Pozole played a large part in Danny Mena’s childhood in Mexico City. “You go to the nearest restaurant, bring your pots and containers and you reheat it at home,” he remembers. “My dad would always get it without vegetables. We would sit and wait for it, and we’d eat two quesadillas with tortillas made of thick masa while we were waiting.” Based on hominy, the stew is a staple throughout the country, with as many variations as there are regions in Mexico.
Now the chef and owner of La Lonchería in Brooklyn, New York, Mena recently launched the first edition of Bowl of ’Zole, a celebration of the dish. Gathering ten Mexican chefs working in New York City, he asked each to bring their best version; meanwhile, Arik Torren, a partner in the event and the founder of Fidencio Mezcal, invited 33 mezcal producers to pour their wares.
The point, Mena is quick to clarify, wasn’t so much to find perfect pairings between the mezcals and pozoles. Instead it was to celebrate foods and drinks that have been produced in Mexico for hundreds of years but have only recently made their way across the border. Like mezcal, pozole dates to precolonial times—the Nahuatl people called it pozolli, or foam, after the foam produced by boiling hominy, the large, dry corn kernels that define the dish. Pork, a frequent addition, became common after the Spanish colonized Mexico.
From there, the variations are endless. In Guerrero, the locals make pozole verde, turned green by the addition of pumpkin seeds; a red chile–spiced version is more common around Mexico City and Jalisco. At Bowl of ’Zole, the variations extended to Sinaloan-style, with a pigs’- head broth, from Luis Arce Mota at La Contenta, and Colima-style, with Blue Point oysters, from Hugo Orozco at Las Santas. There was even a matzo-ball version from Chai Trivedi at Kitsch in the Hotel Indigo, and a pozole-inspired riff on ramen from Julian Medina of La Chula.
Mezcal, of course, boasts a similarly large range of expressions: The flavors change depending on the type of agave used and the place it was grown, the roasting method, the distillation and the distiller. It was fascinating to find, tasting through a fraction of the 100-plus mezcals on hand at Bowl of ’Zole, that the best combinations showed a sort of synchronicity between the earthy, nutty flavors of the hominy and the roasted, umami character of the mezcals. And the elevated alcohol of a mezcal wasn’t such an issue next to the richness of the stews; it was even refreshing, cleansing the palate between spoonfuls.
“Granted, the sides offered with pozole are regularly cabbage, oregano and chile piquín, not a shot of mezcal,” Mena says, but he suggests that may soon change. “Honestly, we didn’t even see the boom of mezcal in Mexico City until ten years ago.” But a shot of mezcal may just be one of the best companions for your pozole broth.
Mena’s pozole verde— inspired by a dish he ate at Mexico City’s Los Talucos—was one of the standouts at the event, richly flavorful yet surprisingly refreshing and light, as he’d made it with a vegan stock, then added a paste of pumpkin seeds, tomatillos and chiles. Deeply umami, it’s especially good with Del Maguey’s earthy, salty Wild Tepextate mezcal from Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, or Nuestra Soledad’s light and vegetal espadín mezcal from Ejutla, south of Oaxaca City.
Recipe adapted from Made in Mexico: The Cookbook
by Danny Mena with Nils Bernstein (Rizzoli New York, 2019)
- 1 recipe Vegan Pozole Blanco (see below)
- ½ white onion, roughly chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
- 1 cup hulled green pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
- ½ tsp cumin seeds
- 4 whole allspice berries
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 pound tomatillos
- 5 serrano chilies
- 2 cups stock, from pozole blanco
- ½ cup radish leaves
- Kosher salt, if needed
- 2 tbsp fresh oregano, minced
- 8 radishes, sliced thin
- ½ cup crushed piquín chile (or substitute red chile flakes)
- 2 avocados, peeled, pitted, and cut into cubes
- 1 cup chicharrón (fried pork rind), crushed into small pieces (optional)
- 2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce or green cabbage (optional)
- 8 limes, cut into quarters
Vegan Pozole Blanco
- 1 onion
- 20 garlic cloves
- ¼ pound dried shiitakes or other mushrooms
- 1 carrot
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 sprig marjoram
- 1 sprig oregano
- 2 cups dried hominy (tips removed and soakedfor 24 hours in cold water)
- First make the vegan pozole broth and keep it warm over low heat. To make the green pozole, heat a medium pot over medium heat and coat it with vegetable oil. Add onion and garlic and cook for two minutes, just to soften the onion. Add pumpkin seeds and cook until they start to brown and some “pop,” about 5 minutes. Add the cumin, allspice and cloves and stir until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a blender with tomatillos, chiles and 2 cups of stock from the pozole blanco, and purée until smooth.
- In the same pot, over medium-high heat, fry the purée for about 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened a bit. Return one cup of the sauce to the blender with the radish leaves, purée until smooth again, and return the mixture to the pot. Add the contents of pot to the pozole blanco, and add salt to taste, if necessary.
- To serve, ladle into serving bowls, then pass the oregano, radishes, crushed chile, avocado, chicharrón, lettuce and limes, separately, for each guest to add to taste.
For the Vegan Pozole Blanco
- In a large pot over high heat, bring 12 cups of water to a boil. Add the onion, garlic, mushrooms, carrot, celery and herbs and simmer for 1.5 hours. Strain the stock and return it to the heat. Drain the hominy and add it to the stock, and cook for 2 to 3 hours, until tender. The hominy should be soft, and some kernels should have burst from their skins.
This story appears in the print issue of August 2020.
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