Saturday, April 30, 2011

Souvenir from the Desert

We asked the cook at the burrito place. It seemed like an innocent request. He looked pensive for a moment.

“Let me check,” he said. We heard him make a phone call. Rapid Spanish spoken, exchanges with the other cooks. The receiver placed back on the hook.

“My cousin’s sister-in-law usually comes by once, twice a month. But it’s a holiday. She’s in Mexico.” He shook his head. No, he didn’t know of any other place to get what we were looking for.

We asked friends, family and other shop patrons everywhere we went. Each person responded in a vague mention of someone’s housekeeper, a guy who showed up in the casino parking lot, or a friend of a friend who might know how and where to find what we wanted. None of the leads came through, so close to New Year’s, even as we were taunted with sighs of pleasure over what we were missing.

All I wanted was a good tamale.

You would think that would be easy enough to find in Tucson. No matter how hard we looked, that one favorite food of mine seemed to be just about as rare as the freak snowfall outside, dusting the tops of the saguaros in the Sonoran desert.

We had two things working against us in our quest for my “perfect tamale.” First, it was close enough to the holidays that most of the home cooks who make these labor-intensive delicacies were preparing them not for sale, but for their own family celebrations. Second, and most interestingly, not one of the folks we asked named a restaurant where we could get good tamales.

Tamales, it seems, are best homemade. The more we searched, the more I began to envision my perfect tamales. Traditional braised pork, of course, and red sauce. But also, I thought, a sweet corn, with vegetables.

Everywhere we went, in the back of my mind, I kept pairing different ingredients. Driving to Tubac, I’m thinking, sweet potato, maybe? On a beautiful, cool morning ride through the Saguaro National Park East, smoky, mild Ancho pepper comes to mind, with cumin and cinnamon. 4400 foot in elevation and a three-mile hike up to Blackett’s Peak, when most people only think of the view, I’m contemplating that, but perhaps, black beans? Cheese? No, too Tex Mex. No cheese.

On the hike, I was also thinking about water. The kiddo drank it all on our way up. But, still, tamales and the recipe I would create stayed with me the whole trip.

On our last day, we stopped by a gourmet grocery store for just a few items. Two steps in the door, I saw it. A display on the end of an aisle, containing not food, but a brightly covered book, the title a single word, “Tamales.” I made a dash straight for it and rifled through the pages to see if they held any hope.

Tamales, by Daniel Hoyer, held more than hope. The book was full of recipes for a wide variety of traditional tamales from savory to sweet. The text included a history of the food and its traditions as well as pages of step-by-step photos and detailed explanations of the techniques. Hoyer teaches at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, which is obvious in the clear and thorough text.

My tamales were now within reach, clutched in my hands, with this unexpected souvenir. It’s hard to imagine being excited to come home to your kitchen from a vacation especially when a foot of snow was outside its walls. The weather in the desert was finally warm and sunny at the end of our trip. It should have been harder to leave.

I was ready to cook.

A fair warning here, tamales are not “quick and easy.” It takes a couple days to complete all the steps required. And there will be dishes to clean. Many, many dishes.

Tamales are basically made from four components; masa, filling, sauce, wrapper. The sauces are often complex mole sauces and the best fillings are slow-braised meats. Both of these are best made the day before and allowed to marry in the refrigerator overnight. Even the masa is a two-step process, with a resting period.

Tamales are not healthy fare. To get the right consistency in the masa, quite a bit of fat must be incorporated. The best fat for meat tamales, is of course, lard. Most folks are a bit leery of this, but compared to hydrogenated oils, lard is just fine in moderation. Well, not just any lard. Since the fats in an animal (including humans) store quite a bit of the impurities we consume, I wanted to get lard direct from the same farm where we buy our natural pork. I would advise this approach over just buying “conventional” lard. Or, you can use vegetable fats, even butter, as a substitute.

Forty minutes to drive to get lard and a bit of an ingredient scavenger hunt for the masa, corn husks and dried chiles. Plus the futile week-long search in the desert. My tamale binge was becoming work, and I had not even started cooking yet. Still, I was on a mission. We would have tamales.

I settled on two different versions, first, the classic Red Chile Pork from Hoyer’s book. This tamale requires preparing the Carne Adovada recipe on page 51, the Salsa Rojo Noteno on page 116, as well as the Basic Masa on page 34, and then the Beaten Masa on page 37.

The second tamale recipe (yes, I am a masochist) would be my own recipe for Sweet Corn, Sweet Potato, Ancho and Black Bean. For this, I used half the Basic Masa prepared, and half the Salsa Rojo (Northern-style Red Sauce) from above.

For the Sweet Corn Masa:

1 Recipe Basic Masa
(1-3/4 cups masa harina beaten well with 1 cup plus 2 Tbs. of hot water. Let rest for 30 minutes. Highly recommend a powerful stand mixer here).

¼ cup honey

¾ cup vegetable broth

¼ cup Salsa Rojo (from the book, or store bought)

1-1/4 cup slightly softened butter

Start with the butter in the bowl of a good, solid stand mixer. Whip it on high for a minute or two until fluffy. Add the basic masa a bit at a time, alternating with the broth, while still beating. Add the red sauce and the honey. Beat well.

For the Filling:

1 lb. sweet potatoes, shredded, and steamed for 10 minutes

1 cup fresh corn kernals (can use frozen)

1 can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 bunch green onions, white and 3-inches of green parts, chopped

1 tsp. ancho chile powder

½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Mix together the filling ingredients, fold into the Sweet Masa until well combined.

At this point, you will follow the great step-by-step photos from Hoyer’s book on pages 18-25. Yes, seven pages of instructions. The exception here is that you only have to spread the masa-filling combination since my recipe blends the two.

Steam the vegetable tamales here for 1-1/4 hours. I used a metal colander nestled into our biggest stock pot for a steamer. It worked well. Let them rest about 10 minutes after steaming before you serve these.

This makes about 30 tamales. Serve with extra, warm Salsa Rojo (Red Sauce).

Since I made two recipes, I had 60 tamales, half pork and half vegetarian. I shared these at a party, with my brother-in-laws, a few folks at work, had some leftovers …

After a two-day process that required cleaning nearly every pot in our household and help from the whole family wrapping and tying, I have a pretty good understanding of why those tamales were so hard to find even a stone’s throw from the Mexican border.

I will make tamales again one day, I know. I also have a new-found respect for the guy at my farmers market who sells really decent tamales for only two dollars apiece. As far as the next culinary adventure, well, I just tried arepas at this Latin American restaurant ...

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