A fresh tamal and a mug of hot atole set on the kitchen counter next to rows of steaming tamales set out to cool: That says holidays to me.
When the Fernández family reunites this year, we will make tamales and tell stories about them. The kids start by cleaning corn silk from the hojas, eventually learning to spread masa, and the most experienced tamaleras filling and folding. Our Grandma always carefully stacked the steamer, leaning the tamales against an inverted mug in the center, not letting any of them spring open and packing them just so.
We learned from our neighbor about tying the tamales so they don’t flip open. She learned long ago from her new in-laws, who determined she was all thumbs. The next year she wanted to be ready, so she practiced ripping two thin strips of hoja, tying them together for length, and then tying around the tamal. The in-laws then admitted they usually skipped the ties.
I enjoy other families’ tamales made with a green un-pitted olive, though our family never uses olives, even though we like them. The tradition is to give tamales as gifts or sell enough to pay for the season’s tamale ingredients. My siblings, cousins, and I would stand in the yard with a big sign and hold up a dozen in a plastic bag.
Reviving old traditions, I’m learning to use my great grandmother Abuelita’s well-used metate and metlapil (mano) to grind the corn. Grinding nixtamal is quicker and easier than it sounds, but I do need more practice. While Abuelita didn’t grind the corn herself, Papa whipped air into the masa with his bare hands, making onditas (waves) in the stiff batter. Papa, my grandfather, taught me to grow a little corn, chile, squash, and beans in the backyard and render lard.
I also make mole on this three-legged metate, another special dish with a long recipe. When filling tamales with mole, the starch and fat in tamales subdue the chiles and spices, so the mole can be bolder than might be served pooled on a plate. Mole negro gets heat from plenty of chipotle morita, pasilla and mulato chiles, a slight bitterness from cacao nibs instead of sweetened chocolate, and has just enough local pecans to finish the sauce.
This meal can be made ahead of time before guests arrive, but it’s more fun to get any available family and willing guests involved. I especially thank my family for their help and good times in the kitchen!
Clean the hojas of corn silk and debris from the field. Soak in very hot water, stirring and weighing them down. When pliable, remove from water and squeeze dry. Select the largest hojas or piece two smaller ones together. Feel the veins of the hoja on both sides and put the smooth side up. Cooked masa sticks to the coarse side. Place ¼ cup of prepared masa at the cut end of the hoja. Spread the masa until it is about 5 inches along the cut side of the hoja, and about 4 inches up the hoja towards the tassel end. Next scoop 2 tablespoons meat/mole mixture into the center. Spread up and down to make a 2-inch wide line in the center (following the veins of the leaf). Fold the sides of the hoja to cover (folding in thirds with the veins of the leaf). It is fine if some of the masa is caught in the folds. Then fold the pointed end over (in half against the veins of the leaf). Pile the tamales carefully to prevent them from unfolding. Or tie with a thin strip of hoja (two lengths tied together to make it long enough) to hold the tassel end folded.
Line a steamer with small hojas. Stand the tamales upright with the open end up. Pack in the steamer tightly enough to keep them standing, but leave enough space for them to expand during cooking. Bring water in the bottom of streamer to a boil. After the appearance of steam, cook for 1½ hours more. Carefully remove a tamal from the steamer. Cover with small hojas and/or a tea towel (it will become chile stained). If the masa is firm to the touch and when unfolded the masa falls away from the hoja, the tamales are ready. As they cool, the masa will continue to firm.
Reheat by steam or on a lightly oiled cast iron pan. Cooked tamales freeze beautifully for a few months.
With any remaining filling, eat in a hot tortilla. If you have more masa than meat, make sweet tamales. Mix raisins, shredded coconut, sugar, and cinnamon into the masa. Or make a filling of pinto beans by cooking, pureeing, and sweetening with brown sugar.
Adapted from Darcey Blue’s recipe in Desert Harvesters’ EAT Mesquite! A Cookbook. This is a great way to showcase any little collection of edible seeds collected from the desert. Sesame seeds and poppy seed are just as pretty.
Mix everything and refrigerate, adding a tablespoon of water if necessary to make a stiff dough. Chill the dough thoroughly. Roll between two sheets of wax paper. Remove the top layer of paper and cut with a knife or cookie cutter. Bake on a lined cookie sheet in a preheated 375o oven for 6 to 8 minutes.
The addition of cream makes the cheese better for the empanada pastry recipe below, but isn’t required for great cheese. Rennet and culture are available at home beer brewing stores. For further instructions, consult Ricci Carroll, The Cheese Queen.
Warm the milk and cream to 86o. Sprinkle in the culture, allowing it to moisten for a minute, and stir. Allow to sit undisturbed for 12 hours (or up to 24 hours) until the curd pulls away from the sides of the pan. Add rennet to water and stir into milk. Very carefully spoon the yogurt-like curds out of the liquid whey and into a colander lined with a cloth napkin. Tie the corners of the napkin around a wooden spoon, place over the rim of a stock pot, and drain for 8 hours. Salt to taste. Sprinkle with herbs, crushed chiltepin or cracked black pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze.
My Grandma Valdés made scores of empanaditas every fall to sell at church. Pastry made with home ground whole wheat seems to crumble on me, so I started adding butter and cream cheese, and switched to open faced pies. Using White Sonora wheat flour with some of the bran sifted out, all-purpose or type 00, makes more forgiving dough for empanadas, small tarts, or one large pie.
Without peeling, core and dice the apples to ¼ inch pieces. Cook with a tiny bit of water until slightly softened. Sweeten to taste with jelly and add cinnamon. Add the prickly pear juice and thicken with cornstarch just until translucent to save the pink color.
Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor or mix in a bowl. Cut in cheese and then butter until a dough forms. Refrigerate until firm. Roll dough and fill. Bake in a preheated 400o oven until the crust is brown, about 60 minutes for a large pie. Serve immediately for the best pink color.
Atole is a hot, drinkable porridge with countless variations, perfect for breakfast, with meals or snacks, or as dessert. I often add mesquite for natural sweetness and omit the chocolate. The chocolate version is sometimes called champurrado. This recipe allows you to use mesquite pods without grinding them into meal.
Simmer the pods and cinnamon in water until the pods are soft and the water is brown or steep in a slow cooker overnight. Mash the pods with a spoon to extract some pulp from the pods. Strain the liquid. Whisk in the masa and simmer until slightly thickened. Sweeten with chocolate, honey or roasted agave syrup and thin if necessary. Serve hot.
Thanks to Arizona Sprout House, Desert Tortoise Botanicals, English Fruit Farm, Fiore di Capra, Flor de Mayo, Forever Yong Farm, Freddie Terry’s Apiaries, Green Valley Pecan Company, Hayden Flour Mills, Native Seeds/SEARCH, San Xavier Coop Farm, Skeleton Creek/The Mesquitery, Tucson Community Supported Agriculture, and Xocolatl for sourcing ingredients for this meal.
Amy Valdés Schwemm, at ManoYMetate.com, grinds chiles, spices, nuts, and seeds into six varieties of mole in a big metal-bladed grinder, for when you don’t have time to get out the metate. Toasting mole powders in the oil of your choice freshly releases the aromas as you make the sauce. Available online and at Native Seeds/SEARCH, Flor de Mayo, Santa Fe School of Cooking, Tucson CSA, Maynards Market, Tumacookery, Winter Sun Trading, Mercado San Agustin, Caduceus Cellars, and at the Desert Botanical Garden’s Chiles and Chocolate Festival, Nov. 15–17. Amy has been making Mole Dulce, Pipian Rojo, Adobo and Mole Verde since 2007; she’s also introducing Mole Negro and Pipian Picante (perfect with nopalitos).