Welcome the Tamale

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have to admit, the first time I ate tamales, I didn't care for them much. The flavor was pretty good, but they had the consistency of dense, boiled dough. The way they were wrapped seemed a mystery. Why was there that flap of tamale that was never quite tucked inside the corn husk with the rest of it?

I came to realize that many other people also feel confused about tamales. To this day, I regularly see people attempting to eat the corn husk.

But every once in a while, you get one of those super tamales: a drop-dead, knockout, outrageously delicious epiphany of flavor and texture. The type of defining moment that drives one to shout out loud: "Boy, I want to have more of that!"

In New Mexico, where I grew up, those great homemade tamales had a short season. They'd pop up around the Christmas holidays, then--poof!--they were gone. Of course, ordinary tamales were always there. In mediocre restaurants, you could find them on the combination plate, buried between pasty refried beans and tepid, rose-colored rice.

Not being satisfied with great tamales only once a year, I became obsessed. I ordered them whenever I saw them on the menu. I searched them out at family gatherings and hovered around the kitchen table as the tias and abuelitas rolled, tucked, tied and folded the fragrant little packages. I chose my vacations to Mexico or Central America based on the anticipation of eating a particularly famous regional tamale.

In my restaurant, I started putting tamales on the menu. People seemed to appreciate that, so I branched out, offering more and more different kinds--some not at all traditional. In my last restaurant, in the early '90s, I installed a complete tamale bar that offered 30 different tamale flavors (including sweet dessert tamales) at any one time and another 70 flavors that could be ordered in advance.

I wasn't alone, of course. Creative chefs all over the country were adding tamales to their menus. Traditional Latin restaurants were offering lighter, more healthful tamale choices. The Indio International Tamale Festival started. Zarela Martinez, from New York City, was shown on television serving tamales to world leaders at the dinner for the Williamsburg Summit of Industrialized Nations! Charity events featured celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Patricia Quintana, Norman Van Aken and Nobu Matsuhisa serving cutting-edge international tamales. Even Martha Stewart has had a tamale cooking class on her show.

Specialty tamale restaurants and boutique takeout stores are opening offering all-tamale menus. Family tamaladas (tamale-making parties), though still popular, have morphed into trendy gourmet tamale potlucks. Grocery stores and neighborhood farmers markets now offer well-packaged, interesting tamales of all kinds.

Finally, tamales have fully arrived on the American table.

Traditional Pork Tamales With Mole Sauce

Active Work Time: 3 hours * Total Preparation Time: 4 hours plus 8 hours chilling

Pork braised in mole is used as the filling for this tamale from the book "The Art of Making and Serving Tamales" by Socorro Hernandez and Diane Martin (Weatherbird Press, 1998). Prepared masa with shortening added, for tamales, can be purchased at Latino markets.

PORK

1 head garlic

1 large onion

3 pounds pork leg or shoulder

Salt

Cut off the top half of the head of garlic so that the cloves are exposed. Quarter the onion. Cut the pork into 3-inch cubes. Place the pork in a large pot with the bone, if there is one, along with the cut head of garlic and the onion. Add salt to taste and enough water to cover. Bring the water to boil and simmer the pork, covered, for at least 4 hours. Refrigerate the pork overnight, covered.

The next day, remove the fat, gristle and the bone, and shred and save the cooked pork. Strain and save the broth to make the mole sauce.

FILLING

2 ounces dried California chiles, about 9

2 ounces dried New Mexico chiles, about 10

3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds

3 tablespoons sesame seeds

1 pound tomatillos

Pork broth, from preparing pork

1 large onion, chopped

1 tablespoon oil

1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled

Salt

2 tablespoons ground cumin

Pork

Simmer the California and New Mexico chiles in water for 10 minutes to soften them. (Beware the fumes from the cooking chiles.) Cool the chiles. Remove and discard the stems, seeds and veins.

Toast the pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds in a skillet over medium heat until golden, about 6 to 8 minutes.

Remove the papery skin from the tomatillos and simmer the tomatillos in the reserved pork broth until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the tomatillos and set aside, reserving the broth.

Cook the onion in the oil over medium heat until tender, about 6 to 8 minutes. Set it aside.

In a blender, combine the seeded chiles, toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds, tomatillos, onion, garlic, salt to taste, cumin and 2/3 cup reserved pork broth. Blend together, then pour the mixture through a sieve, saving the liquid. Return the solids to the blender, along with another 2/3 cup pork broth, and blend again. Pour the mixture through the sieve again, discarding the solids and placing the sauce in a saucepan.

Simmer the mole sauce for 30 minutes. Combine the sauce with the reserved shredded pork and set it aside to cool. The filling should not be runny.

MASA

2 pounds prepared masa

1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder

Pork broth

1/2 cup lard, melted

In the bowl of mixer, combine the masa with the baking powder, about 3 tablespoons of pork broth and the melted lard to "lighten" the masa. Beat together, then test the consistency by breaking off a small piece of masa and trying to float it in water. It is not absolutely necessary that it float, but a light, spongy consistency of the masa is critical to good tamales. The masa can't be beaten too much.

ASSEMBLY

1/2 pound hojas (corn husks)

Masa

Filling

Soak the hojas in hot water to soften, about 20 minutes. Sort out the smaller pieces and discard. Drain the large hojas just before filling.

Take a large hoja and dry it with a paper towel. Hold the hoja in one hand and spread about 2 tablespoons of masa over the hoja with the back of a spoon, or lay the hoja flat on a table to spread the masa. Place about 2 tablespoons of the pork-mole filling on the masa. Fold over the hoja from the side. Now fold over the opposite side to seal the masa. Fold up the bottom of the hoja. The tamale is ready for steaming. Repeat the process with the remaining tamales. (The tamales may be frozen at this point for steaming later.) If necessary the folded tamale may be tied with a strip of hoja to hold it together.

Stand the tamales open-end up in a steamer. You may need to steam them in two batches. Steam the tamales until the masa is cooked and firm, 35 to 45 minutes. Repeat with the remaining tamales.

36 tamales. Each tamale: 205 calories; 159 mg sodium; 28 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 3.09 grams fiber.

Backyard Barbecue Shrimp Tamales With Pineapple Pico de Gallo

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

From "Tamales" by Mark Miller, Stephen Pyles and John Sedlar (Hungry Minds, 1997). Look for banana leaves at Latino markets and Japanese rice at Asian markets.

MARINATED SHRIMP

2/3 cup lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon water

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper

2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary

24 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined, about 2 pounds

Whisk together the lemon juice, oil, water, hot pepper sauce, cayenne, black pepper and rosemary in a bowl. Add the shrimp and toss to coat well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate the shrimp in the refrigerator up to 2 hours.

PINEAPPLE PICO DE GALLO

3 1/2 cups diced pineapple, drained

1 bunch cilantro, leaves only, chopped

1/2 small red onion, finely diced

3 jalapenos, finely diced

Juice of 3 limes

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Combine the pineapple, cilantro, red onion, jalapenos, lime juice, salt, white pepper, red pepper flakes and cumin. Mix well to combine. Set aside at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

ASSEMBLY

1 1/2 cups Japanese rice (short-or medium-grain)

3 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 large (3x1-foot) banana leaf, cut into 6 (6-inch) squares

1 tablespoon olive oil

Marinated Shrimp

Pineapple Pico de Gallo

Place the rice in a colander and rinse it under cold running water until the water runs clear. Place the rice in a saucepan or rice cooker; add the water and salt; stir and cover. Bring the rice to a boil (alternatively, follow the rice cooker instructions, if using). Reduce the heat to a very slow simmer and cook the rice until tender, about 12 minutes. Let cool.

Heat the grill.

Lay out each banana leaf square on a flat work surface and brush each lightly with the olive oil. Divide the rice evenly among the leaves. Working with one leaf, mold the rice into a rectangular shape. Fold the two opposite sides of the leaf over, and then fold the other two sides to form a tight envelope package. Repeat for the remaining tamales.

Fill the bottom of a steamer or saucepan fitted with a strainer or vegetable basket with 2 to 3 inches of water. Bring the water to a boil and place the tamales in the steamer. Cover tightly with a lid or foil (it is important that no steam escapes while cooking). Steam the tamales for about 6 minutes over lightly boiling water, adding more water as needed. Remove the tamales from the steamer and set aside; do not unwrap.

Remove the shrimp from the marinade and grill them until they're firm yet still juicy, about 3 minutes; do not overcook.

Transfer the tamales to serving plates. Unwrap one side of each of the tamales to expose the rice and place the shrimp over the rice. Place the Pico de Gallo on top of the shrimp.

6 servings. Each serving: 288 calories; 1,635 mg sodium; 258 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 30 grams protein; 3.19 grams fiber.

*

Saturday, Sedlar and others will cook at Celebrate Tamales, an all-day festival at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Ortega Highway at Camino Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. Tickets range from $4 to $6. There will be a wide variety of tamales to taste, averaging $3 each. For more information, call (949) 234-1312.

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