This past week, we finally got a taste of spring. I mean, it’s the end of February, so I’m aware that this is because of climate change. But we had two days of temperatures in the 60s followed by two days in the 70s. It was wonderful! I finally got to open the sunroof in my car! But at the same time, it was weird to see the trees budding and my daffodils and jonquils blooming in front of my house. And then yesterday, everything changed. The wind chill was 16, and it was snowing and bitter cold. I didn’t like it one bit. I hope my flowers are ok. I know my cough came back to visit.
But in the meantime, I’m attempting to make something I love: tamales. These tamales, known as Nacatamales in Nicaragua, are the first ones I’ve ever tried to make and had to work a little bit to invent a way to make it without a special tamale pan. The first thing I did was make the dough: I mixed 6 c of masa harina (corn flour), 1 c of vegetable shortening, and 1 Tbsp of salt in a bowl and used my blender to blend it all together. With the mixer still on low speed, I mixed in ½ c naranja agria (sour orange juice – I found it at a Mexican grocery store), and just enough chicken stock to make it soft. Then I pushed my mixer up to medium so that it would add in some air and make it fluffier. After this, I covered the bowl and let it sit about a half hour. While that was resting, I assembled the fillings. I took my cubed pork (I used a pork loin instead of pork butt), seasoned it with salt and pepper and placed it in a bowl. In separate bowls for each ingredient, I had my cooked rice, some sliced potatoes, a bit of diced onion, and some chopped mint. (It was supposed to have some tomato slices, but I forgot to get them out.) To assemble it I laid out a banana leaf with the smooth side up. I put about 1c of masa dough in the middle and spread it out a little (it’s easier if your hands are wet so they don’t stick). Then I placed some pork on top, a couple slices of potato and onion, and topped it with a little bit of chopped mint leaves. I folded the top of the banana leaf down, and then the bottom side up. Then I folded in each side to make a little package. (I’m not good at folding packages; I’ve failed miserably in the past. But this time seemed to go ok.) Carefully flipping it over so that the seam side is down, I wrapped it up in aluminum foil in the same way, except a little tighter perhaps. After doing this with all of the banana leaves, it was time to cook them. I put some water in the bottom of the pot and put my steamer basket in there, placing the tamales in the basket to steam for the next 3-4 hours. I checked every half hour or so to make sure my water wasn’t completely evaporated, which it did a couple of times. I was also unsure of whether it was actually cooking correctly since the steamer basket I had doesn’t match my pot. (I need to get a good set that does – and a large one at that!) But after 3 hours 15 minutes, I took them out and they were done. Well, the meat was cooked through, but the potatoes were still hard in places. (Next time, I’ll par-boil the potatoes first.) I had so little faith that this would end well, but I was completely surprised that it did.
|Always good. I'd use this inside a burrito.|
To go with this, I made their national dish: Gallo Pinto. I had made this before for Costa Rica but had used black beans instead. This time I’m using dark kidney beans. And there are several variations to this dish; I decided to make mine based on some of the Caribbean coastal varieties. I heated up some coconut oil in a skillet and sautéed my onions and minced garlic. After a couple of minutes, I stirred in my drained kidney beans (I reserved some of the liquid), salt, and pepper. I brought my heat up so that it could start to boil then reduced it. Once the beans have cooked through for a few minutes, I added in my cooked rice to the beans and stirred everything together, pouring in my reserved liquid from the beans. At this point, I also added in a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and some chopped cilantro to it. This was really good; the kids ate it all up. I liked the flavor of the kidney beans with the rice, and the addition of the cilantro and Worcestershire sauce was a good idea.
|Excelente. Perfect for breakfast or a midnight snack. Or afternoon snack. Or mid-morning snack.|
Now comes the pièce de résistance: Pastel de Tres Leches (literally, Cake of Three Milks). I have run across this cake several times when I searched for recipes but have never tried it (to my knowledge; if I had, I was unaware of what I was eating). However, since its origins are often contributed to Nicaragua (and sometimes disputed), I’m doing it now. I'm counting it as my bread since it has flour in it, but actually the tamales were also made with flour, too. So... anyway. I sifted my flour and baking powder together in a bowl and set off to the side. In a separate bowl, I creamed in my butter and sugar together. Then I added in 5 room temperature eggs (one at a time) and some vanilla extract. Then I took my flour mix and mixed it into the butter-sugar mix. Once everything is consistently mixed together, I poured this into my greased and floured 9x13 cake pan and baked at 350ºF for about 27-28 minutes. Once I took it out, I poked holes all though the top of the cake. Then I mixed together whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk together and carefully poured it on top of the cake. I put this in the refrigerator for a 2 hours or so to chill. In the meantime, I made the topping: I beat the heavy whipping cream, sugar, and vanilla together until it started to hold like whipped cream and formed soft peaks. When the cake was finished chillin’ in the fridge, I spread the homemade whipped cream on top of the cake, cut, and served it. I thought it was pretty sweet and almost overpowering on the vanilla side. I think if I were to do this again, I’d use almond extract in the whipped cream instead of vanilla extract. That way, it’d have a contrasting flavor from the cake. Or I might go back and add some fruit or something. But otherwise, it was good.
|It was a hit with the whole family.|
Outside of yelling at the kids all afternoon (why do they have to fight over every single thing?), this afternoon was long. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at tamales, and I finally did it. And now I know why my local Mexican place in the neighborhood only offers tamales on Wednesdays. I have a whole new respect for tamale places now. It’s a great way to make a little bit of food go a long way and fill you up. But the next time I get a craving, I’m heading to my local place. This is one dish I’ll let someone else make.
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