Food is Love, Love is Food.

A blog devoted to the connection between meals, memories and the special moments in our lives.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Wing and a Prayer - Gringo Tamales

My husband and I have a tradition that many may think odd. On our anniversary each year, we make a top-ten list of our favorite meals together over the twenty years we have known each other. Strange, I know. I can’t even remember how we started this tradition, though it has always been our chiefest pastime to cook, eat, and share with friends. It goes without saying that the food needs to be good in order for a meal to make it into a top ten list that spans twenty years, but more often than not, the meals also involve a memory that is unique and special, a moment in time that speaks to warmth, love, and togetherness. I have found in my life that the most memorable meals I have ever had are accompanied by an ambiance, a mood, a sharing of something. Often it involves family, great friends; sometimes, it is just the two of us or the four of us. This tradition of ours, obsessive (about food) though it may be, enables us to revisit these strong associations regularly, and keeps those feelings and memories alive for many years.

And it is a good thing we have good memories, because while I like to take a recipe, try it our, tweak it, change it, add or subtract what I like, dislike or want more of, Michael totally wings it, makes it up as he goes, and flies by the seat of his pants. As a result, we never have exactly the same meal twice, at least not if he is cooking. As we sit down to his dinners, created lovingly, I may compliment the chef. Often, Michael will say, “Like it? Too bad you’ll never have it again.” It has become the running kitchen joke of our marriage (that, along with the thing about going to the bathroom after eating asparagus).

So this past weekend, he made what I am referring to as “Gringo Tamales.” I begged him to write down what he was doing as he was doing it, but as much as he claims to love me, he did not. As a result, I was forced to take copious notes, retry, and recreate these tamales. In no way are these authentic, so feel free to add or subtract ingredients, change up the stuffing, whatever. Note that nobody who lives in or hails from a place where tamales are a traditional food would ever propose using tin foil sheets as a tamale vehicle either. They would be totally offended by the mere suggestion, no doubt. We are suggesting it anyway.

For the tamale dough:

3 15-oz.cans hominy (drained and rinsed)
1 clove garlic
1 tb. Onion powder
1 tb. Paprika
1 cup fine masa harina
5 tb. Shortening (I know, but it is not like you are going to make this stuff every day)
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking powder
¾ cup warm chicken stock

To make the tamale dough:

Put the hominy in the food processor and process until smooth. Add all other ingredients and process for about a minute until all ingredients are well combined.  It should be the consistency of frosting and should be spreadable.

For the filling:

2 split chicken breasts, bone-in
2 tb. Recaito (found in the latino food section of the grocery store)
2 tsp. fresh lime juice
2 chipotle peppers, packed in adobo (buy them in a can, and save the rest for another purpose)
1 tb. prepared green salsa
2 tb. fresh pico de gallo
1 tsp. white vinegar
1 tb. olive oil
1 clove garlic
2 cups of chicken stock

To cook the chicken:

Put all ingredients except the olive oil, onion, chicken stock, and chicken in the food processor, and puree. Put chicken (seasoned with salt and pepper) in a hot cast iron skillet with the olive oil, and brown on all sides. Add onions and sauté a minute or two more, then pour 2 cups of chicken stock into the pan. Pour the sauce made in the food processor directly on top of the chicken. Bring up to temperature, then cover and place in an oven, preheated to 350 degrees. Cook for 90 minutes, until chicken falls off the bone. Take chicken out of pan, reduce remaining liquid until it is very thick. Remove skin and bones from chicken, and mix filling ingredients thoroughly.

Additional ingredients:

Queso fresco or feta cheese
Sautéed spinach with garlic

To assemble tamales:

We used sheets of tin foil, which worked really well. Into each one, place about 3-4 tablespoons of the masa harina mixture, and spread evenly across the foil sheets, while leaving the edges empty. In the center, place 1 ½ tablespoons of the shredded chicken, topped by sautéed spinach and some of the queso fresco. Close the tin foil sheet almost like a burrito, working to enclose the meat, spinach and cheese within the masa harina. Repeat until finished (we made about 12 tamales) - this part is a very inexact science.

Put a steamer basket in the bottom of a large stockpot, with about an inch of water in the bottom of the pot. Stand the tamales on end inside. Place a cover on the pot, and if necessary, put something heavy on top of the lid. Steam the tamales for an hour, making sure that water remains in the bottom of the pot (we did not have a problem at all…not enough steam escaped.

Unwrap the tamales carefully to try to keep them intact. I think they would be great served with a little of the fresh pico de gallo and some sour cream, but I was too lazy to get up off the couch to get some. You can let me know!

Note:  This recipe is not nearly as complicated as it may seem when you read through it.  It involves several steps, but was really quite easy, and even our kids got in on the tamale building action.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Celebrate the Beginning of Spring with Lemon Bread

Easter has always been a season of contradictions for me. On the one hand, it usually marks the beginning of spring. On the other hand, the weather is often a little iffy. The color of clothing typically sold for the holiday is pastel and white, yet technically, the fashion police would tell you that one cannot wear white until after Memorial Day. See? Stuck in the middle. Personally, it has, since I was a child, been a season touched with just a bit of melancholy. My father died suddenly in the week before Easter when I was just shy of nine years old, and of course, whenever there is a loss that close to a holiday, one always associates the holiday with the loss. My mother worked tirelessly to ensure that our lives did carry on with joy and promise after this loss. She is a remarkable woman, and one I admire deeply. I had the privilege, when I was in college, of spending Easter with my mother’s first cousins in Italy, whom I had never met before. I got to know my relatives in Italy, including my cousin Nico, and this was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. A few years later, as a young adult embarking on my first career, I met my husband on Good Friday, and begin dating him the week after. So although Easter is still a holiday that makes me think of the loss my family suffered many years ago, it is the renewal, the resurrection, the new life, I choose to celebrate. That serendipitous meeting during Easter weekend 20 years ago now, set the stage for the life Michael and I have created for ourselves. And just as one can associate loss with a holiday or event, one can also choose to replace that association. This is the great gift my mother has given me all these years: to choose the joy rather than the sorrow. To choose that which moves us towards happiness and wholeness rather than that which keeps us stagnant.
It is no wonder that the foods that are most associated with Easter have symbolic meaning as well. My Gram used to make Italian Easter Bread. The dough was a yeast dough. It rose. It had a brightness of flavor from the anise extract she added, and colored eggs were braided into it. Pastel sprinkles were added, and a bright egg wash made them shine. The breads were almost too beautiful to eat. But we did anyway…they smelled and tasted even better than they looked. From time to time I still make those Easter breads, but as I have said before, my mother taught me well that stagnation was not a good thing. If we always keep on doing what we always do, we never discover the joy of discovering. So it was in this spirit that I stumbled upon our own family tradition for Easter: lemon bread. I found this recipe in Cooking Light magazine shortly after I met my husband 20 years ago, and adapted it slightly. I don’t think my daughters have ever had an Easter without this Lemon bread. It is the sure sign of spring in my house; a kiss of sunlight, a promise of joy in the future. Whether or not you celebrate Easter, this bread is a winner. It is moist and bright. It is sweet and tart. Here is to the awakening of spring within all of us!

Sweet and Sticky Lemon Bread (adapted from Cooking Light)

1 stick unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1. tsp lemon extract
2 ¼ cups flour
¾ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. baking soda
1 6 oz. container of lemon yogurt (vanilla will work in a pinch)

½ cup sugar
½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg, and mix to blend. Add half the flour to the mixture along with the salt, baking powder and baking soda. After mixing, add the carton of yogurt and the extracts. Mix. Add the remaining flour and mix just until it is incorporated. The dough will be rather stiff.  Put the dough in a greased loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

To make the glaze:

Put the sugar and the lemon juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Let cook over medium low heat for about 2 minutes.

As soon as the cake is out of the oven, take a large meat fork and pierce the loaf all over. Using a silicone pastry brush, brush the lemon glaze over the loaf, allowing the glaze to soak into the loaf. Once all the glaze has been absorbed, let the loaf cool for 15 minutes, then remove the loaf from the pan and allow to cool on a wire cooling rack. Slice and serve.