Going The Distance...

From time to time, I find myself stricken by the urge to undertake a serious project in the kitchen, something completely impractical that will provide a true challenge to my cooking skills, and force me to learn new techniques that will expand my culinary skill set. I haven't really tackled any recipes of that magnitude since moving, but today I found myself with a day off for Presidents' Day, and virtually the only person I knew who didn't have to be at work. Since I couldn't make plans with anyone, I decided to stay in and tackle a cooking project that I'd been contemplating for quite a while now -- posole. 

Posole is an ancient Mexican stew with roots in Aztec cuisine, that most commonly combines pork and hominy in a rich, chili-infused broth that is subsequently topped with a vast array of garnishes, including, but not limited to: avocado, sour cream, queso fresco, chopped onion, radish, lettuce, fried tortilla strips, and lime wedges. I had a particularly delicious bowl years ago in Pilsen, the heart of Chicago's Mexican community, but I very seldom get over there, and I've been wondering ever since if I could possibly recreate it at home. I found a recipe, saved it to my "to-do" list, and bided my time.

Prior to the Super Bowl, I spotted some country-style pork ribs on sale for $1.99/pound, and thought back to the posole recipe I had bookmarked. I promptly bought them up and stashed them in my freezer. Finally, with the arrival of Presidents' Day and a whole day off to dedicate to the project, it was time to track down the rest of the necessary ingredients and try my hand at authentic Mexican cuisine. I found the hominy at the local Dominick's, but it took a trip to the pan-ethnic grocery store by my parents' house to find the guajillo and ancho chiles. Soon, I was ready to go.

The process for making the posole was unlike anything I had ever attempted before, which made me glad I attempted the recipe unto itself. First, I had to simmer the pork ribs with onion, garlic, and other spices for at least two hours, or until the meat was tender, thereby creating a rich, pork-y broth. The meat then gets removed from the pot and shredded, and the onions and garlic are pureed and returned to the pot. Meanwhile, I had to seed the dried chiles, use my brand-new cast iron skillet to toast them, then soak them in boiling water to soften them, puree the softened chiles, and then fry the chili puree in oil, before combining mixture with the rest of the soup.

The frying step of this particular exercise proved to be the most laborious; though the recipe warned "It will spatter," it should have warned that your entire kitchen will look like a crime scene. The chili puree spattered everywhere. It was all over my backsplash, all over the walls, all over the cabinets, and all over me. Thankfully, I had an apron on over my sleeveless pajamas (standard apparel for cooking in my house), but when I looked in the mirror later on, I found spots of chili puree all up and down my arms, all over my face, and even in my hair! I spent much of the afternoon cleaning the kitchen, and myself. Clearly, I need a spatter screen before I ever attempt to make posole again.

I do think I'll be trying my hand at posole again someday. Even though it took me between five and six hours to make it, I think it was worth the effort. The soup itself needed a little extra acid to balance the richness of the broth, but a splash of hot sauce and a squeeze of lime solved that issue. Otherwise, the complex broth was populated with chewy bits of hominy and meltingly tender chunks of pork, and was spicy without being too hot. Justin, in particular, was a big fan of the dish, partially due to his fondness for DIY topping bars. He loves to customize his food with various combinations of garnishes and sauces, always striving to attain the best possible combination of flavors. In the case of the posole, the garnishes on top were absolutely critical for adding textural and flavor variety to each bite.

It may take me a while to recover from the trauma of scouring my brand-new kitchen, but I'm happy that I took a risk and tried something completely outside my comfort zone. My current sense of accomplishment will be enough to last me a while, but I'm looking forward to tackling years of crazy kitchen projects in my new space. Stay tuned to see what I come up with!

adapted from Gourmet

4 lbs. country-style pork ribs
10 c. water
26 cloves of garlic (about one and half heads), peeled
1 white onion peeled and quartered, plus another 1/2 onion chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
5 whole black peppercorns
2 oz. dried guajillo chiles, wiped clean
1.5 oz. dried ancho chiles, wiped clean
1 whole clove
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 (15 oz) cans hominy, drained and rinsed

1.Bring pork and water to a boil in a large pot, skimming froth, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add 20 garlic cloves, quartered onion, oregano, peppercorns, and 2 teaspoons salt and gently simmer, uncovered, until pork is very tender, about 2 hours. Strain broth through a large sieve into a large heatproof bowl. Return broth to pot. Transfer cooked onion and garlic to a blender with 1 1/2 cups broth and purée until smooth (use caution when blending hot liquids). Add purée to broth. Discard bones and coarsely shred pork into broth.
2.Meanwhile, slit chiles lengthwise, then stem and seed. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot, then toast chiles in batches, opened flat, turning and pressing with tongs, until more pliable and slightly changed in color, about 30 seconds per batch. Transfer to a bowl and pour 2 1/2 cups boiling water over chiles. Soak, covered, until softened, about 30 minutes. 
3.Puree chiles with 1 1/2 cups soaking liquid, chopped onion, remaining 6 garlic cloves, clove, and 3/4 teaspoon salt in cleaned blender until a smooth paste forms, about 2 minutes. 
4.Heat oil in cast-iron skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, then add chile paste (it will spatter) and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 5 minutes. 
5.Add chile paste and hominy and simmer 5 minutes. Season with salt.

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