Tamale.

tamales!

In case you haven’t noticed, the holidays are upon us. Sure, we celebrate all sorts of holidays throughout the year, but these few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Those are the “real” holidays. These are the days where we all eat too many cookies, mounds of fudge, and every other goodie you could possibly imagine. Every day at work begins with something brought in, lunch ends with a sweet treat, and the few hours after lunch before you leave for the day? Man, those are the hours where we really, and I mean really, need some chocolate.

I have to admit here, that Chris and I aren’t full of holiday traditions. We haven’t had a Christmas tree in years; since we are never home on Christmas we’ve never felt the need. I have a box of decorations that I’ve collected over the years, and they remained in the back of the storage closet once again this year. I don’t have a tried and true cookie recipe, or a special offering that just always works at the holiday parties. Just tonight, I started burning a candle that smells exactly like Christmas, and it made me realize that we need to make some of our own traditions.

pulled pork

Of course, this is all starting next year. We head out east soon, and by the time we’re back, it’ll almost be New Years Eve. That means two more years have gone by without me finally doing Christmas cards. Whoops.

On the flip side, and without knowing it, I think we did start one tradition this year. I clipped a recipe for tamales years ago. I kept flipping past it, thinking it was just way too much work (the one in my stack that I keep flipping past now is a yeasted donut recipe. But I can’t give up yet!). I finally, after a couple of years, got rid of the tamale recipe, figuring I’d just eat store-bought tamales instead of slaving in the kitchen to make my own. But then I recently found another tamale recipe, and right around Christmastime, when folks seem to make tamales over big gatherings of family members.

masa-ancho dough

Chris and I had a recent lazy weekend, the type where well-intentioned hikes (which we’ve not done in months, it seems!) are ruined by rain, and suddenly Saturday night was right around the corner and we had nowhere to be – not even a Christmas party on a December weekend! We’d run a few errands, driven around in horrible downtown San Francisco traffic, and decided that we were most definitely staying in that night. Meanwhile, we neared a Mexican market that had every little ingredient I needed, so I decided it was meant to be. Much to Chris’ chagrin, it ended up being a project for the two of us, although I have to admit I really didn’t put him to work until it was actually time to make the tamales. After a few iterations, we finally had a good system down – he spread the masa onto the husk and portioned the pork on top, and I rolled the husks, folding the dough over the pork, and then tied the ends with strings of corn husk.

I’m not sure who got the shittiest end of that deal. The husk strings kept breaking, and sometimes the husks themselves weren’t the right size, but on Chris’ end he was dealing with my constant critique-ing of his portioning, and I’m not sure how many times I told him, but dang, he really wanted to LOAD those things down with pork, and there just wasn’t room! At the end of the night, literally around 9:30, we were able to taste our efforts, and I promise, it was worth it. We had leftovers for a couple more meals, and we froze the rest, knowing there are always nights when cooking just doesn’t happen. Tamales are perfect for that.

But most importantly, we (at least, I) really appreciated how and why this tamale-making festivity has become a yearly tradition in so many families around the holidays. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of time, but a lot of yield, and a few hours of spending quality time with the ones you love is the most special result of it all (even if the tamales are outta this world). It’s something to look forward to every year, and since 2013 is just around the corner, I’m already thinking about tamale night next December. Tamale night, a tree, some decorations, and maybe, just maybe, some Christmas cards.

Don’t hold your breath on that one.

tamale-makin'

 

Chipotle Pork Tamales w/ Cilantro-Lime Crema
adapted from Cooking Light, December 2012; serves 14 (2 tamales each)

time commitment: forever. just kidding. sorta. a good 5 hours total, but about 2-3 of active time (lots of pork-cooking and tamale-steaming).

printable version

ingredients
filling
1 T olive oil
1 (3-pound) Boston butt (pork shoulder roast), trimmed
1/2 t kosher salt
1 c chopped onion
9 crushed garlic cloves
1 t cumin seeds, toasted
6 chipotles chiles, canned in adobo sauce, chopped
1 c no-salt-added chicken stock
1 t grated orange rind
1 t unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 t ground espresso

crema
3 T chopped fresh cilantro
2 T no-salt-added chicken stock
1 T lime juice
1/4 t salt
1 (8-ounce) container light sour cream
1 large garlic clove, minced

masa
2 1/2 c no-salt-added chicken stock
2 ancho chiles
1 c corn kernels
4 c instant masa harina
1 1/4 t salt
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 c chilled lard

other
Dried corn husks

instructions
Preheat oven to 300 F.

To prepare filling, heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil, and swirl to coat. Sprinkle pork evenly with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add pork to pan; sauté 10 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. Remove pork from pan. Add onion and garlic to pan, and sauté for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cumin and chipotle chiles; sauté for 1 minute. Stir in 1 cup stock and the next 3 ingredients (through espresso); bring to a boil. Return pork to pan; cover. Bake at 300 F for 3 hours or until pork is fork-tender. Remove pork from pan, and let stand 10 minutes. Shred pork. Return pork to sauce.

Meanwhile, prepare crema by combining all crema ingredients; chill.

To prepare tamales, immerse corn husks in water; weight with a plate. Soak 30 minutes; drain.

To prepare masa, combine 2 1/2 cups stock and ancho chiles in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at HIGH for 2 minutes or until chiles are tender; cool slightly. Remove stems from chiles. Combine hot stock, chiles, and corn in a blender; process until smooth. Combine masa harina, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, and baking powder, stirring well with a whisk. Cut in lard with a pastry blender or two knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add ancho mixture to masa mixture; stir until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead dough until smooth and pliable. (If dough is crumbly, add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until moist.)

Working with one husk at a time (or overlap 2 small husks), place about 3 tablespoons masa mixture in the center of husk, about 1 inch from top of husk; press dough into a 4-inch-long by 3-inch-wide rectangle. Spoon about 1 heaping tablespoon pork mixture down one side of dough. Using the corn husk as your guide, fold husk over tamale, being sure to cover filling with dough. Use husk to seal masa around filling. Tear 3 or 4 corn husks lengthwise into strips; tie ends of tamale with strips.

Steam tamales according to whatever method works best for you. My smoke alarm goes off constantly if I turn the oven on too high, so this method in this recipe doesn’t work well for me. I put them tamales in a bamboo steamer on the stovetop, and steam for about 1 hour. It takes longer, but I don’t have to constantly open windows and wait for the fire truck to show up… [This recipe says: preheat the oven to 450 F, then place tamale, seam side down, on the rack of a broiler pan lined with a damp towel. Repeat procedure with remaining husks, masa mixture, and pork mixture. Cover tamales with a damp towel. Pour 2 cups hot water in the bottom of a broiler pan; top with rack. Steam tamales at 450° for 25 minutes. Remove and rewet top towel, and add 1 cup water to pan. Turn tamales over; top with cloth. Bake for 20 minutes or until set. Let tamales stand 10 minutes.]

Once ready, serve tamales with crema. You can also freeze them after steaming. Reheat by resteaming for a shorter time, or by heating in the microwave.

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Chilaquiles.

I am such a sucker for a recipe with multiple iterations. A recipe that sticks around for a week or two, until you’ve finally become ready for a break. It’s probably why I’m such a big fan of the salad dressing/kale salad combo from last week. Probably. That and the fact that the dressing is awesome. Duh.

We had the original version of this recipe what I think was two weeks ago. I’ve had the remainder of the salsa in the fridge since. What can I say, I push the limits of leftovers, but it was totally fresh when I made it. Like farmers’ market fresh. So I’m sure it’s good.

And then I found some corn tortillas in the fridge. So today (well, not today, as in the day you’re reading this, but today as in Sunday afternoon), I made baked a few of them into tortilla chips, I poured some more salsa over them and some cheese I found in the bottom drawer (feta, this time), and I cracked an egg over it all and baked it all together.

Just as good as two weeks ago, that’s for sure.

That said, I’m not sure this kinda dish really warrants an actual recipe, but I’ll give you one, for the sauce if nothing else. I like my salsa (sauce? salsa? sauce? I dunno…) extra-spicy, and this one definitely is. After that, you basically take said sauce/salsa/whatever and dump it over tortilla chips coated in the cheese of your choice, and you finish it off with a fried egg or two.

Easy peasy.

You could make it for 1, for 2, for 4, you get the point. I’m not one to judge (ok, maybe I am, if you deserve it) but it’d be a crying shame if you left out the cilantro and lime to finish it all off.

And if you can handle it, a little extra sauce on top. A margarita by your side to tame it all down? Brilliant.

Chilaquiles with Fried Eggs
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2012; serves 4

time commitment: 45 minutes

this is such a super simple dish that’s jam-packed with flavor. if i were you, i’d make the salsa ahead of time, then you have a really quick weeknight meal in about 10 minutes flat. we had these for dinner two nights in a row, so i made the salsa and grated the cheese on the first night, then had them ready for the second night in no time. you’re welcome. also, we had plenty of salsa left over, so you could do all sorts of things with it, or just have chilaquiles all week long ;).

printable version

ingredients
red chile salsa
7 dried ancho chiles
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained
1 medium white onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 jalapeño, with seeds, chopped
1/4 t smoked paprika
2 T vegetable oil
2 t honey or agave nectar
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper

everything else
36 large tortilla chips
1 c (4 ounces) crumbled queso fresco or mild feta
1 c (4 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack
4 large eggs
cilantro, freshly chopped
Lime wedges
1 avocado, sliced

instructions
red chile salsa
Place chiles in a medium bowl; cover with 2 cups boiling water. Let chiles soak until softened, about 15 minutes. Drain, reserving soaking liquid. Place chiles in a blender, discarding stems (you can also discard seeds if you want, but i just tossed the whole thing in). Add tomatoes, next 4 ingredients, and 1 cup reserved soaking liquid; purée until smooth.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add purée and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, partially covered and stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes (add more reserved soaking liquid if too thick). Stir in honey and season to taste with salt and pepper. (You can  make this days in advance, if you’d like. Cover and chill until ready to use.)

putting it together
Preheat broiler. Toss chips and 1 cup sauce in a large bowl. Transfer half of chips to a large ovenproof platter or skillet. Scatter half of cheeses over chips. Top with remaining chips and cheeses, along with 1/2 cup more sauce. Broil until cheese is golden and melted, 4–5 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour oil into a nonstick skillet to lightly coat. Heat over medium heat. Add eggs and fry until whites are set but yolks are still runny, about 4 minutes.

Top chilaquiles with cilantro, lime wedges, and avocado. Top with fried eggs and serve with remaining sauce alongside.

A Bunch of Wins

Every once and a while, I just want to whip up a big dinner and eat like crazy. Okay, not every once and while, more like every other night or so. But I’m not necessarily in a position in my life where I have all kinds of hours in the day to spend in the kitchen. Nor do I have an unlimited budget where I can just buy pounds and pounds of food. Nor do I have the type of metabolism where pounds and pounds of said food just disappear magically hours after consumption.

Such is life, eh?

But sometimes the stars align, and you find yourself with a free weekend night and that urge to cook whittles its way into your brain. It also works perfectly when some of your favorite people also have a free weekend night and want to partake in that same sorta thing – a lot of eating, a lot of cooking, and maybe even some booze-drinking. Alright – always some booze drinking. So that’s what we did.

Also, we learned to play euchre. We are slightly addicted – even taught the parentals how to play during a trip to NC this past weekend.

So. The shanks before your eyes – there’s a quick story. There was a restaurant I wanted to check out while in Sedona last year, but sadly the night we thought about going was a night they were closed. So my in-laws, since they are awesome and super-duper smart, they went there the first chance they got and enjoyed a tasty meal without us, making up for it by picking up a signed copy of the chef-owner’s new cookbook. It was a nice surprise at Christmas, and I’ve been thumbing through the book since, bookmarking the “must-try” recipes.

These lamb shanks won the top honor of being the first tested recipe (I had some garlic scallops picked out for Valentines day, but then I realized garlic was probably inappropriate….) and we roped Liz & Kevin into eating with us (or did we invite ourselves over, bribing them with lamb shanks and Rioja?).

I guess how it happened doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, we had a ginormous amount of food, the shanks were awesome (and easy!) as was the rest of the food, and we have yet another card game to play.

That, my friends, is a win-win. Wait. A win-win-win. A bunch of wins, fair and square.

Lamb Shanks in Adobo Sauce
Adapted from The Elote Cafe Cookbook; serves at least 4

Wine note: we got extra-fancy and did a special wine-pairing for this dish. we tried out two Spanish Rioja wines, and while I can’t remember the names of them, I’ll say this: we bought one from 2001 and one from a 2006 vintage. They were both amazing, especially the 2001, but the 2006 went much better with the food. not too rich, but plenty of heft and spice to stand up to the shanks. a nice Syrah or Malbec would also be really tasty.

one other note: I’m betting this dish would be great with short ribs instead of lamb shanks, too. Really any meat – adobo sauce is versatile like that.

printable version

time commitment: 3-4 hours (1 hour active time)

ingredients
adobo sauce
12 garlic cloves, peeled, whole
3 dried ancho chiles*, stemmed
3 dried guajillo chiles*, stemmed
3 dried chipotle chiles*, stemmed
4 c fresh orange juice
2 T packed brown sugar
2 T dried oregano (Mexican oregano, if you have it)
2 T cider vinegar
2 t kosher salt
2 t freshly ground black pepper
2 t ground cumin
1/8 t ground cloves
1 stick canela (Mexican cinnamon) or regular cinnamon, about 3 in. long
2 dried bay leaves

lamb
4 lamb shanks (about 1 lb. each)
1 t kosher salt
1 t freshly ground black pepper
2 T canola oil

pickled onions
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 T cider vinegar
2 t olive oil
2 t oregano (Mexican if you have it)

2 T sesame seeds, for garnish
cilantro, chopped, for garnish

instructions
Make the adobo sauce. In a dry, heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, roast garlic cloves, turning occasionally, until softened and speckled brown, ~12 minutes. Remove from pan. Add chiles to pan and toast, turning once, until fragrant, about 30 seconds, taking care not to let them burn.

Carefully pour orange juice into pan. Add remaining adobo ingredients, then add garlic back to pan. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until chiles are softened, about 10 minutes.

Lift out cinnamon and bay leaves and reserve. Cool adobo slightly, then purée in a blender until very smooth. Season with additional salt and pepper, if needed.

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Prepare lamb. Sprinkle shanks with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a heavy, large pot (preferably a 6-7 quart Dutch oven) over medium-high heat, then brown 2 shanks at a time, turning occasionally, until golden brown, 7 to 8 minutes per batch. Return all shanks to the pot, or place them all in a large enough baking dish if you don’t have a big enough pot to hold them all. Cover shanks with adobo sauce, and add reserved cinnamon and bay leaves. If the liquid doesn’t come up halfway over the shanks, add some water (or beef broth, if you want) to make up the difference. You’ll probably have plenty of liquid, but it also depends on the size of your pot.

Cover and place in oven and braise, turning shanks every hour, until meat is very tender when pierced, 2-3 hours. (If you want, you can do this part 1-2 days before you’re serving this dish. Let the shanks cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat over medium heat, scraping fat from the top first, and let shanks heat up, then follow the next instructions.)

Meanwhile, Pickle the onion. (Do this the day of; skip this step if you’re preparing shanks in advance.) Put sliced onions in a bowl and add the pickling ingredients. Let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

Transfer shanks to a platter and cover with foil. Pour adobo into a saucepan if you used a baking dish. Skim and discard as much fat as you can – there will be a film on the top of the pot. Boil sauce over medium-high heat until thick enough to coat meat, about 10 minutes. Uncover shanks, pour sauce on top, and sprinkle with pickled onions, sesame seeds, and cilantro.

*Find in the Latino foods aisle or spice aisle of a supermarket, or at a Latino market

Holy Mole!

I’ve walked through my gramma’s house at least a thousand times. I could tell you about the newspaper clippings that were on her fridge, and the pictures of all her grandkids that sat atop the desk in the living room with the gold shaggy carpet. Of course, I remembered those pictures because there was one of every grandkid, but me – there were two! I could tell you, years ago, about every hair product in her bathroom, because as she used to say, I liked to “plunder”, and plunder I did, every time I visited. I loved gramma’s house, every corner of it.

Without fail, there was a pound cake on the edge of the counter every Sunday, unsliced, guarded by a heavy glass dome that I couldn’t reach without assistance, or a chair. There were oatmeal cakes in the cupboard, and there was a trashcan made of egg cartons in my dad’s old room. I can still see it all – as if looking at a snow globe, those details never changed. And while the sights were always so clear in my head, I also remember a distinct smell, a smell that emanated from the kitchen, for sure, but one that I could never identify. Until this weekend.

It was lard. That’s probably weird to at least some of you, right? Okay, most of you. And not just regular lard from a container, but hot, almost smoking lard. I’d be willing to bet that most people who cook with lard don’t enjoy that smell, but for me, it took me back like no other. Strangely enough, it was the first time I’d ever cooked with it, and I’m not quite sure why, really. But as is customary for a Sunday around here, I awoke with an idea in my head of what I wanted to make for dinner that night, with expectations of spending a decent amount of time in the kitchen.

I decided that I wanted to make a mole sauce.

So that’s what I did. And so, I consulted the first person that comes to mind when I think of authentic, time-consuming Mexican food, and that’s Rick. Rick Bayless, that is. Now, most authentic moles take days to make, I know that, but Rick said this one is a good start for only a few hours work. There are oodles of iterations of moles, but this one is loaded with chiles, and as a result is a mole rojo. Moles use a ton of ingredients, including lots of dried but rehydrated chiles, chocolate, nuts, and even raisins. Moles are complexity at its best – spicy, rich, chocolatey, vibrant – flavors that most certainly take some time to develop. The better your ingredients, the better your mole. And in that respect, I finally broke down and bought lard, because Rick said to.

The lard got hot, and immediately I recognized the smell as something that was really prevalent in my life, but this time I couldn’t remember right away where it was coming from. A couple of whiffs later, it was crystal clear. Yeah, you could say the Southern ladies in my family don’t mess around in the kitchen, and if the taste of their food has anything to do with the fact that they use lard in their cooking, well, now I’m sold. I can’t believe it took a cookbook from a Mexican-influenced chef to do the trick, but hey, you take it where you will, I reckon.

Anyway, I’m happy to report that, even though I cut this recipe in half (the book I used is for fiestas, not two-person dining, you see), there is plenty left over after generously using the other half to sop up some mole-painted chicken. I tweeted Rick and he said he’d make enchiladas with the leftovers, and I think he might be on to something. For now, there’s a container in the freezer, just waiting for enchilada inspiration. And hopefully, it won’t take nearly as long to get around to that as it did to use lard. I doubt it will.

Lacquered Chicken in Classic Red Mole
adapted from Fiesta at Rick’s; serves 4 with leftover mole

time commitment: long. 4 hours, most of which requires active attention, minus 30 minutes or so. but don’t let that deter you!

printable version

ingredients
mole
5 oz tomatillos, husked and rinsed (2 large)
3/4 c roasted sesame seeds
1/2 c pork lard (or vegetable oil)
5 medium dried mulato chiles (~3 oz)
3 medium dried ancho chiles (1.5 oz)
4 medium dried pasilla chiles (1.5 oz)
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 c almonds
1/2 c raisins
1/2 t ground Mexican cinnamon (canela)
1/4 t black pepper
1/4 t ground anise
pinch of g cloves
1 slice toasted white bread, torn into pieces
1 oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1.5 quarts lo-sodium chicken broth
salt
1/3 c sugar

chicken
1/4 c agave nectar
4 pieces of chicken (I used leg quarters)
cilantro, for garnish

instructions
turn broiler to high. broil tomatillos about 4 inches from flame until black and soft, about 5 minutes per side. put in a large bowl and set aside. add half of sesame seeds to bowl with tomatillos, and save the other half for garnishing at the end.

turn on your exhaust fan; it’s about to get smoky in here! using a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the lard over medium heat. meanwhile, seed and stem the chiles, and break into large pieces. once the lard is hot, fry the chiles in 3-4 batches, flipping them constantly until aromatic and the insides are lightened (20-30 seconds for each batch). be careful not to over-toast. put them in a large bowl and cover with hot water; seal the bowl with plastic wrap and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure all parts become submerged.

meanwhile, remove any chile seeds from the pot. add garlic and almonds to pot and fry, stirring regularly, until browned, about 5 minutes. remove and add to tomatillo bowl. add raisins to hot pot and fry until puffed and browned; add to tomatillos. set pan aside, away from heat.

to the tomatillo mixture, add spices, bread, and chocolate. add 1 cup of water and stir to combine.

pour the chiles, 2 cups of water from the bowl, and 1 cup of tap water into a blender, and blend to a smooth puree (you may want to do this in 2 batches, depending on the size of your blender). pour out the rest of the chile water. press puree through a medium sieve into the same large bowl and discard pieces that don’t make it through.

reheat the lard in the pot over medium heat. add more lard if there isn’t much in the pot. once the lard is very hot, pour the chile puree into the pot. the pot should simmer loudly, then die down some, but should continue to keep a low boil. continue to boil, stirring every couple of minutes until reduced to tomato paste consistency (~15-20 minutes). (If you have a splatter screen, use it, or you’ll be cleaning up a lot, like I did.)

meanwhile, puree the tomatillo mixture as smoothly as possible, adding a little water if needed. Strain back into the bowl. Once the chile puree has reduced, add tomatillo mixture and cook, stirring every few minutes until darker and thicker, about 10-15 minutes.

add broth to pot and simmer over medium to medium-low for about 1.5 hours. if the mole becomes thick (Rick says thicker than a cream soup), add some water. season with salt and the sugar.

heat oven to 350 F. place chicken on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. baked chicken for 25 minutes. meanwhile, mix together 1/2 c of mole and the agave nectar into a small saucepan, and heat until glossy and reduced to 1/2 c, about 15 minutes. once chicken is baked, remove from oven and increase oven temp to 400 F. brush chicken with mole/agave mixture and sprinkle with remaining sesame seeds. bake for 10 minutes. removed from oven and let sit ~7 minutes. serve each portion with extra mole and garnish with cilantro.