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.



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

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

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

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

Dried corn husks

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.

Hog Wild

Pulled pork (aka barbeque) is something Southerners can sometimes get a little peculiar about. The Texans have their brisket, but you best not show up elsewhere and expect to hear ‘beef’ and ‘barbeque’ in the same sentence. Everyone has their own special way to make pulled pork, but the general assumption is that it’s cooked ‘low and slow’, and smoked. On a grill or in the oven? Charcoal? A spice rub or sauce prior to cooking? The choices are limitless.

And although choices are aplenty, I won’t pretend to be unbiased in where I stand on the barbeque itself – I prefer the whole pig smoked outdoors on the ‘pig cooker’, practically overnight (preferably over a few beers in the wee hours of the morning), simply seasoned, and doused in vinegar and not much else. In that respect, I am Eastern NC through and through.

In fact, for Christmas dinner one year, my Aunt Faye and some other folk did just that – we had a certified pig pickin’, sans turkey and all that other mess, and ate outdoors on paper plates, with cups of sweet tea at our feet and coleslaw and hushpuppies crowding our plates. It was blissful, and while I fancy the turkey and stuffing, I’ll gleefully admit that the ‘year of the pig’ was one of my favorites, dinner-wise.

Before I go any further, let’s discuss the sauce a bit. You see, the sauce that covers said pork has various areas divided for eternity, probably moreso than any culinary tiff, definitely any tiff in the South. The battle primarily takes place in NC, where a vertical line divides the state in two halves, a tomato at the root of all evil.  Western NC sauce is sweet, with tomato, while Eastern sauce is hot and spicy, tomato-less, and if I must be truthful – the best. You’ve also got the crazies from South Carolina who use mustard as their main sauce ingredient, and I’ve seen other versions as well, but I daresay these are the main three.

With all this said, you may have noticed by now that the pictures you see before you are in fact not my ideal version of pulled pork (i.e., you see pork shoulder, rather than the whole pork, which wouldn’t be weird if we were referring to Western barbeque since they tend to only use the shoulder). You may remember that I live in a condo in Chicago, and as a result I seriously doubt we’d be able to procure a pig cooker for our balcony, let alone locate a whole hog to toss on the cooker. You may also be thinking to yourself that you’ve already seen pulled pork here before, and you’d be correct there too. But those of us who like our NC barbeque and can’t get “the real deal” regularly have to improvise, and by improvise I mean find a recipe that sounds pretty decent, and one that works with balconies and less than a backyard full of people.

This recipe was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. For one, there was no spice rub (!), but instead a generous basting of a mustard sauce, which scared me a little. Also, it utilized two techniques – a low and slow stint in the oven followed by a brief visit to the grill, with wood chips. It seemed to be a good combo, so I gave it a whirl, with a few adjustments along the way.

The end result is an incredibly juicy hunk o’ pork that could possibly feed a roomful, but in our world it fed four of us, with a little leftover. I like to think of that as a testament to how good it was, and as it turns out, the mustard gave the pork a nice flavor, but the smoke is really where it’s at. Of course, it doesn’t quite compare to the barbeque back ‘home’, but in the meantime, it will most certainly do.

Carolina Pulled Pork
Adapted loosely from Food & Wine, September 2010; serves 8

time commitment: 10 hours (1 hour active time)

printable version (pork & sauce)

¾ c Dijon mustard
2 T dark brown sugar
2 T kosher salt
2 T pepper, freshly ground
1 T smoked paprika
1 T onion powder
8 lbs bone-in pork shoulder (Boston butt)
2 c mesquite wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes, drained
Eastern NC bbq sauce (below)

Special stuff: a thermometer with a cord that can go into the oven is perfect for this so that you don’t have to constantly check the temperature. For the first stage of cooking, plan for about 1 hour / pound of meat.

Preheat oven to 225 F. in a medium bowl, whisk together mustard through onion powder. Set the pork shoulder, fat side up, in a roasting pan. Brush pork with mustard mixture and roast, uncovered, for ~8 hours, or until the internal temperature registers ~170 F.

If there are any roasting juices (not fat, juices), pour them into a measuring cup and refrigerate to separate fat. Keep at room temperature after fat is poured off.

Heat grill to 400 F. line roasting pan with aluminum foil and scatter the presoaked wood chips over the bottom. Place pork back in roasting pan. Put roasting pan on grill and close; smoke until internal temperature of meat reaches 185-190 F.

Transfer pork to work surface and let rest for 30 minutes. Pull meat off the bones and discard bones and outer layer of fat that’s remaining. Using two forks, finely shred the pork and transfer it to a large bowl. Toss meat with some of the bbq sauce and roasting juices (if any). Serve with bbq sauce and coleslaw!

Vinegar-Based Eastern NC bbq Sauce
chiknpastry recipe; makes 2 cups

printable version (sauce only)

1.5 c apple cider vinegar
1 c water
1 T tomato paste
4 T dark brown sugar
1 T crushed red pepper flakes
2 t smoked paprika
1 t chile powder

combine all ingredients in small saucepan and bring to boil. reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. add more red pepper flake, if desired.