We had our first snow flurries of the season this morning. People keep telling me “Oh, this isn’t really cold yet” but when I walked down Washington Street, wrapped to the chin in a pashmina, long coat, boots and 3/4 length gloves, to New Hoboken Farm for some radishes and apples, it only took a couple of blocks for my face and ears to stop hurting and just go numb. I’m already deep into my wooliest winter wardrobe and am going to need a lot more layers if it gets any colder. And I’m not really sure what to do about my lips. They won’t stop peeling. And my nose looks like Rudolph’s most of the time. If this isn’t cold, then I clearly have not developed the Life Skill set nor the wardrobe necessary to cope with actual cold weather.
One polar climate Life Skill I do have, however, is making soup. I put a couple of desultory afternoon’s worth of effort into what may be the ideal “cold, but not as cold as it’s gonna get” soup: Posole Roja. This Mexican winter soup is in the spirit of chili con carne, but without the weight. Hominy soaks up the rich spicy berry flavor of dried ancho chilis and savory garlicky pork stock like tiny dumplings; fresh cabbage, scallions, and radishes add a fresh crunch; and squeezing lime wedges into the steaming bowl of spicy broth is like taking an IV drip of sunshine straight to the veins.
3 pounds of pork neck with bones
1 pound pork hock or shank, cut into thick slices
6 whole cloves garlic
about 1 tablespoon onion powder ( I have some I got at Penzey’s and it has a nice sweet concentrated flavor)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
generous pinch Mexican oregano
6 dried ancho chiles
3 dried serrano chiles
1 large onion, chopped
2 cans white hominy
Napa cabbage, cabbage, or lettuce, shredded
radishes, sliced thin
This posole is made in two basic steps. The first step is to make a pork stock and cook the pork. Rinse all the meat and put it into a large stock pot; add the garlic cloves, cumin, onion granules, and Mexican oregano. Cover with at least 2 quarts of water and bring up to a low boil. Lower to a simmer. There will be some gray foam that starts floating to the surface. Scoop that off as it shows up; it will gradually disappear. Alternately, if you won’t be able to keep a close eye on the stock making process, you can blanch the pork in boiling water for about ten minutes, then pour out the water, rinse the scum out of the pot and start over with the seasonings and water. I’m usually puttering around close by when I make stock, so I don’t bother with that step. Simmer, maybe partially covered, for at least 2 and up to 4 hours, until the meat is so tender that the mere impact of your glance causes it to fall off the bone (or at least until fork-tender). Strain the meat and bones out of the stock and let everything cool down – I put the stock out on the fire escape for a couple of hours which was great because it was colder out there than inside the fridge and didn’t heat everything else up. I let everything chill separately overnight to make it easy to de-fat the stock and remove the meat from the bones.
OK, step two: bringing all the elements together. Pour about 2 cups of boiling water over the dried chilis (take the stems off, leave the seeds) and soak them for a couple of hours, making sure they stay submerged, until they are rehydrated. Meanwhile, put the defatted stock back onto the heat. Taste to see if it needs to be reduced for a richer flavor and check the salt. Drain and rinse the hominy and pour it into the warm stock, along with the chopped onion. Put the softened chilis and soaking water into a blender or food processor and blend into a smooth red paste. Pass the chili paste through a sieve into the pot of stock; use a spatula or the back of a spoon to press as much of the paste through as you can. This step will keep the tough skins and seeds out of the soup. Add the shredded pork back into the soup and simmer everything together to get all of the flavors acquainted.
Once the flavors have become thoroughly acquainted and shown each other pictures of their children and become friends on Facebook, ladle it into bowls and bring it to the table. In the same spirit that a big bowl of fragrant phở is customized to the eater’s specifications, mix in the cabbage, radishes onions and lime in whatever amounts you desire.
I think this is the sort of thing that is great to make a big batch of and put half into a freezer bag for a wretchedly cold day when there isn’t time to go through the long (but not necessarily involved) process from scratch. Its flavor certainly improves after a night of mingling in the fridge.
I’m also pretty confident that this could be made over a couple days using a big crock pot. I don’t have a crock pot at the moment, but previous experience makes me think that if you make the stock and soak the chilis to make the paste the first day, you could put everything back into the pot the next morning and come home to a pretty fabulous smelling house at the end of the day. Any of you slow cookers out there, give it a try and let me know how it goes.
Another note- I got the pork at my local grocery store, but if pork neck and hocks are hard to find, using cubed pork shoulder or butt should be fine. I think that stocks made with bones and cuts like the hock that are rich with natural gelatin are substantially superior, but if it’s the difference between your making this soup or not, I’m not going to quibble. It will still be plenty good.