Here in New Mexico, posole is the centerpiece of many holiday meals. This hearty hominy stew is ubiquitous on Christmas and New Year’s, shared with family and friends, eaten for good luck in the upcoming year. Key to the dish are large dried corn kernels, simmered for hours until they pop and split, imparting rich flavors with a unique texture—a little bit chewy, but firm and nutty. You can make posole from canned hominy, but that wonderful consistency will never be the same as posole made from scratch.
This dish dates to ancient Mesoamerica. The corn is soaked in slaked lime (limestone and water, or calcium hydroxide), which helps preserve the corn, makes it easier to digest and far more nutritious, as the lime reacts with the corn to make niacin available for the body to use. This process, called nixtamalization, is also used in making masa for tortillas. Untreated corn will not bind with water to form a dough. Soaking the corn in ash also has the same effect, and that is how early New Mexicans prepared their corn.
For us this year, it seemed especially fitting to make Christmas posole. We’ve just returned from a reporting trip to Belize, where we spent the bulk of our time in wet, wet, WET rainforests and Maya villages, where locals grow all their own corn and do all their own processing by hand. We ate the most wonderful thick tortillas, made daily on the family comal. And I did not tire of corn!
Infinite variations of posole exist. Every home cook has her own little twists, her own secret ingredients for that perfect bowl. Here in New Mexico, pork is common—but you don’t have to make it that way. You can use dried posole kernels (which have been treated and dried again) or, as I did this time, frozen treated posole readily available here through Albuquerque’s Bueno Foods. Please avoid canned hominy, unless it’s your only option. The flavor and texture fall far short of what posole is meant to be.
Equally important to your corn selection is chile. Many recipes call for the whole dried New Mexican chiles often found on pretty hanging ristras like these:
I used red chile sauce, a portion of the monstrous batch I’d made (and frozen) a few weeks before, in the prime of autumn. It’s a bit of an annual tradition here: replacing last year’s front-porch ristra with a bright new string of this year’s crop. (Read through to the end for recipe.) If you use dried chiles, you can prepare the sauce while the posole is cooking.
If you haven’t already planned your New Year’s menu, there’s still time. Try a pot of posole for good luck in 2015. Enjoy – and happy holidays to all.
New Mexican Posole (a personalized version)
2 pounds of frozen, treated posole (or dried equivalent)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
7 large garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots peeled and chopped into small cubes
15 allspice berries crushed
A glug of red wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound pork stew meat
1 1/2 cups soup stock or water
4 1/2 cups water
Pinch of dried sage
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon safflower (optional)
2 cups ristra chile sauce (recipe below)
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
Possible toppings: sour cream or Mexican crema, chopped green onions, cilantro, fresh lime
Rinse the posole and place in a large pot. If using dried posole, soak overnight and drain first. Cover with water and boil until the kernels pop and begin to soften and split. Cooking time can vary dramatically depending on type of posole, elevation, etc., but expect this part to take at least an hour if using frozen posole (four hours or more, possibly, for dried). Do not let the kernels turn thoroughly mushy. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, brown the pork in its own fat in a well-seasoned skillet. Add to cooked posole, then use the same skillet to saute garlic, onion, carrots, allspice and glug of red wine, salt and pepper. Add to posole, then deglaze the skillet with a bit of water; add the liquid to posole.
Return posole and other ingredients to heat, add stock and/or water, and bring to a simmer. Add sage, bay leaves, cumin, oregano and safflower. Continue to simmer until posole kernels are thoroughly cooked and stew flavors are blended, at least another hour. Toward the end of cooking, add chile and mix well. Add butter if desired, for a little extra richness. Serve with toppings of your choice.
Just like posole, red chile sauce has as many variations as cooks. Several New Mexican recipes call for flour, but I avoid wheat. Some use garlic, some use onion, some use an array of Southwest spices. Here’s the version I created:
New Mexican Red Ristra Chile Sauce
Adapted from the Santa Fe School of Cooking Cookbook
Pods of 1 large ristra (about 40 on mine; vary amounts of other ingredients accordingly), cleaned, sorted and broken open (instructions follow)
Boiling water to cover pods
1 small head of garlic, cloves chopped
2 yellow onions, chopped
Oil or butter for frying
1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground sage
Salt and pepper
A bit of vinegar, wine or citrus if tanginess is desired
The hardest part about making ristra chile sauce is the cleaning and sorting. Before you begin, put on those rubber gloves! Trust me, even if you have hands of steel, the heat in these pods will eat its way through your senses and your skin will burn after handling a whole ristra.
Every pod is tied with string or twine. You’ll need to remove each pod individually, and carefully check it over (especially if it’s been hanging outside for a while). Crack each one open, remove the seeds and discard any pods with mold, bugs or other undesirables inside. See the middle photo above? We found many pods with tiny insects burrowed inside, as well as a few cocoons. You don’t want those in your sauce. Retain all good portions of the pods. Rinse with tap water (to remove dust, dirt and cobwebs), then cover with boiling water in a heat-proof bowl. This will soften the pods.
Meanwhile, saute garlic and onions in oil until softened. Set aside.
When chiles are softened, drain and retain the liquid. Put chiles, garlic and onions in food processor along with a portion of the liquid. Blend until smooth, adding more liquid until the mixture becomes the desired consistency. Heat the sauce at a simmer for about 20 minutes, along with spices, adding more liquid if the sauce is thicker than you prefer. Taste before finishing: chile sauce is a personal thing. Add more of any ingredient you feel necessary. Sometimes I find the sauce would benefit from a bit of tanginess and I add a splash of red wine or apple cider. I’ve also used fresh orange for a sweeter variation. Remember, it’s your chile sauce and you can make it taste any which way you please! Serve with tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chips… or anything you think needs a dash of red, flavorful heat.