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Flash in the Pan

Christmas in New Mexico

Posole, a hominy and chile stew that’s ubiquitous in New Mexico, has deep roots south of the border, where it’s a celebratory dish often served at Christmas.  

When most people think Christmas, they think December 25. But in New Mexico, Christmas has a different meaning, one that’s holier than shopping, vacation and sometimes even Jesus.

New Mexico’s version of Christmas is rooted in a question: “Red or green?” The query concerns the color of chile sauce you want on your food—be it eggs and toast, burgers and fries, or burritos and enchiladas. It’s a question that can trap even seasoned menu black belts like myself in an existential bind.

Sometimes the solution to this dilemma is to say “Christmas,” which means you want both red and green.

Red sauce is usually made with garlic, oregano and red chile, while green sauce is roux-based, with green chile. Red and green chiles come from the same plant; the color difference is based on when the chile is harvested, and how it’s processed.

Posole can be made with either red or green chile, though red is more common. I prefer cooking my posole with red chile and then adding chopped green—not the sauce, just the chile—to the bowl at serving time, for a variation on Christmas.

Hominy, the heart of posole, is a large-kernelled corn that’s been dried and then soaked in lye-water. This process, which first appeared in present-day Guatemala more than 3,000 years ago, spread to much of the Native American world—as far as the Cherokee Nation in the southeastern United States. The treatment removes the germ and hard outer hull from the kernels, adds calcium, makes the corn more palatable and easier to digest, converts niacin into a form more easily absorbed by the body, and improves the availability of some amino acids.

These days, hominy is widely available canned or dried. Dried is preferable—it makes a better posole and it’s cheaper, especially if you order it online (try Hominy was traditionally made with white corn, but today it’s available in yellow and blue as well. If you can get more than one color hominy, by all means mix them up in your posole.

Most feast dishes tend to be elaborate, labor-intensive and expensive affairs. Posole is none of these. Nonetheless, I’m going to complicate things a bit by giving you some options for different variations. Whatever path you choose, in the end the process simmers down to little more than putting the ingredients in a pot and cooking them slowly.

To make four generous servings, use 2 cups of dried hominy, or 4 cups of canned. Dried hominy should be rinsed; canned should be drained.

I make posole with dried hominy, in a crock-pot on high for 8 hours. You can also soak dried kernels for 24 hours with a lime squeezed in, drain and rinse, then proceed on the stovetop. The stovetop protocol works for canned hominy, too. Two cups of dried hominy should be cooked in 5 quarts of water; 4 cups of canned need only 4 quarts of water.

The red chile can be added in powdered or whole form, in quantities according to your tolerance for heat. I use a combination of 3 tablespoons powdered red and 5 whole reds. Break open the dried whole chiles and remove the seeds and stems. Hand-crush them into large fragments and add them to the pot. Add 2 tablespoons oregano, preferably Mexican rather than the Mediterranean varieties, and a whole mess of chopped garlic.

Posole is usually made with pork shoulder, but I prefer red meat like beef, lamb, goat or elk. Whichever you prefer, pan-brown a pound or two of trimmed meat cut into inch-cubes. Once browned, add a chopped onion. Make sure to savor the smell of raw onion cooking into the browned meat. Kill the heat when the onion starts to sweat.

Add the meat and onions to the pot, and season with salt or garlic salt—depending on how much fresh garlic you added, and how much you like garlic.

Since this is going to cook for hours, it’s good to start small with the oregano and the salt. Taste and re-season as you go. Some people like to add sage, cumin or even cinnamon. I’d recommend using just oregano in your first batch, and expanding your horizons from there. Cook on low/medium heat until the hominy is soft—about 8 hours with dried hominy, and 2 hours with canned or soaked.

Roast five or six fresh Anaheim chiles, or similar variety, under the broiler until the skins blister. Remove the skins, stems and seeds under running cold water and chop the chiles.

Add a tablespoon of chopped green chile to your red chile posole, serve with garnish plate of limes and fresh aromatic veggies like sliced radish, cabbage and cilantro, and let me be the first to wish you feliz Navidad from New Mexico, where every day can be Christmas. And while purists might shudder, I should mention that I also like a dab of mayo in my posole. White Christmas, anyone?

Ask Ari: Birds and horse wire

Q: Ari,
A neighbor is all excited about growing potatoes in automobile tires, and like you (see “Flash,” May 7, 2009) I found it not very interesting and possibly harmful. My question is: What is horse wire? I’ve gone to two different hardware stores asking about your alternative, but the staff had never heard of it. I think the staff in both of these stores, like myself, grew up in Montana. I’d appreciate any information.

—Horse Sense

A: Dear HS,
What I actually wrote was “horse fence,” not “horse wire.”  This fencing is typically 48 inches high, with a rectangular 2-by-4-inch grid. Horse fence is flexible but rigid, not soft and floppy like chicken wire. I’ve heard they call it “sheep fence” east of the divide.

But regardless of what you call it, and what kind you use, the point is to take some flexible wire fencing and bend it into a tube, plant your potatoes in the tube, and mulch heavily with straw or dirt as they grow. It’s not too late to plant potatoes, in the ground or in a column, but soon it will be, folks, so get on it if that’s what you’re into.

Q: Hey Ari,
I read your Q&A on clipping chicken wings (see “Flash,” May 14, 2009) and have a funny piece of advice. I’ve heard that if you clip one wing pretty short and leave the other one alone at full length, then the chicken cannot fly because they are so asymmetrical. Essentially you doom them to fly in a tight circle. On the other hand, if you clip both, some determined chickens will just flap harder and can get out.

—Bird of a Feather

A: Very clever, BOAF. Thanks. Kind of a funny image, too. I’m going to have to try that.

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