Vegan Pozole

I appreciate that some people peruse this column just to see what crazy thing I sneak onto Carnivore Bob’s plate, and have no intent to actually cook it. But this soup is for everyone. The technique is brilliant, and the dish is healthy, filling and spicy enough to warm you all over without frying your sinuses.

My friend introduced me to pozole, which her Mexican-American family cooks on weekends and special occasions. First they make broth from chunks of bone-in pork or chicken and hominy, then toss two kinds of chiles, an onion and garlic in the blender until a paste forms. Next – this part makes me giddy – they put a fine-mesh strainer in the pot of boiling broth and spoon the paste into the strainer, infusing the percolating liquid with heat and herbs. When the strainer is removed, no unseemly chile seeds, onion skins or garlic chunks are left behind. It’s an everyman’s bouquet garni (herbs bundled in a cheesecloth square). While I can’t possibly be expected to have squares of cheesecloth on hand, I am certain to have a clean strainer nearby, or, in a pinch, a loose-leaf tea ball.

For expert help making my own vegetarian pozole, I turned to Adela Esparza, owner of Lily’s Mexican Restaurant and the nicest lady in town. She blanched at the thought of pozole without rich, sweet pork broth, but recovered enough to describe traditional garnishes that are served on the side: sliced cabbage or lettuce, lime wedges, cilantro and, occasionally, diced onion. Instead of a bread roll, Esparza suggested carbing up with a crisp fried tortilla, or tostada.

Now educated in the traditions of pozole-makers, I created a vegetarian version, substituting red beans for meat, adding tomatoes to mimic the burnt-umber color of a pork broth, and using robust but mild guajillo and ancho chiles. I also added a good amount of Mexican oregano, which is brighter and more citrusy than its Italian cousin. The result: a roundly spiced vegetable soup that was an absolute kick to make. Like many soups and stews (all of which can be flavored using your new favorite strainer trick), the pozole will taste even better the second day.

Vegan Pozole

6 to 8 servings

1 dried guajillo chile, stemmed
1 dried ancho chile, stemmed
1 small white onion, quartered
1 garlic clove
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
6 cups vegetable broth
1 29-oz. can hominy, drained and rinsed
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
4 bay leaves
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 15.5-oz. can pinto beans, rinsed

For garnish:
2 limes, quartered
¼ head small green cabbage, thinly sliced
2 radishes, julienned
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 small red onion, diced
6 to 8 tostadas

• Boil enough water to cover the chiles. Place the guajillo and ancho chiles in a small bowl, then pour the boiling water over them. Let soak 20 minutes and drain.
• In the bowl of a food processor, add the chiles, onion, garlic, tomato paste and oregano. Pulse a few times, scraping down the sides as needed, until the mixture forms a paste. Set aside.
• In a large pot, add the vegetable broth, hominy, tomatoes, bay leaves and salt. Bring to a low boil over medium-high heat and cook 10 minutes.
• Reduce the heat to medium, then add the chile mixture to a fine mesh strainer. Place the strainer in the broth, making sure the base is submerged in the liquid. Simmer 10 to 20 minutes, tasting regularly until the desired spice level is achieved.
• Remove the strainer and discard the paste. Stir in the pinto beans and simmer 10 more minutes, until the beans are heated through and the hominy has softened.
• Serve with the lime wedges, cabbage, radishes, cilantro, red onion and tostadas on the side.