Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Tonight, we ran Rack of Venison on the menu with a Hominy-Poblano Gratin and Mole Sauce. As we were plating the venison, I really started thinking about how much I love hominy and I ran to my office to grab my camera to record the plate presentation for posterity. Too bad the pictures looked like hell, all underexposed. Sigh, I still have way too much to learn about photography.

I wonder, is mine the only gringo restaurant to serve hominy?

As a kid, one of my very favorite foods was hominy and it remains so today. Until recently, I have not featured it on the menu at the restaurant because I hadn’t been able to find a good supply. That has changed as our local Latino community expands by leaps and bounds.

Growing up, I thought that hominy was a product of our local Scots-Irish Appalachian culture: it was rare, but not unheard of, to see a lye hopper outside a mountain cabin. Hominy is dried corn kernels soaked in a basic solution such as lye until the hard outer hull and germ come off the kernels. The kernels are rinsed thoroughly and cooked until soft. It was a do-it-yourself, poor man’s Appalachian foodstuff, or so I thought until I moved to Texas in my early 20s.

Once in Texas, partly because I was flat broke and partly because I love simple food, I discovered as many back-alley taquerias and bodegas as possible. Many was the morning that I would start my day at the local taqueria where Abuelita Gomez would always make sure that there were an extra two or three tortillas in my docena (dozen). Sometimes, when I had the money, I would eat dinner at one of these joints, sitting among the Mexican laborers and listening to, but not comprehending, their chatter. It was there that I discovered both menudo and posole, two of my favorite foods to this day. Subsequent trips to Sandia National Labs (don't ask; I can't tell) in Albuquerque showed me yet another form of posole, one that we celebrated in a past beer dinner.

Menudo is tripe soup, the traditional Northern Mexican hangover food. Although hominy in menudo is optional, it is the sine qua non of posole, a pork, red chile, and hominy stew of Sonoran origin. Posole is sometimes spelled pozole. Eating these two dishes caused me to realize that perhaps hominy was a lot more widespread than I grew up understanding.

As I started to research corn and corn products in Mexico, one resource was a very wonderful set of regional cookbooks put out by the Mexican government and written by very well-educated authors. Occasionally I would come across the phrase maíz nixtamalado. You recognize the tamal root, especially in its plural form tamales. Because I don’t speak Spanish, it took me a long time to understand that they were talking about hominy, which if dried and ground fine enough makes the masa dough from which we make both tortillas and tamales. I finally clued in that nixtamal means hominy.

The word nixtamal is clearly not of Spanish origin. Rather, it’s an indigenous term, telling me that hominy is an ancient food. And in fact, it is. Researchers have determined that peoples in Mesoamerica have been making hominy for around 10,000 years. Back to our Appalachian settlers: they learned about corn and how to make hominy from the local peoples: hominy is an Algonquin word.

Now I come to find out that we have also assimilated the word nixtamal into English: nixtamalization is the process of making hominy from dried corn kernels. (Who knew there were cereal scientists that studied such things?) While our early settlers used lye (sodium hydroxide), derived from soaking wood ashes in water, Mexicans used lime-water (calcium hydroxide) to the same effect. This process also converts some of the B vitamins in corn to a form that can be more readily absorbed by the body. So, not only is hominy more flavorful and easier to eat than dried corn, it’s healthier too.

Once the husk and the germ of the corn kernel are gone, the remainder is cooked until tender. The grains of hominy fluff out a bit, reminding me of solid popcorn. Of course, hominy can be white, blue, yellow, or pinkish, depending on the color of corn used. Once soft, hominy is canned or dried. Dried hominy, often called posole in the Sonoran desert (part of both the US and Mexico: cuisine knows no political boundaries), can either be cooked to soften it or ground. Ground hominy is called, in increasing levels of fineness, coarse grits, grits, and masa harina (or corn flour).

Finding hominy at retail has been challenging until recently. In the mercados and bodegas, the challenge is language. I would wager that the majority of Latinos have never heard of hominy by any name. Those that have call it variously: posole, mote (as in mote blanco), maíz en estilo mexicano, and by other names. Some American grocery stores carry American brands such as Bush’s (acceptable) and Manning’s (not so good) and sometimes the pan-Latino Goya brand (good but expensive). Now, Wal-Mart has started carrying the excellent Juanita’s brand in their Latino section (in the aisle labeled, ignorantly, Mexican). It even comes in restaurant-sized #10 cans (108 oz.), which makes me happy. And, now my specialty goods supplier sells me cases (six cans) of #10 cans, which makes me happier still.

The simplest way to cook hominy is to sauté it in bacon grease, with salt and liberal quantities of black pepper. This to me is outstanding breakfast food, but we use it in the restaurant as a base for ossobuco of pork as well. I also love to use hominy in a mix I’ve started calling sofrito: poblanos, onions, plátanos or hominy, cumin, garlic, green onions, tomatoes, cilantro, all fried in achiote oil, with some chiffonaded collards thrown in at the last minute. This makes an outstanding accompaniment to pan-Caribbean cooking, and it wasn’t terrible when we served sliced, grilled bison ribeye over it recently, as many customers will attest. And of course, hominy is de rigueur in any pork-based, red chile stew.


  1. Hi. I'm looking forward to trying your sofrito recipe. Having grown up poor in Baltimore, Mrs. Manning's hominy was standard fare. We always cooked pork sausage in a skillet, letting all the grease and juices remain in the pan, then added the hominy straight from the can, along with some salt, lots of ground black pepper, and some butter. Great peasant food!! Your sofrito sounds like a SW equivalent. Cheers, bob

  2. Bob, I'm with you. For us it was bacon grease rather than sausage. And, you just cannot have too much black pepper in hominy. Don't know why, but it is so.