Saturday, August 3, 2013

In Her Kitchen: Tamales with Mary Ann

I have so much appreciation for home cooks – my friends, family and colleagues that live to be in their kitchens. For whom cooking is more than a way to feed their families, but a way to feed their souls. I’m going to be featuring some of those home cooks and the moments I spend in their kitchens, here on The Coquettish Cook blog.

My first opportunity to spend time with a cook in their element came through Mary Ann Barajas, a colleague with whom I've enjoyed many conversations about food and cooking. Last Saturday, I was welcomed into the Warwick home that Mary Ann shares with her partner, Missy, to watch some tamale making in action.

Clockwise: One of many pieces of Mexican Day of the Dead folk art in the house;
Mary Ann, tasting her creations;
A party guest, showing her daughter how to roll a tamale.

Mary Ann’s family is Mexican and lived on a ranch in San Angelo, Texas until she was 7. “We had chickens, cows, pigs and goats on the ranch. Sometimes when I was small I would wake up early and go into the barn or the chicken coop where my mom would find me fast asleep." The kitchen was a big part of her life. "My mom and my brother are both excellent cooks.”

Tamales are a dish that Mary Ann grew up with – tender meat, enfolded in a corn dough, called masa, steamed in a corn husk. But tamales are not something you make for just one dinner guest. In fact, Mary Ann said, in Mexican culture, tamales are typically a Christmas dish, made for large groups. (When Mary Ann called her brother in Texas to verify a step in the tamale making process, he asked “what are you doing making tamales in July?”) Seasonality aside, an important part of the tradition is that the family gathers to make the tamales as a group – it’s part of the festive nature of the dish. Mary Ann called for reinforcements and the party began. While a hungry crowd chatted and laughed outside, a few of us gathered inside to learn how to spread the masa on the corn husk, fill it with the slow cooked, shredded  top round beef and roll it into a tight package.

Rolling and steaming the tamales

The tamales steamed in a large pot for about an hour. Fortunately, we had other tasty treats to keep us happy. Mary Ann and Missy’s friend Jean, who is Columbian, made both sweet and savory fried plantains. The savory variety were my favorite – crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and lightly salted. Jean said the savory style was made from green plantains, cut, smashed and fried til golden brown. The sweet variety are made from yellow, more ripe plantains, cut and fried whole. No eggs or coating are used. I love the simplicity of them.

Jean's Sweet Plantains

While we waited for the tamales to reach the perfect degree of doneness (with the corn husk pulling easily away from the masa), Mary Ann set out some additional dishes: ground beef enchiladas with home made enchilada sauce and queso fresco; yellow rice with peppers and onions and slow cooked pinto beans with bacon.

Enchiladas, Rice and Beans

Finally, the main event. The tamales came out piled high on a platter and everyone dug in. They were like nothing I've ever had in a restaurant, with layers of flavor infused into all the components of the tamales. We all ate packed into the kitchen, unwilling to wait for the extra second it would take to bring our plates to the table. For a short time, I got to experience a little slice of Mexican Christmas. Surrounded by people, happily eating and laughing, kids, dogs, cat and one lucky blogger. When it was time to leave, Mary Ann sent me home with a heaping plate of tamales and enchiladas. Merry Christmas indeed.

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