“It is memory that provides the heart with impetus, fuels the brain, and propels the corn plant from seed to fruit.” -Joy Harjo
I grew up in Texas. After barbecue, Mexican is probably the most popular food around. There is even an entire subset of Mexican food, Tex-Mex, which has been largely created and spread by Texans across the US. I love Mexican food. Growing up, we ate some sort of “Mexican” food a couple of times a week. This usually consisted of Chicken Fajitas, ground beef tacos, or my mom’s green chili chicken casserole. These are quintessentially American Mexican dishes, and genuinely delicious, but have very little in common with true Mexican food.
My early idea of Mexico was an exaggerated blend of Zorro, Speedy Gonzales, and the local Santa Fe restaurant, which was owned by our very white American neighbor. I imagined sweeping vistas of cacti and dunes, dry pueblos cracking in the sun, and lonely vaqueros in their sombreros, riding their burros toward the sunset. Lawrence of Arabia, south of the border style. I thought Mexican food was the standard ground beef, wrapped in a flour or corn tortilla, dressed in some generic red sauce, and topped with Monterey Jack cheese. This is all I knew, I can’t be blamed.
When we moved to California, my Mexican food world was turned on it’s head. Now I learned of giant burritos with Carne Asada, fresh Snapper Veracruz, and the crowning glory of Baja style Mexican food, the fish taco. I could, and probably will, write an entire post recalling my first fish taco. Let me just say that it is a genious dish. Fried, crispy fish wrapped in two soft corn tortillas, topped with cabbage slaw, a little crema, fresh salsa, and a squirt of lime, fish tacos are meant to be eaten somewhere where the seabreeze is gentle, and the sun is shining. These were distinct flavors, new to my vocabulary. They still said Mexico, but with a twist.
Then I got married. My wife and I share a passion for warm waters, white sand, and a little latin flair. We have honeymooned in Cancun, not the bastion of Mexican culture. We have driven down the coast to Baja California. We have spent many days under a palapa, soaking in the Mexican sun. We have eaten new and interesting dishes of Mayan origin, like shrimp with huitlacoche, chicken in Mole Negro, and gorgeous fresh ceviches. We have watched as baby sea turtles hatched and made their way into the dark ocean. We have laughed together and marveled at how the water changes color in the fading sunlight. We have dodged potholes, not necessarily successfully, on a moped. We have eaten Carne Asada tacos at a roadside grill. We have even had to pay off the policia for a “ticket” once.
I now have a wholly different image of Mexico than I had when I was young; hot jungles, ancient ruins, Mayan art, impossibly beautiful stretches of nearly uninhabited beach. Sherry and I have a special place in our hearts for Mexico. We don’t just appreciate the Riviera Maya, but Baja California, the sandy dunes near the California border, the haunting beauty of the cenotes, the cliffside hotels overlooking the ocean, and the sometimes beautiful, sometimes well-worn people we have met. It is a wonderful place of contrast, spice, and beauty. The food we eat should reflect that.
Enter the tamale. I loved these as a kid, eating them with that same generic red sauce. These however, are a completely different beast. This is a Rick Bayless recipe, and I never knew something like it existed. It is from Veracruz, and originally they are wrapped in banana leaves. I use corn husks, because that’s what I have. The sweetness of the corn, playing against the savory pork is delicious. The sauce cuts through with some acid and heat for balance. They take some time, but it is worth it. This is an elevation of my childhood memories, and a great representative of how something I thought I knew could become something so much better. Serve this with a simple salad of sliced avocado, mango, a little diced onion and jalapeno and a squirt of lime. Grab a Coca Lite. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself somewhere far from the cold.
Sweet Corn Tamales with Pork Picadillo and Red Chile Salsa
adapted from Rick Bayless
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 medium white onion, cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces
- 1 pound ground pork–best with coarse-ground pork, often called “chili grind” or “stir-fry” pork
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- A generous 1/2 teaspoon EACH ground cinnamon and black pepper
- 3/4 of a 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup raisins
- 1/3 cup coarsely chopped roasted peanuts or toasted almonds
Saute the onion in the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until transparent. Add pork and cook until well browned, about 10 minutes. Add next 5 ingredients and cook until the mixture is thick enough to just hold together, with no sauce remaining, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add chopped nuts. Cool.
- 12 corn husks, soaked for at least 30 minutes
- The kernels cut from 2 large cleaned ears sweet corn (about 2 1/2 cups)
- 1 3/4 C dried masa harina for tamales reconstituted with 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot water, then allowed to cool
- 1/2 C shortening, lard or butter
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 baking powder
In a food processor, pulse the corn kernels into a medium coarse puree. Add the next 5 ingredients and process until smooth. Lay the corn husk out flat, and spread about 1/3 C of the masa mixture onto the husk. Spoon 1/4 C of the picadillo mixture onto the masa, and gently fold the husk, with masa, over the filling. wrap the husk tightly around the tamale and tie with a strip of husk at each end, like a tootsie roll, or fold the husk over and tie around the whole tamale, like wrapping a present. Place tamales in a steamer over medium heat and steam for 1.5-2 hours, or until the masa is set. I use a Chinese bamboo steamer. Serve with Salsa.
Red Chile Salsa
- 1 large ripe tomato
- 2 garlic cloves unpeeled
- 8 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
- 1 chipotle in adobo, seeds scraped out
Roast the tomato and garlic under the broiler until well browned. Peel and chop coarsely. In a dry pan, toast the chiles until fragrant, but not burnt. Remove from heat and cover the chiles with water to re-hydrate Allow to sit for about 30 minutes. In a blender, add the tomato, garlic and chiles. Blend to a smooth consistency. If too thick, add a little water to thin out. Strain to remove chile skins, add salt to taste.