Sunday, May 4, 2003

Stir up pozole for Cinco de Mayo

By Courtney Taylor
Gannett News Service

Just because you've eaten a taco or two on Cinco de Mayo, celebrated Monday, doesn't mean you've experienced the whole enchilada of Mexican food. It means you've had only a taste of the country's culinary delights.

That said, Americans are becoming far more educated about authentic Mexican fare. They are learning from innovative chefs on television who incorporate authentic Mexican cooking techniques, from restaurants that prepare elegant Mexican food, and from reputable cookbooks written by native Mexican cooks.

One of the most delightful discoveries of authentic Mexican cuisine is its vast array of soups.

European influence

"For those that are Mexican, eating soup each day is an almost indispensable part of life," writes Marilyn Tausend in Cocina de la Familia (Simon and Schuster; $20). The Spanish first introduced cooking food in liquid to Mexico, but native Mexicans quickly adapted these techniques, substituting their own robust regional ingredients like corn, chilies, tomatoes and local herbs, she explains.

Yet Zarela Martinez in Zarela's Veracruz (Houghton Mifflin; $35) credits pre-Hispanic Mexico with a wealth of soupy sauce and stewlike dishes that were meals in their own right.

Whether the Spanish brought soups to Mexico or discovered them along with the gold, both authors agree that the Europeans had a profound influence on Mexican soups.

Many soups are based on European-style stocks and broths, as well as delicate European-style pureed soups called cremas, according to Martinez. These pureed, vegetable-based soups are usually first courses in restaurants and staples at weddings, especially in high, cool central Mexico.

Incorporate many influences

From the grand haciendas in the lush mountains of Cuernavaca to green coasts and tropical jungles of Veracruz, to the Mexican-American kitchens in Corpus Christi or Miami, Mexico's soups vary widely, reflecting Caribbean, European and Mayan influences. Whether it's a light start for a wedding feast or an economical way to satisfy hunger, all good Mexican soups start with freshly made broth.

Mexican meat stocks are made with meat and bones. Most fish stocks call for the cleaned fish frames and heads of fish; cleaned pork heads and feet are commonly poached for a tasty pork stock. Soups are then built from this light but flavorful base with classic Mexican ingredients and cooking techniques. Two indigenous herbs often found in Mexican soups are an anise-flavored large leaf called hoja santa (fresh tarragon can be substituted) and epazote, a uniquely flavored herb for which there is no substitute. Pozole, a thick hominy stew that can employ all of these techniques and ingredients, is eaten throughout Mexico. Pozole's color varies from white to red to green, depending upon the color of the hominy and the color of peppers used. Traditionally, pozole was made with a pork broth, but this also varies.

Essential to all versions are the many toppings, which add texture and flavor. Pozole may be topped with shredded cabbage, shredded lettuce, sliced radishes, oregano, chopped onion, avocado chunks, chopped chilies, fried tortillas or fried pork rinds. Pass lime juice and bottled hot sauce at the table.

Chicken Pozole Verde

4 pounds chicken thighs
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 cups chicken broth
1 head garlic, halved but not peeled
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup vegetable oil
8 ounces raw pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/4 cup epazote leaves (optional)
2 hoja santa leaves (if available at ethnic food market), or 1/4 cup tarragon leaves
10 serrano chilies, peppers, stemmed and seeded
1 pound tomatillos, papery skins removed, cored and chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cups well-drained canned hominy

For garnish: Sliced radishes, shredded lettuce, chopped cilantro, diced yellow onion, corn tortilla chips, diced avocado and lime wedges.

In a soup pot, combine chicken thighs, salt, broth, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and simmer gently, uncovered, until barely tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the chicken cool in the liquid.

Drain, reserving the liquid in a bowl. When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bone, shred, cover with a damp towel, set aside.

Heat oil in a skillet. Add pumpkin seeds and cumin seeds and saute until light brown and popping. Put the roasted seeds, oil, cilantro, epazote, hoja santa, peppers, tomatillos in a blender or food processor and puree. Heat the remaining 1/4 cup vegetable oil in the soup pot until hot. Add blended ingredients and saute. Turn heat down and simmer for 30 minutes. Add meat, hominy and broth and bring back to the boil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle the stew into warmed shallow bowls. Arrange the garnishes in small bowls and let guests add to the stew to taste. Makes 8 servings.

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Stir up pozole for Cinco de Mayo