Culture: A fiesta on a plate by Nicola Miller

culture Nicola Miller's latest Mexican dish of two squash posole
culture Nicola Miller's latest Mexican dish of two squash posole

Food writer Nicola Miller warms us up for autumn with a Mexican staple

T’is the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and acute cases of tendonitis from hacking away at recalcitrant squashes. Despite my sore and aching forearms caused by several days of recipe-testing, I am a big fan of squashes of all kinds because of an obsession with the Peanuts cartoon ‘It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown’ and because all squashes look barking mad due to their luridly-coloured, reptilian skin. They have a contradictory nature too. A stubborn refusal to yield easily to the cleaver and knife ends in a graceful collapse once heat is applied and a cooked squash becomes as relaxed as a cat in front of a log fire. They have character and I like that in a vegetable.

Paired with corn and chilies in this earthy and practical Mexican posole (stew) with its roots in ancient times, what we end up with is a bowl of food that might not be the most glamorous, but it will put feathers on your chest on chillier days, as my grandfather used to say.

In Mexico, the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilisations saw corn as a blessing from the gods and its production and preparation were fundamental to the spiritual and practical functioning of their societies. Posole is a stew made with dried hominy (corn) and its Spanish name is rooted in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. Originally called ‘pozolli’, this is a word which describes the bubbled, puffy appearance of the cooked corn which seems to ‘blossom’ in the heat of the pot as it cooks, although the word posole also refers to the dried kernels (mais).

To make hominy, the corn is subjected to a process called nixtamalization where the kernels are soaked in lime and water. This process of alkalization causes them to soften and swell before their germ and hull are removed, giving the kernels an interesting texture and flavour. I realise that this might sound a bit unfamiliar to some of you, but what you get are fat chunks of corn as intense in taste as the best and most proper tortilla chips (which, after all, are made from masa, which is ground hominy).

In Mexico, posole is often made with pork bones or chicken but I’ve kept it vegetarian here, although you can use chicken or pork stock if you prefer. The way they serve it is a riot; ‘a fiesta on a plate’ to paraphrase Rick Bayless, an expert on Mexican cuisine. Accompanying your bowl of posole will be shredded cabbage and radishes sliced so finely you can see the sun through them; jade-green avocado and tangled shreds of white onion; the brightest of limes and salsas piquant with tomatillos and chilies. I have eaten it on Christmas Eve there too. That’s how special and feted it is.

Stockists

Hominy can be bought dried or canned and pre-soaked which is the kind used in this recipe. Online, I order hominy from Mexgrocer.co.uk, SousChef.co.uk and Coolchile.co.uk. Hominy and other Mexican ingredients can be found locally at Casa Mexico in Stonham Aspal, near Stowmarket. Their dried chilies are excellent and this is where the chilies in this posole are from, although Waitrose stocks the ancho variety in its special ingredients range. Faraway Foods in St John’s St, Bury St Edmunds, sometimes carries hominy and a small range of other Latin American foods, including fresh fruit and vegetables. The kuri squashes are sold in Aldi, on markets and in other local supermarkets.

Two squash posole Makes 6 good portions

3 ancho chilies, dried

3 pasilla chilies, dried

1 medium orange kuri squash

1 small butternut squash.

½ small white onion,

finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely diced

a teaspoon of ground cumin

1.5 teaspoons sea salt (I use Maldons smoked sea salt for extra flavour)

Rapeseed or sunflower oil

600g tomato passata

2 teaspoons dried oregano

550ml vegetable or chicken stock

700g canned hominy

small bunch of coriander leaves to garnish

One flour or corn tortilla per person

Stem and deseed the chilies and place them in a deep bowl or jug, pour over boiling water and leave, submerged, for one hour until they are soft.

Preheat oven to 200°C. Cut the kuri and butternut squashes in half, remove skin, seeds, and strings and chop their flesh into cubes of about 2.5 cm.

To make the mole base:

Remove the chilies from the soaking liquid (keep this), then put them into the bowl of a food processor along with a couple of tablespoons of the soaking water, the chopped onion, garlic, cumin, salt and 2 tablespoons of the oil, then process until you have a thick, smooth paste. If it’s too dry, add a little more of the soaking water. Decant into a bowl.

Oil a large, heavy-based pot and put it over a low heat. When warmed, add the mole to the pot and stir, cooking it slowly through for 10-15 minutes. Keep stirring; don’t let it catch. Take the pot off the heat and scrape the mole into a bowl. Add more oil to the cooking pot if needed, heat it up, then spoon in two tablespoons of the mole.

Place the squash into the pot and toss well, ensuring it is coated in the mole. Fry gently for eight minutes or until it is browned around the edges and starting to soften. Now add the rest of the mole and the passata, the oregano and the stock. Open the can of hominy and pour the contents into a colander over the sink and rinse under the tap, then add this to the pot too,

stirring well.

Bring the pot to the boil then reduce the heat to a simmer until the hominy and squash are cooked to softness. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt if required. The simmering should take around 30 to 40 minutes but keep an eye on it, stir if necessary and check for doneness.

Finely chop the coriander. Pour the posole into bowls and garnish with the coriander. Posole is lovely served with corn or flour tortillas, dry fried in a pan until they are puffily blistered with char then cut into strips. If you want to dollop some sour cream, sliced radish and avocado on top, I wouldn’t discourage you from doing so.