The smell wafting through Bernadette Gutierrez’s Land Park home signifies a change in seasons. It’s the comforting aroma of hominy slowly simmering in a pot with savory pork and a deep red broth that’s ready to be sopped up with a tortilla.
The arrival of fall means it’s time for posole. This Mexican soup ranks as a go-to meal as the weather cools and an ideal dish for holiday entertaining. Posole is meant to be cooked in large amounts, the foundation for many a Mexican family meal on New Year’s Day, or for grubbing down with the bros while watching football on a chilly Sunday.
“When you want to invite a lot of people over and get together, it’s just a great food,” said Gutierrez, as wisps of steam escaped from the pot. “You get all these great kinds of flavors. It’s a celebration food.”
Gutierrez is known locally as a kind of Mexican American version of Martha Stewart, given her expertise in Mexican cooking and home entertaining. She’s studied culinary methods in Mexico and also teaches cooking classes around town. When Darrell Corti is hankering for a home-cooked Mexican meal, he’s known to turn to Gutierrez.
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That’s to say, Gutierrez makes a mean pot of posole. The hominy-based soup, sometimes spelled “pozole,” developed in Mexico during Mesoamerican times. Corn was not only a food staple of the Aztecs and other pre-Columbian peoples, it was a sacred symbol of fertility. Pots of posole, which were often consumed for celebrations, are pictured in Aztec codices from the 16th century.
Five centuries later, posole remains a prized Mexican food. The hominy gives this soup plenty of heft. Combined with a chili-infused broth, and chunks of pork or chicken, a bowl of posole is the perfect cure for hunger pangs – and hangovers, in some circles. Even without meat, vegetarian versions of this soup still satisfy.
When making a pot at home, the question becomes: “How much time do I have?”
For posole purists, making a batch requires many steps and an array of ingredients. Gutierrez generally dedicates two days to making posole.
One day is spent constructing a pork-based broth and preparing her hominy. She uses French techniques of browning meat and bones to build a soup stock, which is cooled overnight so the fat can easily be skimmed.
Hominy can be especially high maintenance if prepared from scratch, and the process can take hours. It requires cleaning the dried corn kernels, soaking them in lime (calcium oxide, not the fruit) to remove the outside hull, and then simmering them to the point of tenderness.
The spicy red sauce that Gutierrez adds to the broth on day two requires three different chilies as well a number of toasted herbs and spices.
“Spices and herbs are the most essential part of making a good soup, and using the meat and fond (bits from the bottom of the pan) to build the broth,” Gutierrez said. “If I have the time and luxury, I like to do everything from scratch.”
The easiest way to trim posole-cooking time is to opt for canned hominy, which is easily found in Mexican and American markets. Or home cooks can opt for an excellent prepared hominy from Rancho Gordo, a Napa-based retailer of heirloom beans and specialty Mexican foods. Rancho Gordo’s dried hominy has already been prepared with lime.
After soaking for a few hours, the hominy is ready to be simmered in water with onion for about 90 minutes. The hominy blooms during that time into chunky kernels that make for a hearty and texturally pleasing bowl of posole.
“Canned hominy has the romance of chicken cartilage in the mouth, and practically no flavor,” said Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo. “If you’re using real (hominy), it smells like this giant, wet tortilla. You can’t help but stick your head in the pot and take it in.”
For cooking up the optimal batch of Rancho Gordo’s hominy, Sando offers these tips.
“They need a six- to eight-hour soak, or else they will split too fast and fall apart,” Sando said. “Then, I bring them to a hard, rapid boil to show them who’s boss, then turn down to the gentlest of simmers to however long it takes. It should come to a point when it’s al dente, but shouldn’t be chalky.”
Sando opts for an overall simpler approach to assembling the final soup. His recipe for posole verde, a tomatillo-based version with a green broth, calls for premade vegetable or chicken stock. The recipe doesn’t include chicken or pork, though either meat certainly would work with this mix.
The key, whether taking two days or a few hours to cook, is to source quality goods. Rancho Gordo’s product line includes authentic Mexican oregano and fresh de árbol chilies grown in Northern California for packing extra heat into that posole. They’re available online at www.ranchogordo.com, at the company’s home base near downtown Napa or in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
“If you have really good ingredients, sometimes it’s good to keep things even simpler,” Sando said.
Posole can work as a farm-to-fork-themed dish, given its use of herbs, vegetables and other produce that’s grown locally. Gutierrez, whose roots are in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, bases her posole on a recipe that used ingredients grown near the family ranch. Closer to Land Park, many of them can be found at nearby farmers markets or in a backyard planter. Some of the chilies used in her red sauce are picked fresh from a local garden, and then dehydrated at home.
“The ranch in Jalisco had access to a garden and good meats,” Gutierrez said. “They really used good herbs and spices. That’s why I love Sacramento. There’s all these gardens and ranches everywhere.”
But as with all carefully crafted soups, careful attention must be given to tasting throughout the process. Gutierrez aims for depth in her posole broth, aided by the roasted bones and fond. The red sauce adds brightness and a little bit of tang, not to mention the traditional piquant kick. But she’s careful not to go overboard. Eating posole shouldn’t feel like a challenge.
“My dad used to say you don’t want a lot of heat on your lips,” Gutierrez said. “You want the chilies mostly for flavor.”
With the posole fully cooked, it’s just about time to share. Gutierrez awaits the arrival of friends and neighbors, who will gather in the backyard for an early fall dinner party. The table sports a Dia de los Muertos decor, with sugar skulls signifying the Mexican tradition of celebrating the spirits from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. Gutierrez’s fresh-cooked flan and pan de muerto, the seasonally themed sweet bread, will be served for dessert.
But the posole will take center stage, with an array of garnishes. Thinly cut cabbage and sliced radish add crunchy counterpoints to the savory soup, and a bit of a cooling effect. A little bit of lime juice (for a ping of citrus) and a dash or two of oregano take an already superb Mexican soup to another level of tastiness.
“I have to put everything on there,” said Gutierrez, about her perfect bowl of posole. “I love it.”
This version of posole by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo doesn’t contain meat, but is still packed with satiating fresh flavors. The key is to cook a batch of dried hominy instead of the gummy kind that comes in a can. Look for the excellent dried hominy from Rancho Gordo of Napa (www.ranchogordo.com), along with the spices and chilies used in this recipe.
1/4 pound Rancho Gordo posole (whole dried hominy)
1 1/2 onions, white or red, peeled and halved
4 garlic cloves, peeled
15 to 20 tomatillos, paper skins removed
2 poblano chilies
1 serrano chili
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
1 1/2 quarts vegetable or chicken broth
Freshly ground black pepper
Soak posole overnight covered generously with water. Drain.
Place it in a saucepan covered generously with fresh water.
Add 1/2 onion, bring to a simmer, cover partially and cook at a gentle simmer until the corn kernels are tender, 2 to 3 hours; many will split open. Season with salt and cool in the liquid.
On a hot, dry griddle or skillet, roast the remaining halved onions, garlic, tomatillos and chilies, turning occasionally, until they are charred and slightly softened, 15 to 20 minutes. Work in batches if necessary.
Put the roasted poblano chilies in a paper bag to steam until cool.
Transfer the other vegetables to a bowl and let cool, collecting their juices.
Skin the poblanos, discarding seeds and stems. Discard the serrano chili stem but don’t skin or seed.
Put all the roasted vegetables in a blender, in batches if necessary, and puree until smooth.
Heat the oil in a large stockpot over moderate heat.
Add the vegetable puree and adjust heat to maintain a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes to blend the flavors.
In the blender, puree the cilantro, oregano and 1 cup of the broth. Add to the vegetable mixture along with 4 cups additional broth.
Drain the posole and add it to the pot. Season with salt and pepper and return to a simmer. Thin with additional broth if necessary. Serve in warm bowls.
This recipe by Bernadette Gutierrez is geared for those who have the time and inclination to take their posole to the next level. Gutierrez prefers to make the pork broth the day before serving posole, then store in the refrigerator overnight, and skim the fat the following day. She adds the rojo sauce (see accompanying recipe) and hominy to the broth, then simmers until the hominy is tender and soaked up some of the broth. The pork shoulder is added shortly before serving to avoid overcooking the meat.
2 pounds pork spare ribs
2 pounds pork shanks
10 pounds pork shoulder
10 plus 2 1/2 cups water
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons allspice
2 teaspoons peppercorns
5 dried bay leaves
1 head garlic
2 white onions
1 bunch fresh oregano
2 bunches fresh cilantro
Two 29-ounce cans hominy, drained and rinsed, or 1 pound dried hominy treated with lime
Roast pork spare ribs and shanks in oven at 400 degrees, browning on each side, approximately 30 minutes each side. When browned, remove ribs and shanks from oven and add to large stockpot with 10 cups water.
Remove fat from roasting pan. Add 2 1/2 cups boiling water to roasting pan and remove the fond (caramelized bits) with a spatula. Add fond to the large pot of water.
In a separate pot, brown pork shoulder on the stove. When browned on all sides, remove the meat and set aside. Drain fat from pot. Add small amount of boiling water to pot and release fond with spatula. Add fond to pot of water containing the ribs and shanks.
Add remaining ingredients, except hominy, including pork shoulder, to the pot of broth. Bring broth to a hard boil, then immediately drop heat to a simmer. Cook for 2 1/2 hours, or until pork shoulder is tender.
Remove bones and pork shoulder from broth, and set aside. Store pork shoulder overnight in container.
Strain broth into a large container and let cool, allowing fat to rise to the top. Once cooled, store broth overnight in the refrigerator. On the following day, skim top layer of fat.
To assemble the posole, add 4 cups of rojo sauce to broth. Taste for spiciness; adjust with additional sauce as needed.
Add hominy to broth and simmer until hominy is tender, approximately 30 minutes if using canned hominy, or approximately 2 hours if using fresh hominy. Salt to taste.
While broth simmers, pull the pork shoulder into chunks with your hands. Add pork shoulder to broth shortly before serving.
Ladle posole in bowls and serve immediately. Garnish with shredded cabbage, sliced radish, fresh lime and oregano.
Use this red “rojo” sauce to bring out the full spiciness, depth and color of your posole. Toasting the herbs, spices and chilies helps release maximum flavor. This sauce can also be used for enchiladas, tamales and other Mexican foods.
12 dried New Mexico chilies
16 dried guajillo chilies
8 dried pasilla chilies
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted
2 teaspoons dried oregano, toasted
6 cloves garlic, lightly toasted
1 white onion, sliced and toasted
Salt to taste
7 cups water or pork broth
Roast all chilies until they begin to puff. Be careful that the skins don’t turn black.
Cut stems off roasted chilies and remove seeds.
In a blender combine all chilies, spices, herbs, garlic and onion with water or pork broth. Blend until smooth.
Makes 7 cups