Monday, February 13, 2012

Meatless Monday*: Tamales!

When I was teaching, most of my students were of Mexican heritage. Sharing food is a big part of Mexican culture, I learned. When you share food, you share part of yourself.

Whenever one of my students brought me food (which was often), my heart sang. I was so happy to be included in the life of the community. There were bunuelos (like cinnamon-sugar-coated doughnuts for Christmas); tres leches (or "three milk cake") with strawberry or peach filling between the layers; breakfast tacos (egg and potato) on homemade tortillas; bean tacos and jello molds and dulce de cacahuate (a very sweet peanut candy that the kiddos brought me from holiday trips to Mexico). And best of all: bean tamales.

It's possible (but sad) that you aren't familiar with tamales. Tamales are a version of a steamed dumpling. They consist of a filling, wrapped in corn dough, and held together by a wrapper made from a corn husk or banana leaf. Usually, tamales have a pork filling. Sometimes chicken, sometimes beef. 

My students knew that I didn't eat red meat or pork. Their mothers went out of their way to share food with me that fit my dietary preferences. I remember little Genesis bringing me a bundle wrapped in tinfoil - bean tamales!

The word tamales should always be followed by an exclamation point. In our family cookbook, there is the following sentence: Nanny (our great-grandmother, who was Russian and married a Spaniard who moved the whole family to Guatemala) would bring fruitcake to Southern California on Christmas Day along with tins of Christmas cookies, and sometimes tamales! I feel like the exclamation point says everything you need to know about tamales: a treat of the highest order, a reason to rejoice. TAMALES!

And I find bean tamales to be the most wonderful tamales of all. It's something about the humble combination of bean and corn - that through the magic of love and steam, they are elevated to a new level of delightfulness. These simple ingredients are good for the earth, good for you, and good for your taste buds.

The bean tamales made by Genesis's mother set the standard for what I expect from tamales: a thin layer of masa (the cornmeal part), a filling that is rich and creamy, a beautiful presentation.

Recently, while researching a post, I came across a recipe for Squash, Black Bean and Goat Cheese Tamales. (Click here to find the recipe). That's pretty much all of my favorite things, wrapped in a cornhusk. I had to try it.

So I gathered up my veg-cooking friends and we set (and rescheduled) a date. While the rest of America was watching the SuperBowl, we were cooking.

I'd heard that tamales were hard to make, but we found that it wasn't difficult, just time consuming. It's not something you can whip up on a Monday night. However, the directions in the recipe were great, and we were able to easily figure out what to do. A few notes:

- The outer layer of tamales consists of masa and some kind of fat to bind it together. Often, tamales are made with lard or Crisco, but this recipe used a small amount of canola and some part-skim ricotta. It might be non-traditional, but it lightens the recipe up.
- I'm extremely particular about the amount of masa on my tamales. Too little, and they fall apart. Too much, and they dry out and all you taste is cornmeal. Genesis' mom, as I said, is the gold standard. We came close. I think we could have spread the masa a little thinner, but for a first try, I felt pretty happy about it.
- My friend Jenn has a dutch oven with a steamer basket, and this was ideal for cooking the tamales. However, we almost burned our second batch because there wasn't enough water. Lesson learned: Remember the water cycle.
- The process takes a couple of hours, but there's a fair amount of down time while you wait for the corn husks to soak or the tamales to steam. It's the perfect cooking adventure to have with friends.

I hope you try this. It's worth the effort and the recipe has amazing directions.

 A few more thoughts on tamales:
There's a famous children's book called Too Many Tamales, by Gary Soto. It's a Christmas story (tamales are a traditional Christmas dish) about some kids who lose a precious heirloom while mixing the masa and eat all the tamales to find it. There's a picture of all the kids looking like they are going to barf that makes me want to barf, so I can't ever read that book.

In Houston, if you are out with friends on a warm night, sitting at a patio cafe, a vendor will often come around selling tamales. At certain time of night, and with a certain number of friends, a dozen tamales is the perfect late night snack.

* Meatless Monday is a movement to increase awareness of greener eating by encouraging people to eat meatless every Monday

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