. After all, I didn't want to stop in at the same mercado and have everyone talk about "the gringo who couldn't get his shopping done in one trip," did I? Finally we made it home. I poured a nice black lager for myself and the whole family finally got to eat what turned out to be a fantastic meal.

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