A good soup is a revelation. Because, let's be frank, soups are too often disappointing. Too salty, too muted, too blah, too boring. Soup as an afterthought.
But a soup that is right-down-the-middle, solidly good makes you sit up straight and take notice. In their eating, such soups and similarly stewy things soothe and charm in a way unique to them, warming both the body and spirit. Unfussy, steaming bowls of something good are the picture of abundant comfort.
My preference is for soups as the meal, and not merely as means of entry into one. Case in point, my pozole rojo. From stove to the table in less than an hour, it is resoundingly satisfying on a February evening: sustaining without any suffocating heaviness, and breathily spicy.
For the uninitiated, pozole (alternatively posole) is a soupish stew with roots in Central America and Mexico, and popular through the bordering U.S. states, such as Arizona. The term pozole also refers to hominy, dried corn kernels soaked in an alkali solution. Hominy is coarsely ground for grits, or finely ground to make masa, but in pozole they are left whole, puffing and blooming, giving body and bulk to the stew.
There are blanco, verde and rojo (white, green and red) pozole styles, with a clear broth, a tomatillo-based one or one fiery with chilies, respectively. For this pozole rojo, the pantry cupboard takes on most of the responsibility, supplying tinned hominy, dried chilis and dried spices. From the produce drawer, the garnishes can be as involved or as straightforward as you want.
It is a forgiving, adaptable recipe, which are appreciated traits as we impatiently wait for the spring thaw, with perhaps the hope to avoid a trip to the market. In many traditional pozoles rojo, the meat is poached in a cooking liquid (water or stock) with the red chili sauce prepared separately. The latter is then introduced to the former, along with the essential hominy, toward the end of production.
I make some moves to amplify the impact of efforts wherever possible. I roast chicken on its own, to maximize the potential for well-browned sticky bits that cling to the pan. (That said, you could poach boneless, skinless chicken thighs in the broth instead, and save some clean up.) Charring the onion and garlic contributes another layer of smokiness, as well as intensifying their sweetness. And frying the chili sauce before adding the stock further concentrates the flavour and deepens its impact.
For the soup
Olive oil, as needed
2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
Medium-grained kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces dried chillies (pasilla and guajillo; include 1 or 2 chili de arbol for more heat)
1 onion, peeled and quartered
8 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
1 quart good quality chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade (see headnote)
2 (15-ounce) cans white hominy, drained and rinsed
Options to serve
Crema or sour cream
Limes, sliced or in wedges
Fried tortilla strips or chips
Sliced or pickled onion
Queso fresco or feta
Preheat an oven to 400 F (205 C). Lightly coat a cast iron skillet with oil. Place the chicken thighs on the pan, skin side up. Season with kosher salt and black pepper. Flip the thighs over and season again. Roast chicken in the hot oven until the skin is quite golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn the pieces skin side up and roast 10 minutes more.
When cool enough to handle, pull the chicken skin and bones from the meat and discard. Shred the meat into a bowl. Pour off most of the fat from the pan, keeping back juices. Add 1/4 cup of water to the juices. Place the pan over medium heat, and a wooden spoon to scrape up any bronzed goodness that might have stuck to the pan. Let reduce for 1 minute, then pour liquids over the pulled chicken. Set aside.
While the chicken roasts, make the chili sauce. Set a dry Dutch oven or similar pot over medium heat. Toast the whole chilies, pressing and turning them with tongs until fragrant and darkened in colour, 2 to 5 minutes, depending on size. Once roasted, click off the stems of the chilies and shake out the seeds. Bring 1 cup of water to the boil over high heat in a small saucepan. Pop in the chiles, turn down the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook the chilies until soft, about 4 minutes.
In the Dutch oven, dry roast the onions and garlic cloves over medium-low heat until golden on all sides and charred in places, around 10 minutes for the onion and 5 or so minutes for the garlic. Place the charred vegetables and the chilies and their simmering liquid into the carafe of an upright blender. Purée until smooth, adding more hot water if needed, with the feed lid ajar to release any steam.
Pour 1 tablespoon oil into the Dutch oven set over medium heat. Strain the chili sauce into the hot oil and fry, stirring constantly, until thickened, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the oregano, paprika and ground cumin, and cook for 1 minute more. Tuck in the bay leaf, then pour in 3-1/2 cups of stock, followed by the hominy, the reserved chicken, and its juices. Bring to the barest simmer, partly cover, and let bubble for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring periodically. Add more stock as needed to achieve your desired consistency, or remove the lid and let more liquid evaporate if thicker is your aim. Check for seasoning, and adjust as necessary. Fish out the bay leaf.
Pozole is best if given the chance to rest at least overnight in the fridge. If time allows, cool, cover and refrigerate then reheat the next day. Either way, serve steaming hot, with garnishes at the table.