It probably goes without saying that Houston is one of the great capitals of Mexican cooking in the U.S., and one of the finest Mexican chefs in Houston is Hugo Ortega. An immigrant from Mexico, he started his career as a dishwasher and has come to be a James Beard award-winning chef. Every time I’ve eaten at one of his restaurants, which he owns with wife Tracy Vaught, I’ve been blown away by the thoughtfulness of the cooking, and the depth of his flavors. And so we were thrilled to be invited into their home, to get a lesson on what Hugo loves to make the day after Thanksgiving - a delicious stew - turkey posole.

Hugo Ortega is chef of the H Town Restaurant Group, including Hugo’s, Xochi, and Caracol in Houston. He shared his recipe for Turkey Pozole Verde as well as his recipes from the book, A Place at the Table, for Squash Blossom Salad and Coconut Ceviche.

Francis Lam: Chef Hugo Ortega, thank you so much for having me in your house.

Hugo Ortega: Francis, it is a pleasure, and welcome to H-Town.

FL: I do like it here. I’m so excited to be here to talk about Thanksgiving with you. Do you remember your first experience of Thanksgiving in this country?

HG: Yes. In many ways it was confusing, to be honest with you.

FL: Why?

HG: Well, it was the flavors and the distinctive components on your table, and this is the celebration of this wonderful country. Eventually, of course, I came to love it. It’s a holiday, and we embrace it and have a great time. And the good thing about all of this is that we don’t work that day. We close the restaurant and we sit and enjoy ourselves. This is a wonderful holiday.

FL: That first Thanksgiving, where were you? Who were you with?

HG: With Tracy, my wife. She is the one who introduced me and basically took me by the hand and told me everything I know about this beautiful country. So, Thanksgiving was one of those – very memorable, the first one. We had a table of about fourteen people, and just feeling very small and very overwhelmed by the occasion. And my English in those days – it’s not that good today, but back then it was worse. But what you feel is part of the love and your feelings, and sometimes for that you don’t need expression. You don’t need to say much.

FL: Had you met her family before?

HG: No. It was the first time.

FL: That’s stressful.

HG: It was tough. I was feeling misplaced, to be honest with you. But love is love, and things come together at some point.

A Place at the Table by Gabrielle Langholtz and Rick Kinsel

FL: Beautiful. That was many years ago, and as years went by and more of your family came from Mexico, you started to have Thanksgiving with your Mexican family. And now you have a tradition of making not just the Thanksgiving meal of turkey and those things, but now you have a day-after tradition of making pozole with that turkey carcass, and we’re gonna make that together now. I’m really excited for it. Making pozole is a many-hour process, starting from making a stock with the turkey carcass, which you’ve already done. So, just for the listener I’m gonna recap what you’ve done so far. You made a stock with the beautiful turkey carcass. I know it’s a great stock even without tasting it because when you took it out of the fridge it looked like a pot of Jell-O; that’s when you know the stock is really good. You toasted pumpkin seeds, these beautiful Mexican pumpkin seeds until they were brown and crisp. Then you blended it with the stock, so now that stock has pumpkin seeds blended into it; it looks almost like milky and creamy. You also have taken herbs – some parsley, cilantro, ohasanta –separately you’ve blended that into this really bright green herbal liquid. Next to that you have that creamy pumpkin seed blended stock. And now we’re gonna make the molito verde, which is sort of like the flavor base of this stew.

HG: That’s correct. With the molito verde, we have tomatillos, and then we have onions – white onion – garlic, poblano pepper, serrano pepper, and we have a tablespoon of black pepper, and whole cloves.

FL: Beautiful. What are we gonna do?

HG: We want to put everything in this blender. Fill it out with a little bit of tomatillos, and then a little bit of the onions, and the peppers.

FL: You left the seeds in the serranos?

HG: Yeah. I believe in seeds and flavor. I think as cook, my job is to extract flavor from every ingredient, and I do believe in leaving the seeds, especially when you’re going to blend the seeds so they give you some flavor there. [blender noise] Now, black pepper here, and I have my ohasanta.

FL: Can I taste some of the ohasanta?

HG: Sure. Ohasanta is a wonderful herb. It is anis flavored.

FL: It’s sort of like basil, but with a little more earthiness and a little more depth – a little bit like gasoline, but in a nice way.

HG: Yeah. When I don’t have ohasanta, I use fennel. It reminds me a little bit of anise flavor that fennel has. Now what we do is also to have ohasanta in the middle of the winter, we dry it, and then we powder it, and then we use dry ohasanta, so that works too.

[blender noises]

FL: So you took those tomatillos, onions, green chilies and garlic, and just blended it all up until it’s basically liquified.

HG: Then once we get everything blended, what we do is to fry it. We have our pot over here that we want to get hot. I want put a little bit of corn oil, about half a cup, and then when I get it nice and hot – and this is the critical point over here, because when you fry something you want to extract the flavors from whatever you’re frying. That’s the idea, right? Like searing it, but at the same time, at that temperature, you develop more flavor.

FL: You’ve liquified everything – the tomatillos and the onions and the chilies. The idea of frying a liquid is, I think for a lot of European cooking, that’s not really part of the technique, but this is something you would do.

HG: This is where it’s beginning to be critical. We don’t wanna over-fry. We just want a bit of flavor because we don’t want our green pozole to be dark.

FL: You don’t want it to be brown pozole?

HG: You don’t want brown pozole.

FL: Let’s talk about the pozole itself. The pozole actually refers to the corn, the hominy corn, which is big, beautiful kernels.

HG: Maiz pozolero.

FL: It’s beautiful. These kernels, they were dried, you soaked them overnight, and then you’ve cooked them in some of this stock. These kernels are the size of dimes. It has such an incredible flavor. It tastes like—

HG: Nutty. And believe me, once you’ve tried one you just want a full spoon of it, right?

FL: You’re right, it’s super nutty. A little bit like potato; super savory, but it has a little bounce in the chewiness too. In comes the turkey stock, blended with the toasted pumpkin seeds. I love that little bit of brightness from the tomatillo – the acidity. Do you cook it much together, or do you just bring it up to temperature and you’re done?

HG: I think we wanna simmer it for ten minutes. Bring it to a boil and then simmer.

FL: To recap: oil in the pot, fry the molito verde just until it brings out some of the flavor. You add your stock with the blended pumpkin seeds in it.

HG: And the ohasanta.

FL: And the ohasanta. You add the pozole, and like now we’re kinda done. Even though you roasted a turkey for like three hours, made a stock for another three hours, but at this point we’re just waiting for it to come up, simmer for fifteen minutes together. And now to finish the dish off you’re adding those herbs that you pureed into more stock.

HG: Yeah, for that natural color. And a pinch of salt.

FL: It gives it a beautiful green color. Because all that green color from the molito cooked off, right? It sort of lost its color because you’re simmering it, but now you add all these fresh, bright green herbs at the end.

HG: This is some of the traditional condiments. Traditionally you put a little bit of oregano.

FL: A little sprinkle of oregano on the top of the bowl.

HG: Then you put some radishes, a little bit of white onion, cilantro leaves, and tostada with a spritz of lime.

FL: So, here is this beautiful pozole verde. It’s so good. The thing is you can taste all these different layers of flavor. I think that’s such a beautiful thing about Mexican cooking, in general, it’s about layers of flavor, where there’s a little bit of lime, a little bit of radish – that freshness right off the top because it’s right in the bowl. Then you get to that colorante with the cilantro and the parsley and the ohasanta. That flavor is so fresh and sweet, and then you get into this deep turkey flavor and you start to taste that molito.

HG: That roasted turkey flavor is there.

FL: And the pozole itself, I just love that nutty, almond-y chewy corn. It’s incredible. I’m with you on this; I would wait for the last Friday of November to eat this.

HG: And you just have to do it once a year, right?

FL: This amazing. Thank you so much, chef, and I am thankful for this.

HG: Oh, me too. Thank you so much for coming. What a wonderful thing that you and I find something to do with the old carcass of this beautiful turkey.

More about A Place at the Table: The book is produced in collaboration with the Vilcek Foundation, which is dedicated to raising awareness of immigrant contributions in America and fostering appreciation of the arts and sciences. The publication of the book follows the Vilcek Foundation's prestigious 2019 chef awards this spring, which only happen every 5 years. The winner of the Vilcek Prize in Culinary Arts this year was just announced and it was Marcus Samuelsson.

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Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.