Lifestyle

HOME ON THE RANGE: Impress your friends with hot tamales

Everyone should be able to prepare one dish that makes them seem better in the kitchen than they really are, that maximizes their assets and minimizes the stuff they’re not so great at. If you’re the type who can’t go wrong with flour and sugar, it behooves you to have a tremendous cake recipe up your sleeve for those times you want to fly a roomful of tastebuds to the moon.

That dish for me is Tamales Mole con Pollo, otherwise known as tamales with chicken and chocolate sauce. For some reason, I can’t miss with braised meats and Mexican food. I don’t even use measurements half the time. I just throw in an onion, some peppers, and somehow it tastes wonderful. My dinner guests think I’m some sort of magico senorita (please forgive the hackneyed Spanish).

Tamales are not difficult to make, really — the steps themselves are simple. It’s the process that’s time consuming, beginning with the trek to the store in search of special ingredients like dried corn husks, mole paste (Dona Maria is a good brand), mesa (flour made from ground corn), and dried peppers. Ideally, I’m able to locate two kinds of peppers, both mildly spicy. Pasilla peppers are crucial to mole. According to one of my cookbooks, the name translates to mean “little raisin,” an allusion to the dark brown coloring and raisinlike aroma. The other type I seek are Marisol peppers, which have a nutty flavor. The name means “looking at the sun.” (Somebody please tell me whether these translations are correct — Americans are always assigning quaint meanings to foreign words.) If you have difficulty finding these ingredients, try Tienda la Tejana at 41 NE Midway Blvd., in Oak Harbor. The nice folks there will help you out.

The particular recipe I follow is gleaned from some amazing, mouthwatering, stupendous, eat-them-for-breakfast-lunch-and-dinner tamales I enjoyed at an outdoor café while vacationing in Oaxaca. The café added mole to the chicken inside the tamales, lending an already delicious dish a sweet, spicy flavor. The combination was irresistible: I really did eat them for breakfast. When I returned to Washington state, I experienced harrowing withdrawals. I shook. I suffered hallucinations. I stayed up nights with the sweats. Seriously, these tamales are so delicious, they’re used as weapons of protest: Oaxacans recently distributed them around town to fend off a proposed McDonalds. Just before sticking my head into the oven, I realized I could make tamales at home.

Nowadays, I don’t prepare them as often as I did then. But I keep the recipe up my sleeve, to whip out for special occasions, when I want to show off. Try ’em. You’ll be glad you did.

Chicken

Mole Tamales

3 dried Marisol chiles, stems and seeds removed

2 dried Pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed

2 small tomatoes, peeled (blanch them briefly in boiling water to loosen the skins)

2-3 tablespoons mole paste

2 pounds boneless chicken breast (or a 2-pound pork or beef roast)

2 cups mesa flour

1 1/2-cups water

1/2-cup shortening (or lard, which gives you a more authentic Mexicans flavor)

A bag of corn husks, soaked in warm water

In a medium-sized bowl, cover the chiles with hot water and let them sit for 15 minutes, until softened. Then, combine the chiles, the water they were soaking in, the tomatoes, and the mole sauce in a blender or food processor. Puree until smooth.

In a saucepan, simmer the chicken in the chile concoction for 15 to 20 minutes or until tender, adding water if necessary.

Note: If you’re using pork or beef you’ll need to take the following steps before starting the chile mixture: Choose a 2-pound roast—any sort will do. Cover it with water. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the meat is very tender and starts to fall apart. This should take about 2 1/2- hours. Remove the meat from the water and, with two forks, shred it.

If you’re using chicken, remove the breasts from the chile sauce and shred it. Mix it back into the sauce.

Now, it’s time to get the corn dough ready. Mix the mesa flour with the shortening or lard and water. Knead it to the consistency of cookie dough or very thick mashed potatoes.

To assemble the tamales, choose a wide swath of softened corn husk. Spread the center of the husk with 2 tablespoons of the mesa dough. On top of that, add 2 tablespoons of meat and sauce. Fold the sides of the husk toward the center, then fold in the bottom and the top, and tie with a thin strip of corn husk (this will make a rectangle).

Add 2 cups of water to a large kettle and place the tamales on a rack inside. You can also use a vegetable steamer. Cook the tamales for one hour. Peel one open to see whether it’s done — the mesa dough should be firm and dry. Sometimes, I’ve steamed the tamales for longer than an hour. You really can’t overcook them, but you don’t want them soggy.

By the way, with Thanksgiving coming up (a favorite holiday for any food lover), I’ll be dedicating the next three columns to turkey, stuffing, candied yams and the like.

If you have a Thanksgiving recipe you’d like to share, write Jennifer Vogel at vogel@whidbey.net.

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