Sunday, November 26, 2006

My Thanksgiving Blessing

Four years ago, my nephew (henceforth known as the World's Greatest Nephew, or WGN) was about 2 1/2. It was our family tradition to meet for dinner at my parents' house every Sunday, where my folks, my husband and I, and my brother, sister-in-law and aforementioned WGN would spend a few quick hours together.

One Sunday in November, I was particularly burdened with the hassles of life. The holidays were coming up, and we would be spending time on the road - two long car trips just three weeks apart. My sister and her husband were coming to town, and we had gifts to buy (how in the world would we pay for it all?!), and parties to attend, and a house to decorate for the season. I had been taking cake decorating classes, and my final was just around the corner, and I was not prepared for that. On top of it all, I would be out of town for a week in January and needed to get my house and husband ready to be on their own for a week.

So this evening, as we sat at the dinner table, my mind was on anything BUT my family. Seemingly out of the blue, my precious nephew looked at me and said "Aunt Nini, you just have EVERYTHING! You have cake, a doggie, and another doggie, and Uncle Gus."

You know, when you're two, all it really takes is some leftover cake, a couple of dogs, and a beloved uncle!! What he said stopped my spinning mind in its tracks! Here I was, consumed with things I had to do, with absolutely no thanks in my heart for the blessings in my life! We were just a few days away from Thanksgiving, but instead of being grateful for what I have, I was busy worrying about the tasks at hand.

I thought for a moment about what I had to be thankful for....My husband and I lived in a small home, but it was ours. We both had cars that worked and were reliable and comfortable enough to take us safely where we needed to go. We had good jobs that we enjoyed, working with people we considered our friends. We were married to people we liked more often than not, we had our health, a couple of great dogs, parents who loved us, and in-laws we enjoyed.

Maybe we weren't filthy rich, didn't have the fanciest house or the newest coolest cars, but by gosh, we had nice enough stuff to make due, and a whole lot more than a lot of people had.

I am still amazed, four years later, at the impact his words have had on my life. I've thought often about that night and am so thankful for the perspective he brought to me. Even when things suck, and they sometimes do, I am able to find things to be grateful for.

Our family has had a tough year. One of the family dogs passed away last December, and my father followed her in March after a terrible struggle with cancer. We suffered through both losses and mourned the ones we loved.

I am thankful, even in the face of such sadness, that we do have things to be grateful for. We have a beautiful daughter who just turned three. We still have the same little house. We still have good cars and good jobs and friends we enjoy, and family who loves us.

This year, I count us lucky to have added a new puppy to the mix, and in August, the World's Greatest Niece joined our family!

If I could bring you a gift, it would be insight like Jarrett brought me that night. Every one of us has something worth valuing and celebrating, and I hope you're able to put aside your mental to-do list long enough to revel in the goodness in your life!!

Happy Holidays to you and yours, regardless of what or how you celebrate!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Chelo Garcia's Tamale Recipe

You want authentic tamales? Wanna know where to get them? Make them yourself, but be sure you get your recipe from an authentic Mexican cook! Thanks to my dear suegra (that’s mother-in-law for you gringos) for sharing her recipe with her Americana daughter-in-law.

Most of the measurements are my own. My mother-in-law cooks the way my own mother does….some of this and some of that. Since my brain doesn’t work that way, I took notes while she showed me how to make the tamales, and I just estimated as I needed to. This recipe will yield around 7 dozen tamales.

The process of assembling the tamales will take twice as long as you think it will. To make it extra fun, invite a couple of good friends and open a bottle of wine!

  • 1 package corn husks
  • 1 large Boston Butt Roast (how large? My suegra’s answer…the larger the roast, the more tamales you can make!)
  • 2 lbs masa preparada from your local Mexican market. If you don’t have a Mexican market, you will need to make your own masa mixture using dried masa mix. Recommended brand: Ma Se Ca Instant Corn Masa Mix. Follow the instructions on the package.
  • Dried red chilis – I suspect New Mexico chilis work best as I believe that’s what my mother-in-law uses, but I cannot confirm this. Online recipes suggest ancho or guajillo chilis.
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic
  • Salt

Prepare corn husks:
Soak 1 package corn husks in water overnight. You might want to weigh them down with something heavy like a dinner plate to insure they stay submerged.

For filling:
  • Remove big chunks of fat from Boston butt roast and cut roast into 1 inch pieces
  • Discard fat
  • Put meat in stockpot, add some salt and fill with water to about ¾ full
  • Bring to boil
  • Cover and reduce heat
  • Simmer for 3-4 hours until meat is fall apart tender (if you prefer chunkier meat in your tamales, cook for around 2 hours)
While pork cooks, make red chili sauce

Chili Sauce:
  • Put on a pair of latex or rubber gloves to protect your hands
  • Remove stems and seeds from dried chilis
  • Rinse chilis well
  • Add to large pot and cover with water
  • Bring to boil, boil for several minutes – you just want to soften them, not cook them to death
  • Drain cook water, put pods in blender
  • Fill blender with water, 3 cloves garlic and a bit of salt
  • BE CAREFUL! When you turn your blender on, you’ll splatter red hot chilis all over your kitchen unless you seal the lid well and hold the lid down when the blender turns on.
  • Puree the chilis, then strain sauce through a wire mesh strainer. This will remove any leftover seeds or large chunks of chili from your sauce

Finish Filling:
  • When meat is good & soft, drain it well and put it in a large bowl
  • Let it cool until you can handle it, then check to be sure no hunks of fat or weirdness like cartilage or bone has snuck in. There’s nothing worse than taking a bite of tamale and getting a mouth full of something weird!
  • Once you’re sure there’s only meat in the bowl, mash the meat well with a potato masher. You could leave it in chunks or even shred it, but our family prefers it softer, so we mash it.
  • Add enough strained red sauce (about ½ cup) to turn meat mixture slightly red and to give it some more flavor
  • Add salt to taste

To assemble:
  • Drain corn husks and towel dry. You want them soft and damp, but not dripping wet
  • Place the husk flat on your workspace, with the tapered end up, away from you, and the the straight edge (opposite the tapered end) near you.
  • Spread about 2 TBS masa on husks, (depending on the size of the corn husks). You want to smear the masa in the center of the husk, extending all the way to the straight edge of the husk. Leave a border around the other three sides of about an inch or so on either side, and about 1½ inches on the tapered end of the husk.
  • Then put about 2 tsp meat in center of the masa. You want enough to fill the tamale, but not so much that it oozes out.
  • Fold husk right to left so that masa touches, then fold the left side closed and fold up the end
  • Use a small strip of corn husk to tie the folded end up - just wrap it around the tamale and tie it in a knot
You can cook the tamales right away or freeze them in a zip-top freezer bag. You will want to thaw them completely before cooking them.

To cook:
  • Stand tamales open end up in steam basket
  • Fill pan with water just below base of basket
  • Cover and simmer/steam for about 1½ hours, checking frequently to insure water doesn’t cook off.
  • Add water as needed
  • To test for doneness, take one tamale out and cool it for a few minutes. Unwrap it and check to be sure the masa is firm, not mushy. If it’s mushy, you need to cook the tamales a bit longer
Tamales can be served plain as an appetizer, as a main dish with rice and beans, or alongside eggs for breakfast. Store cooked tamales up to a week in the fridge.

As for the leftover chili sauce, it makes remarkable chicken enchiladas!