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Today I will make a pot of posole, the earthy Mexican hominy stew, and think about my mother. At 83 and having outlived eight of her nine siblings, she is trying to figure out what to do about the new cancer in her body, a mass on a lymph node in her belly that has made it difficult for her to eat. She is down to 97 pounds.
(See below for Kathryn posole recipe)
“I don’t mind being old,” she told me the other day, “if I just didn’t have to feel this bad.”
The stew pot is ready for two big handfuls of chopped yellow onion. My mother taught me to always pick the sweetest yellow onions I could find. A child of rural middle Tennessee during the Great Depression, she grew up in a place that seemed to me, when I was a child and we visited her crotchety old father, like something out of a history book. Dark outhouse, coal-burning fireplace, yellow-eyed dogs lolling beneath the planks of the front porch. Chickens scratching the gravel yard, pecking, and sometimes fluttering up in a frenzied explosion of feathers and clawed feet. My mother always told me she hated drinking milk because when she was a girl, the milk sometimes tasted like the green onions the cow chewed in the field.
The onions sizzle in oil, and I throw in a couple of chopped garlic cloves, a little cumin and a hefty pinch of dried oregano, along with a couple pounds of tender pork shoulder, cut into cubes. Brown them first, then lower the heat and stew them in a water bath. Better yet, thaw some of the homemade chicken stock stored in the freezer, a habit my mother taught me.
When I was living in her backyard garage apartment in south Texas, I would often open her freezer door and read the hand-printed labels on the Ziploc bags and recycled plastic containers. Pinto beans — Feb, 2009; White beans — Dec., 2008. Bags of cubed, dried bread for crumbs. Stewed tomatoes from the early summer garden. When we evacuated Galveston during Hurricane Ike, she worried most about the food that would spoil in her refrigerator and freezer during the weeks long power outage.
When I make posole, I use frozen hominy from the Mexican market—something of a compromise between the labor intensity of preparing dried hominy and the easy but flavorless canned stuff. The hominy goes in after the pork and simmers until it begins to swell and pop.
My mother’s people grew their own corn and soaked the dried kernels in a barrel of wood ash and rainwater, a lye solution that removed the clear outer coating, causing the kernels to swell. Some of the smoky flavor remained. My stew bubbles away as I peel, seed, and chop a bag of roasted chiles, shining star of the early fall Colorado farmers market —the Southwestern version of smoke.
When I relocated from Colorado to Galveston a few years back for a three-year sojourn, I stopped at a market stand on the highway leading out of La Junta, and filled three ice chests with warm bags of chiles, just roasted in a metal cage over a propane flame. When I arrived on the island, two days later, I handed out the chiles to family and friends, with instructions on how to freeze and prepare them.
My mother wrinkled her nose at the aroma I had grown to love. She is timid about spice and heat, as she is about pain medication. She politely picked around the green chiles when I served her homemade posole, hoping to wow her with my repertoire of Southwestern recipes. She prefers her hominy plain; the stuff from the can is fine for her. Her taste buds are not adventurous and she does not romanticize the difficulty of putting food on the table that is her legacy from childhood.
I drop the diced chiles into the simmering stew and season it with salt and lots of black pepper. For color, I throw in one finely chopped tomato, the last of the summer’s yield.
Yellow leaves shake on the tree limbs outside my window, and occasionally the wind carries one away. My mother didn’t call yesterday with news of her diagnosis because she didn’t want to bother me. I wonder what she will eat tonight, a thousand miles away.
I make a mental note: lime wedges and cilantro for garnish. Don’t forget.
Kathryn Eastburn’s Green Chile Posole:
1 medium-to-large sweet yellow onion, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
Canola or olive oil, a few good swirls around the pan
1-2 lbs. lean pork shoulder (tenderloin will do but will be a bit drier), cut into cubes
Dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1 bag frozen Mexican hominy (Albuquerque Tortilla Company is a good brand) or 2 large cans of hominy, drained and rinsed
5 – 6 peeled, seeded, and chopped roasted chiles (more if you like)
1 chopped tomato or 3-4 Tb. canned, diced, preferably fire-roasted tomato
Good chicken stock or water
Freshly ground black pepper
2 limes, cut into small wedges
Saute onion in oil until soft and transparent. Add a hefty pinch of cumin and oregano, and the garlic. Combine well. Add pork cubes and raise heat to medium. Sear and brown all sides of pork, then add hominy and water or stock to cover; bring to boil, then lower heat to simmer. Drop in chopped chiles and cook until hominy begins to swell and pop or until hominy and pork are tender. Add tomato and season to taste with salt and lots of black pepper. (You could add whole black peppercorns to the stew earlier for a stronger pepper flavor.) Serve like soup with corn tortillas. Garnish each bowl with a lime wedge and a sprinkle of cilantro.
“The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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