I've been close friends with pozole rojo—the Mexican meat and hominy soup flavored with dried red chilies—for years, but only vaguely acquainted with pozole verde, its heartier, greener cousin that comes from the mountainous state of Guerrero. I'd made Rick Bayless's version from Authentic Mexican years ago, and was familiar with the one Diana Kennedy writes about in Mexico: The Cookbook. When my wife, Adri, and I were in Mexico City last year, I was hoping to get a few educational tastes of it, but alas, it was not to be.
See, Thursday is traditionally pozole day, and most restaurants that make the soup will serve it only on Thursdays, as I found out when I was greeted with stares that said oh, the poor gringo, bless him! when I asked for it on a Saturday. Oops.
Nevertheless, we live in this glorious modern age where videos and recipes from foreign lands are but a few mouse clicks away, so with a few recipes to get me started, I felt comfortable enough to arrive at my own version of pozole verde.
If you've ever cooked that great Bayless recipe, you'd know that it's a beast. Dried hominy soaked and cooked for hours. Pork and chicken simmered, skimmed, and picked. Pumpkin seeds toasted. Tomatillos boiled. Sauces blended and seared, soup seasoned and combined. And nearly all of it takes place in separate vessels, making cleanup a huge chore. The truth is, unless you've got the day off, cooking pozole on a Thursday is nothing more than a sueño imposible.
My goal was to come up with a recipe that is not only delicious, but fast enough that it can reasonably be made on a Thursday night. The recipe I came up with may or may not be authentic, but it sure as heck is delicious.
The first step was to strategize a cooking order so that I could reduce a four-pot recipe down to a single Dutch oven, and that meant toasting pumpkin seeds first. Not every green pozole recipe contains pumpkin seeds, but I love their nutty flavor and the creamy texture they lend to the soup when puréed. They also help to keep the soup smooth and emulsified, which is good news: it means I can skip skimming off excess fat down the line. Pumpkin seeds need to be toasted in a dry pot, so they're the first to go in. I toasted three ounces of seeds until golden brown and fragrant (be careful: they pop as they toast!).
I emptied out the skillet and turned to my meat and vegetables.
The vegetables are straightforward: tart tomatillos as the base, along with chilies (I used a mix of poblano, Anaheim, and jalapeño, though you can use any combination you'd like), and an onion. Choosing a single meat to use as the base of my soup went a long way to reducing its complexity, and since chicken cooks so much faster than pork, I decided to stick with chicken. I tried various cuts before settling on whole legs, which are cheap, cook fast, offer plenty of flavor and body to the soup base, and stay moist and tender even after reheating the soup multiple times. (This is important because for complex recipes, I like to make enough to last for several meals.)
Rather than cooking them separately as some recipes dictate, I combined my chicken and vegetables in the Dutch oven, then covered them with store-bought low-sodium chicken broth. (If I had enough homemade on hand, I would have used that, but even with store-bought, the chicken legs and vegetables lend enough flavor to doctor it up.)
For aromatics, I added a couple tablespoons of Mexican oregano, which is more fragrant and hoppy than its domestic counterpart. If you have access to epazote, a few sprigs tossed in the pot is a good idea, as are a few sorrel leaves if you can find them. But the soup will still taste delicious without them.
I brought the whole thing to a light simmer and cooked until the chicken was tender, which took about 40 minutes. Once the chicken was cooked, I took it out of the pot and set it aside to cool while I turned my attention back to the vegetables.
Whether you're making pozole rojo or verde, the basic technique is to make a broth, then separately purée your main flavoring ingredients into a salsa, which you then use to season the soup. My first thought was to skip this step and simply puree everything in the pot together, but without any sautéing or charring of the vegetables beforehand, the soup lacked complexity.
The solution was to use the liquid-searing technique common in Mexican salsas. I started by straining the broth and transferring the solids to the jar of a blender, where I blended them together with the toasted pumpkin seeds and a small handful of cilantro. Next, I dried out the Dutch oven and heated up some oil until smoking hot, then I poured the purée directly into it, allowing it to sputter and spit for a moment. This technique develops rich, deep flavors in no time and those flavors come through in the finished soup.
As I was pouring the strained broth back into the pot to thin out the sauce, I realized that I'd missed out on another opportunity to build flavor. Rather than using oil to sear the salsa, why not use the chicken fat floating directly on the surface of the stock?
For my next batch, I skimmed off some chicken fat and added it to the Dutch oven. A little stock came along with it, but it quickly evaporated as the fat heated up, leaving behind a layer of concentrated proteins that started browning on the bottom of the pot. Once that layer of proteins was deeply browned and the fat was just starting to smoke, I poured in my puree, followed by the remaining stock.
This was the best batch yet, with a smooth, creamy texture and a rich flavor from the seared salsa and the browned proteins at the bottom of the pot.
With the soup base finished, all that was left to do was to pick the chicken meat from the legs and add them to the soup along with a can of hominy (people who love hominy swear that dried hominy is the only way to go, but I find canned hominy to have a pleasingly toothsome bite and corny flavor that's more than satisfying for a weeknight meal).
Pozole is almost as much about the soup base as it is about the garnishes. I like to serve it with diced white onion, diced avocado, diced radishes, thinly sliced hot chilies, and chopped fresh cilantro leaves at the table so that your guests can customize to their hearts' content. (Pro tip: cut the garnishes while that chicken is simmering!)
All told, the soup took just over an hour from start to finish, with at least half that time hands-off simmering. Not bad for a Thursday night dinner that feels like the kind of meal you'd have to play hooky to pull off.
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