Memories of a Tamale Queen
It began with a call from a longtime friend, Sangamo Club general manager David Radwine. The Sangamo Club was hosting the 1995 Hope School Celebrity Chef Benefit. Rick Bayless, chef/owner of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo was the celebrity chef, but the SC was responsible for the first course: did I have any ideas?
I immediately thought of fresh corn tamales, served with green mole sauce. They’d coordinate perfectly with Bayless’ menu that Radwine described. He asked if I’d assemble the tamales on the event day; I agreed.
After I’d hung up, it hit me – those tamales would be part of a Rick Bayless meal. They were good, but still….
Bayless is a culinary icon. In 1995 he hadn’t yet begun making PBS cooking shows, and his line of Frontera salsas and marinades (now available in most groceries) was on the drawing board. But through his restaurants and first cookbook, Authentic Mexican, he’d introduced Americans to sophisticated and nuanced Mexican cuisine few imagined.
Bayless grew up in his Oklahoma family’s barbeque restaurant with no thoughts of a cooking career. But a trip with his wife, Deann, to study Mexican anthropology, evolved into a lifelong, life-changing discovery of the anthropology of Mexican cooking.
Like most Americans, I enjoyed “Mexican” food – my mom’s tamale pie; taco kits with hardshell tacos, ground beef seasoning and canned salsa; nachos and fajitas. Taco Bell was tasty, too. But, tasty as it was, to most gringos, “Mexican” food was monochromatic.
Bayless showed us otherwise. What we’d thought of as Mexican was more Tex than Mex. I attended Bayless’ cooking seminars. We ate at Frontera (to our kids, a Chicago trip had to include Frontera), and Peter and I dined at upscale Topolobampo by ourselves. Alice Waters (“mother” of the local, seasonal, sustainable food movement) said her first priority whenever in Chicago was eating there. Bayless was named the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef of 1995, the chef equivalent of an Oscar for Best Actor/Actress.
Gulp! Arriving at the Sangamo Club on benefit day, I found the kitchen in full throttle. Bayless and his sous chef, Tracey Vowell, were working alongside SC chef Larry Langley and his staff. I’d seen Bayless countless times at Frontera, often with his daughter, Lanie, perched on his shoulder as he visited with diners. In the SC kitchen, he was equally easygoing, totally lacking the bombast and inflated ego of some celebrity chefs.
I had a separate workspace and an assistant. The cornhusks were presoaked, the masa mixture ready. The staff would clean up. “I could get used to this!” I thought.
Making 600 tamales for 300 guests took awhile. By late afternoon, the masa mixture was gone, but we were 24 tamales short. I glanced at the clock: there was barely enough time to get home, shower and change for the dinner. We quickly squeezed bits from already formed tamales, and got the job done.
Returning to the SC, I went into the kitchen – and stopped, frozen with embarrassment. Bayless and Vowell were frantically working, cleaning piles of tamales. They’d exploded. I immediately knew why – and knew it was my fault. Masa expands as it steams, and it’s a cardinal rule not to wrap the cornhusks tightly around the filling – something I’d forgotten in my haste to make those last two dozen.
Bayless and Vowell had done a good job. On the plates, the tamales looked and tasted good. People I didn’t know – and didn’t know I’d made them – loved them. But I couldn’t enjoy their praise as much as I would have if the James Beard 1995 Outstanding Chef hadn’t had to fix my mistake.
Afterwards Bayless and Vowell – very nice people – were gracious about it. The next day, Radwine sent me a beautiful bouquet addressed: “To The Tamale Queen.” He’s also very nice, but I wondered if he wasn’t being just a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’ve never had the courage to ask.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fresh corn tamales
I used traditional dried corn husks for the Hope School Benefit, but since then have discovered that fresh corn leaves and husks are even better – and easier.
- 24 fresh corn leaves OR the fresh outer husks of sweet corn, washed and dried.
- 1 fresh poblano chile
- 8 T. 1 T. unhydrogenated lard OR unsalted butter (*See note below.)
- 3/4 tsp. baking powder
- 2 tsp. salt plus additional for seasoning the corn mixture
- 1 c. fresh corn, including any juices
- 1/2 c. minced white onion
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2T. chopped cilantro leaves
- 6 c. masa harina, available in the ethnic section of many groceries
- Approximately 6 c. lukewarm chicken or vegetable stock
Cut both ends of the leaves to form strips about 15 inches long. Bend each leaf in half, rough side outside, gently breaking the central rib.
Roast the poblano over an open flame of a gas burner or grill by holding it by its stem with tongs or laying it on a rack. Turn until the skin is completely blackened. Put the chile in a paper bag and close the top. Steam for about 5 minutes. Wipe off the blackened skin with a paper towel, remove seeds and stem and coarsely chop.
Heat the tablespoon of lard and/or butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until they are softened and just beginning to brown. Add the poblano and cook for another minute. Stir in the corn and cook until it’s tender and any juices have evaporated, about 4 or 5 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and salt to taste. Cool to room temperature and set aside.
Put the masa in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer and beat in enough of the stock to form a stiff but pliable dough. Now gradually beat in the lard and/or butter in large spoonfuls. Sprinkle in the baking powder. Continue beating 3 to 4 minutes or until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in more stock by tablespoonsful if it appears stiff – it should resemble light cake batter. Test by putting a dollop in cool water – it should float.
Stir in the corn mixture. If using leaves, spread about 1/3-1/4 c. of the mixture over one half of the smooth side of a leaf, leaving a border around three sides. Fold over and gently press so that the upper side adheres to the filling. Layer the tamales horizontally no more than three deep in a steamer basket, and steam them over simmering water for 20-30 minutes, adding more water if necessary.
If using husks: trim off any small leaves and about 1 inch of the pointed end. Place 1/3-1/2 c. of the masa mixture in the center inside of the husk, leaving a border and the upper third of the husk bare. Gently fold the sides in to cover the masa, gently cracking the edges if necessary. Fold the pointed end up to make a neat package. Lay it pointed side down while repeating with the remaining filling and husks. Stack them standing upright, folded side on the bottom in a steamer and steam for 45 or more minutes.
The tamales are done when firm to the touch. Serve with mole verde or a good bottled green salsa. Makes about 24
*Note: Lard – at least lard that hasn’t been chemically altered (hydrogenated) – has gotten an unfairly bad rap. It actually has much less saturated fat than butter, and almost twice as much monounsaturated (a.k.a. good) fat. To learn more, check out my 10/22/08 IT column, Food’s Four-Letter Word.
Unhydrogenated lard is available locally at Humphrey’s Market, 1821 S. 15th St., 217-544-7518, and at Stan Schutte’s stand at the downtown Wednesday Farmers Market. Stan also makes monthly Springfield deliveries to his buying club — call 217-895-3652 or e-mail him at email@example.com
Mole verde (Green mole)
- 1 lb. fresh tomatillos, husked and washed
- 1 poblano chile
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 handful EACH flat-leafed parsley and cilantro, or use all cilantro
- 1/2 c. water
- 1 T. masa harina
- 2 T. unhydrogentated lard, bacon fat, or butter (*See note below.)
- salt and sugar to taste
Heat a griddle or heavy skillet over moderately high heat. Add the tomatillos to the skillet. Sear, turning frequently, until the tomatillos are blackened in spots and somewhat soft, about 10 minutes. Put in the container of an electric blender or food processor.
Roast the poblano over an open flame of a gas burner or grill by holding it by its stem with tongs or laying it on a rack. Turn until the skin is completely blackened. Put the chile in a paper bag and close the top. Steam for about 5 minutes. Wipe off the blackened skin with a paper towel, remove seeds and stem and coarsely chop. Add to the blender along with the garlic, onion, parsley, cilantro, water and masa. Purée until smooth.
Heat the lard in a heavy saucepan or skillet over high heat. Add the purée and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered for about 10 minutes, until it’s thickened to the consistency of a fine-textured salsa. Season to taste with salt and sugar. Cool to room temperature before serving. Keeps, refrigerated for about a week. Mole verde freezes well. Makes about 3 cups.
*Note: Lard – at least lard that hasn’t been chemically altered (hydrogenated) to keep without refrigeration – has gotten an unfairly bad rap. It actually has much less saturated fat than butter, and almost twice as much monounsaturated (a.k.a. good) fat as butter. To learn more, check out my 10/22/08 IT column, Food’s Four-Letter Word.
Unhydrogenated lard is available locally at Humphrey’s Market, 1821 S. 15th St., 217-544-7518, and at Stan Schutte’s stand at the downtown Wednesday Farmers Market. Stan also makes monthly Springfield deliveries to his buying club — call 217-895-3652 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.