After one too many scenarios like this one, I decided to do a little investigating on whether cookbooks were tested before being slapped with a $35 price tag and shipped off to bookstores. Turns out, no. A cookbook editor at Doubleday-Broadway told me that the authors are trusted that they know what they are doing.
“Someone should really field test these things,” I grumbled as a “cold, refreshing white gazpacho” came out tasting weirdly like hummus — runny hummus that took me four hours to make. “Someone with a slight obsessive compulsive disorder. Someone who likes it when her surly butcher growls at her.” Strangely, someone took me up on my offer.
Which is how I found myself drunk at the Hispanic grocery store, looking for hominy. I had been seduced by John Thorne’s easy writing style in Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite. Everything sounded effortless, and rooted in generations of tradition. (After a few passes, my copy of his cookbook looked like it had survived generations, too, as I had to lay a variety of objects on top of the book to make it lie open flat.) I assumed I, too, could ponder the natural history of hominy/posole, and how posole differs from pozole while listening to a hot pot bubble away quietly on the stove top.
“[P]ozole… evokes the same sort of heartfelt response from Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) that a bowl of grits can provoke in Southerners, the sense that with the right food you can sure taste your roots, no matter how far away you are from home…” Thorne’s prose is dreamy enough to make me forget the reality: my roots taste like cream of mushroom soup. I wanted to evoke nostalgia in my kitchen, even if it was someone else’s.
Unfortunately, nostalgia requires that you shop at several different grocery stores. Many of the recipes — certainly the most tempting ones — in Mouth Wide Open require one or two ingredients that I had no idea where even to look for: Wild fennel pollen. Palm sugar. Specific cucumber varieties. New Mexican dried chile powder. Kecap Manis. For pozole, however, the ingredient list seemed pretty straightforward, and I was able to acquire everything except for the dried hominy and pig’s foot at my grocery store. Thorne assured me I could replace the dried hominy with canned if necessary, but canned hominy smells like every evil thing you were forced to eat in your elementary school cafeteria. I had to find the dried stuff.
Walking home from a “lady’s lunch” (like regular lunch, but with a lot of alcohol), I passed by the Mexican grocery store and decided to try my luck. It was not air-conditioned, the wine was making me sleepy, and I could only find rows of canned hominy. I briefly considered lying on the cool linoleum until I could get up the strength to continue my search. But finally, there it was: dried hominy.
The next morning, as the hominy — and my hangover — boiled away for hours on end, I picked up a pig’s foot for a buck and was ready to start cooking. Finally, the ease of Thorne’s writing style matched the ease of the cooking. The pozole was almost effortless, and my kitchen began to smell like… well, corn, to be perfectly honest, but there are worse smells. And the taste was silky and light, perfectly worth future heartfelt remembrances. • 14 July 2008
Pozole Rojo, adapted from Mouth Wide Open by John Thorne
Serves 4 to 6
*Note that dried posole requires an overnight soaking
1 cup dried posole
1 quart water
Rinse posole under cold running water and soak in water overnight. Discard soaking liquid and put in pot with one quart of water. Bring it to a simmer and skim off any scum from the surface. Lower heat, cover, and gently simmer until soft (approximately 3 hours). Reserve liquid.
1 tablespoon corn oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 ear of corn, corn removed from cob
1.5 pounds pork shoulder or butt, trimmed of excess fat
1 large ripe tomato, chopped
2 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 jalapenos, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped
½ teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon red chile powder
salt and pepper
1 pig’s foot (optional)
For toppings: scallions, avocado, red pepper flakes, limes, cilantro, and tortilla chips.
Heat oil in a large pot and add onions and garlic. Saute until translucent. Measure the liquid from the hominy and, if necessary, add enough water to make one quart. Add this liquid and all other ingredients except the toppings. Feel free to throw in the corncob, too. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover, and cook for 2 hours.
Remove the meat and shred it with two forks. Return to the pot and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve.