Tamales

Living in southern California with it’s sizable Hispanic population, tamales have become synonymous with the holidays and especially Christmas. I’ve often heard stories of families gathered around the kitchen making these unique pouches of goodness while laughing, singing and sharing memories on Christmas Eve.

Here is a recipe for very tasty little tamales that I adapted from Sunset magazine. Because it is a labor-intensive process, I have added shortcuts along the way to reduce the time required. There are two filling variations here.

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Make The Filling: Roasted Poblano Chile and Cheese

1 1/2 pounds poblano chiles

kosher salt

18 oz monterey jack cheese

Cover a cooking sheet with foil and broil the chiles in the oven until blackened all over, about 10 minutes. Turn frequently while broiling. Place the chiles in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam for 20 minutes.

Peel skin off the chiles, stem and seed them. Slice into 1/2” strips, about 3” long. Season with salt.

Cut cheese into slices approximately 3” long and 1/2” wide.

Note: for a shortcut, buy mild green chiles already prepared in a can.

Make The Filling: Chicken and Green Tomatillo Salsa

Chicken:

1 1/2 white onions, quartered

4 large garlic cloves, crushed

1 t kosher salt

3 lbs chicken breast, with skin and bones

2 bay leaves

Salsa:

11 firm tomatillos, husked, stemmed and rinsed in warm water to remove stickiness

2 to 3 jalapeno chiles, stemmed and halved lengthwise (optional: remove seeds for milder flavor or use fewer chiles)

3/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro, stems and leaves

1 t kosher salt

1/4 t pepper

Poach chicken: put onions, garlic, salt and 4 cups water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add chicken and bay leaves and lower heat to a simmer. Cook chicken, partly covered until no longer pink inside, about 20 to 25 minutes. When chicken is cool, tear into bite size pieces, discarding skin.

Remove bay leaf from pot. Add tomatillos and jalapenos and cook, covered over medium heat until tomatillos are soft, about 10 to 12 minutes. Drain tomatillo mixture, saving the broth to make the tamale dough. Transfer the tomatillo mixture to a blender. Add cilantro, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth.

Bring salsa to a simmer in a saucepan. Add chicken and simmer together for about 5 minutes to meld flavors. Season with salt and pepper.

Note: you can substitute cooked chicken breast and store bought salsa verde to save time.

Make The Tamale Dough

3/4 lb pork lard

5 cups masa harina (Maseca)

2 t baking powder

4 t kosher salt

4 1/2 cups hot chicken broth

Make dough: whip lard on low speed of a mixer with the whisk attachment, gradually increasing speed to high, until lard is fluffy like frosting, about 5 minutes. Whisk masa harina, baking powder and salt in a bowl. With mixer on low, add 1/3 masa mixture to the lard, incorporating fully. Scrape bowl and add another 1/3 masa mixture. Slowly add broth to the lard/masa mixture. Beat in remaining masa mixture one spoonful at a time until dough is soft and fluffy without being sticky (you may not need to use all of the masa mixture). Test the dough by rolling a small ball of it over the back of your hand to see if it rolls easily without sticking. Cover the dough with a damp kitchen towel and rest between 10 minutes and up to 1 hour, or chill up to 2 days.

Fill The Tamales

8 oz dried cornhusks (50 to 60)

Soak cornhusks by submerging them in hot water, weighted down with the lid of a pan for about 30 minutes.

Place 4 upturned ramekins in the bottom of a tall stockpot and set a steamer basket on top. Pour water in the bottom to about 1 1/2” but below the steamer basket level.

Drain cornhusks and pat dry. If you are not using them immediately, chill them in resealable plastic bags for up to 2 days.

Set a cornhusk, smooth side up, on a work surface. Spoon about 2+ T of dough onto the wide top of husk and smear over top half of husk, leaving a 1” border from top and sides. Add 1-2 T of filling down the center of the dough (or 2 chiles and 1 piece of cheese for the chile cheese tamales). Bring the sides of the husk to meet over the filling, then fold both sides of the filling in the same direction. Turn tamale seam side up and fold the narrow bottom of the tamale up to close it.

Set the tamales, open side up in the steamer, packing them loosely. Cover the pot with foil and a tight fitting lid. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce heat to maintain a steady low boil. Check the water at 30 minutes, adding more as necessary. The tamales should be done at about 1 hour, when they separate easily from the husk but are still somewhat soft (open one to check). Remove pot from heat and let tamales cool in pot for about 20 minutes to firm up.

Serve with salsa of your choice, though they are delicious on their own.

Tamales can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. To reheat, place them on a plate with a damp paper towel over them and plastic wrap covering the plate. Microwave them on high for approximately 1 to 2 minutes if frozen, less if not. Adjust time according to your specific microwave.

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Note: although this is an involved process, it is a joyful one – especially in the creation of the tamale dough and the filling and folding of the tamales. And the results are better than any tamale I have ever tasted – proving what we already know: that nothing beats homemade, and that love can be shared through the food we prepare. Enjoy.

Changing It Up

Every year for the last 20 years I made my Thanksgiving dressing the same way. It was a recipe for Chestnut Dressing I got from my Mother and if I dared vary it in any way, I received disappointing looks and disparaging remarks from my Mom. Sadly my Mom is no longer with us but I finally felt liberated enough to try something new this year with my holiday dressing. I decided to try a sausage cornbread dressing. I used turkey andouille sausage and It includes toasted pecans and dried cherries. All flavors I love so how bad could it be all together. I made a batch of browned butter cornbread to use as the base the week before Thanksgiving so the cornbread had a chance to become stale. The results were great. A very sophisticated dressing with a nice crumb and good seasoning from the sausage. Not sure I am making the same dressing next year but it was fun to change it up & experiment with a new taste.

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Sausage Cornbread Dressing
(recipe adapted from bon appetit Magazine)

¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, divided, plus more
¼ cup white wine vinegar
½ cup dried tart cherries
10 cups coarsely crumbled cornbread, preferably homemade, dried out overnight
⅓ cup coarsely chopped pecans
¼ cup olive oil
1 pound turkey sausage, casings removed
2 medium onions, chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
2 large eggs
3 cups turkey stock or low-sodium chicken broth, divided
¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 400°

Butter a shallow 3-qt. baking dish and a sheet of foil

Bring vinegar and 2 Tbsp. water to a boil in a small saucepan; remove from heat and add cherries. Let sit until cherries are plump, 15–20 minutes.

Meanwhile, spread out cornbread on a rimmed baking sheet and toast until golden brown, 10–15 minutes. Let cool. Place in a very large bowl.

Drain cherries, reserving soaking liquid, and add cherries to bowl with cornbread (do not mix).

Reduce oven temperature to 350°. Toast pecans on a clean rimmed baking sheet, tossing once, until fragrant and slightly darkened, 8–10 minutes. Let cool; add to bowl.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Cook turkey sausage, stirring occasionally and breaking into small pieces with a spoon, until browned and cooked through, 8–10 minutes. Transfer to bowl.
Add onions and celery to skillet, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until onions are golden brown and soft, 10–12 minutes. Add garlic and sage; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to bowl.

Reduce heat to medium and cook reserved cherry soaking liquid in skillet, scraping up any browned bits, until almost all evaporated, about 1 minute. Add ½ cup butter; cook, stirring, until melted. Drizzle over bread mixture.

Whisk eggs and 2 cups stock in a medium bowl; pour over cornbread mixture. Add parsley, season with salt and pepper, and gently toss, adding more stock ¼-cupful at a time as needed (you may not use it all), until combined and cornbread is hydrated. Mix carefully to avoid breaking cornbread into crumbs.

Transfer to prepared dish and dot with remaining ¼ cup butter.

Cover with buttered foil; bake until a paring knife inserted into the center comes out hot, 30–35 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 450°. Uncover and bake until top is golden brown and crisp, 20–25 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.
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Apple Crisp

I have made this delicious Apple Crisp more than any other dessert I know. And last Thanksgiving, I realized it was the perfect addition to our meal – seasonal, loved by all, and best of all – EASY.

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5 large apples of your choice (I like Granny Smith or another tart variety)

1 t cinnamon

1/4 t fresh ground nutmeg

1/2 c water

1 T fresh lemon juice

1 c brown sugar

3/4 c flour

1/2 c butter, cup into small cubes

Peel and slice the apples into a buttered pie plate or 9” square baking pan. Sprinkle with the spices. Pour lemon juice and water over the apples. In a bowl, mix sugar and flour, then work in the butter to make a crumbly mixture. Spread over the fruit. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 1 hour, until the fruit is tender and the crust is lightly brown. Serve with vanilla ice cream for an added treat. Tastes great at warm or at room temperature, or warmed up the next day.

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Note: this can be made a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator until ready to bake. Ideally, keep the components separate in ziplock bags (peeled apples, crumble mixture) and assemble before baking.

Thanksgiving Potato Gratin

A dish that my family “expects” every Thanksgiving is this Potato Gratin. What makes it uniquely delicious is that is uses chicken broth instead of cream. Now we wouldn’t have it any other way!

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3 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly (about 1/8 to 1/4”)

1/2 tsp salt, or more if desired

1/8 + tsp freshly ground nutmeg

8 oz Gruyere cheese, shredded

14 oz chicken broth

2 T unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease a 9 x 13 baking dish. Gently toss potatoes with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Layer one-third of the potatoes in the dish. Sprinkle with one-third of the cheese. Repeat layers two more times. Cover the potatoes with the chicken broth. Dot with butter (optional). Bake uncovered for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees. Bake one hour until the top is golden and crusty. Serves 8.

To make ahead: assemble and par bake – the first 15 minutes and another 15 to 30 minutes. Cover and refrigerate. Bake the remainder of the cooking time before serving, checking and adding any additional time as need to heat through.

Wet vs. Dry Brining

turkey

I have been brining my turkey for the last 20 years. I first learned about the magic of brining from America’s Test Kitchen which was then an advocate for wet brining because it flavors the turkey and breaks down some of the proteins, allowing the turkey to retain more moisture. If I followed their instructions to the letter, my turkeys always came out well seasoned and moist. If I didn’t measure the appropriate amount of salt and just poured it in the water bath willy nilly, my turkey came out too salty and if I varied the brine with additional ingredients other than salt like sugar or apple juice, my turkey didn’t come out as moist or flavorful. The process of wet brining was challenging as well. Where do you store your turkey in gallons of salted water for 8-10 hours? I solved that by putting it in a clean insulated cooler with ice and stored it in a cool place overnight. Then I discovered Dry Brining from an article in the Los Angeles Times written by Russ Parsons, the food editor. His contention was that wet brining resulted in an over salted and spongy turkey and required an enormous amount of salt.

So for the last five years, I have been dry brining my turkeys with fantastic results, however I find the storage issue for the turkey to be a little more challenging than the wet brine. The dry brine requires the salted turkey to stay in the refrigerator three days and the salt to be massaged into the bird periodically throughout the three days. (I have skipped this step many times without any noticeable consequences.) I have also modified my brining time to 24 to 48 hours ahead of time and to include a few herbs and some vegetables and fruit stuffed into the cavity, resulting in a much more flavorful bird. The dry brine only requires 4 tablespoons of Kosher salt and because of this, the drippings from the cooked bird are perfectly seasoned to add to your gravy.

Whichever brining method you choose, I encourage you to try it this Holiday season and see what a difference it makes to your turkey.

Recipe for Wet Brine

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INGREDIENTS
• 1 ¼ cups salt
• 1 ¼ cups sugar
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 medium onion, peeled and halved
• 2 cloves
• 1 10- to 12-pound turkey, washed, giblets removed
PREPARATION
Place salt, sugar and 1 quart hot water in a large deep pot and whisk until salt and sugar crystals dissolve. Whisk in 4 quarts cold water. Pin bay leaves to onion halves with cloves and add them to brine. Let mixture cool to room temperature.

Add turkey, placing a large heavy pot or sealed zip-top bag filled with cold water on top to keep bird submerged. Place pot in refrigerator and marinate overnight. Roast or smoke turkey as you wish.

Recipe for Dry Brine

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 c. good kosher salt
1 T. fresh thyme finely minced
1 T. fresh rosemary or sage finely minced
1 t black pepper
PREPARATION
Create a space in your refrigerator to accommodate the turkey. Place the turkey in a roasting pan or 1/2 sheet pan. The turkey needs to be thoroughly defrosted and dry. Evenly rub the salt/herb mixture over the turkey. Place the turkey in your refrigerator, covered loosely with parchment or wax paper. The idea is for the turkey to air dry overnight, so don’t wrap in plastic. You can leave the turkey in the dry brine for up to 48 hours but it really isn’t necessary.

Halloween Cupcakes

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I had so much fun making these kooky cupcakes for Halloween. The recipes are based on Martha Stewart vanilla cupcake and buttercream recipes. Have fun!

4 1/2 cups all purpose flour

2 1/4 t baking powder

1 1/4 t salt

2 1/4 sticks softened unsalted butter

2 1/4 cups sugar

6 large eggs

1 3/4 cups whole milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 standard muffin tins with 24 paper liners.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Mix butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment until pale and fluffy, about 4  minutes. Mix in the eggs, one at a time until well blended. Mix in vanilla.

Mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with milk in 2 batches. Divide evenly into muffin tins using an ice cream scoop. Smooth tops. Bake until top springs back, about 20 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Note: this recipe also makes 5 dozen mini-cupcakes. These cupcakes freeze well. Decorate the ones you need and freeze the rest to pull out and decorate for your next occasion.

Fluffy Vanilla Buttercream:

3 sticks unsalted buttered, softened

4 1/2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1/2 t vanilla

Beat butter in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed with the paddle attachment for about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to medium. Add the sugar, 1/2 cup at a time. After every 2 additions, beat on high for approximately 10 seconds. Add vanilla and beat until smooth. Store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 10 days. Bring to room temperature and beat on low speed until smooth, about 10 minutes before using.

Note: this makes enough frosting for about 12 cupcakes but can be doubled to frost all 24.

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Spicy Pumpkin Loaves

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When Halloween gets close, it reminds me every year to make my favorite pumpkin bread. This is a recipe I have tweaked over many years to get just right. It’s moist and delicious with spice and sweetness that screams “FALL IS HERE!” I make many mini-loaves to share with friends and family and it’s a huge hit. It also freezes extremely well so it’s a perfect holiday baking treat.

6 eggs

4 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups canola oil

1 large can (29 oz) solid pack pumpkin

5 1/4 cups AP flour (I use King Arthur’s unbleached white whole wheat flour)

1 1/2 t salt

1 T each of baking soda, ground allspice and ground cinnamon

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

3/4 cup raisins (optional)

Lightly beat eggs in a large bowl. Add sugar, oil and pumpkin. Mix well. In another bowl, mix the flour, salt and spices using a whisk to get good distribution. Add the dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture and stir until just blended. If using, stir in the nuts and raisins.

Grease and flour 12 mini-loaf pans (3 1/2 x 5”). You can instead spray the pans with Pam Baking Spray with Flour though you will get a slightly better result doing it the old fashioned way. Allow 1 cup of batter per pan. Note: if you eliminate the nuts and raisins like I do for my kids, you will end up with less batter. Bake in a 350 degree oven until a wooden pick comes out clean from the center, about 40 minutes. Cool on racks for 10 minutes and then remove from pan to cool on racks completely.

Wrap airtight in plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 2 days or in the refrigerator for longer. To freeze, place plastic wrapped loaves in sealed bags for best results. Enjoy!