In Los Angeles, Christmas tastes exactly like tamales
by WYATT PEABODY / photographs by ANITA CALERO
The tamal is a worldly creation, with a common anatomy—a cornhusk or banana leaf wrapped around a sweet or savory filling—and variations aplenty from the Philippines, Greece, Vietnam and beyond. But Angelenos’ primary experience with tamales is Mexican—for good reason, considering L.A. was once in Mexico. The Aztecs served tamales to Spaniards in the 1550s, and today, the country’s principal regions—Sinaloa, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Monterrey, Yucatán, Michoacán and Puebla—all have interpretations.
In L.A., tamale suppliers are scattered from churches in Boyle Heights to old-folks homes in Montebello to the backdoors of our favorite restaurants in Pico Rivera. But Christmastime always brings a flurry of activity, when the dish is prepared for the holiday tables of families from all ethnic backgrounds.
This season, as always, tamales will stretch out of their comfort zone to take their rightful place in our gastronomic heritage. Plus, we are home to one of the country’s tamal authorities, John Sedlar—described by Gourmet as the father of modern Southwest cuisine.
With roots in the family kitchens of New Mexico, formative years spent in Spain and a foundation of classical French training, he finds inspiration in indigenous ingredients but remains consummately avant-garde, as evidenced by the creativity of the menu at his stunning and highly lauded restaurant Rivera—and the creations on these pages.
Not only has Sedlar created hundreds of tamale recipes, he wrote the book on them, coauthoring Tamales with Mark Miller and Stephan Pyles in 1997. His goal? To give traditional Mesoamerican dishes a contemporary flair. In Sedlar’s own words: “The tamal is at once ancient and modern, organic and hip. What place is more appropriate than L.A.?”
JOHN SEDLAR'S TAMALE RECIPES
Basic Fresh Tamale Masa
12 ounces vegetable shortening
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 ¾—1 ½ cups vegetable or chicken stock
4 pounds masa quebrada para tamal sin preparar (dried field corn in a lime solution ground into a fine paste) from your local tortilleria
In an electric mixer combine the shortening, baking powder and salt and beat on high for about 5 minutes until the texture is light. Lower the speed of the mixer and slowly drop in balls of masa one at a time. After all the masa is integrated, beat on high speed for another 5 minutes. If the masa is dry or cold, you can begin drizzling in the stock before you’ve added all of the masa. Slowly drizzle in the remaining stock. Continue to add stock until the masa is airy and light like cake frosting yet still forms peaks and has body.
Banana Leaf–Wrapped Turkey Tamale with Pumpkin-Seed Sauce
3 pounds basic masa (see recipe above)
1 ½ pounds cooked turkey breast, shredded
1 ½ cups green pumpkin seeds, toasted
15 guajillo chiles
10 chiles de arbol
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 cup sesame seeds, toasted
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons sea salt
15 banana leaves cut into 10-inch x 10-inch squares
Seed and devein the chiles and roast in a low-temperature oven until they start to blacken. Put stock in a blender with chiles, onion and garlic. Add salt, sesame seeds and 1 cup of pumpkin seeds. Puree until smooth, adding a little more stock if too thick. Divide mixture into 2 bowls. In one bowl, fold the turkey in with the mixture.
Over an open burner, using tongs, gently cook the banana leaves until tender and pliable, about 20 seconds on each side. When cool, place each banana leaf on a cutting board and in the middle spoon about ¾ cup masa mixture without turkey, spreading it thinly into a rectangle and leaving about 2 inches all around between it and the edges of the banana leaf. In the middle of the masa, spoon about 2 ounces of the turkey mixture and a little extra of the mixture from the second bowl. Carefully fold over the sides of the leaf to form an envelope. Gently place the tamales in a steamer, leaning them against one another. Cook over low to medium heat for about an hour.
To assemble, carefully remove the tamales from the steamer, place on a plate and open the leaves to expose the masa. Add a little more warmed sauce on top and sprinkle with remaining pumpkin seeds. Garnish the side of the plate with extra pumpkin-seed sauce or a salsa of your choice.
Sweet Corn Tamale with Manzano Chiles and Kabocha Squash
Sweet Corn Tamale Mixture
2 pounds basic masa (see recipe above)
4 pounds corn kernels, freshly cooked or, if frozen, thawed and drained
12 ounces mild melting cheese such as queso quesadilla or cheddar
1/8 ounce baking powder
1/8 ounce white pepper
1 ounce sea salt
1 ounce sugar
24 cornhusks, soaked
Place half of the corn kernels and all of the cheese in a bowl and stir. Put mixture in a food processor and blend until a dense, coarse paste is achieved. Remove from mixer and fold in remaining corn and the masa. Fold in remaining ingredients. Place all ingredients in a mixer with a paddle attachment and gently blend until all the ingredients are incorporated. Do not overmix.
Place about ¾ cup of corn mixture in the center of each husk, then wrap and tie. Cook in a covered steamer over low to medium heat for 50–60 minutes.
1 small kabocha squash, roasted, peeled, cubed and cooled
1 large yam, roasted, peeled, cubed and cooled
1 ear of corn, grilled on the plancha (griddle), with corn kernels then removed from the cob and cooled
3 manzano chilies, roasted, peeled, seeded, deveined and cubed
2 yellow bell peppers pureed with ¼ cup Spanish sherry vinegar, seasoned with salt and pepper
12 nasturtium flowers and leaves for garnish
Popcorn shoots for garnish (available in gourmet markets, or use other kind of available sprout)
In a medium-size saucepan, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add cubed squash, yam, corn and the manzano chilies. In a separate pan, heat the bell-pepper-sherry sauce. Place the tamales on a platter, open-faced with their centers exposed. Carefully spoon the sauce on each tamale and garnish with nasturtiums and popcorn shoots.
Clam Tamale with Black Garlic and Lemon
2 pounds basic masa (see recipe above)
½ cup diced red bell pepper
½ cup corn kernels off the cob, grilled
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
24 medium cherrystone clams
2 cups dry white wine
3 shallots, coarsely chopped
1 foot kitchen twine for every clam, or small thick rubber bands (the kind used to lock lobster claws)
4 tablespoons salted butter
Juice of 2 lemons
1 head black garlic (available in gourmet grocery stores), with cloves separated
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
1 small head of dandelion greens for garnish
Assorted fresh flower petals for garnish
In a bowl, stir together the masa, bell pepper, corn, oregano, garlic, salt and white pepper. In a large pan, combine the clams, wine and shallots and cover. Boil over high heat until the clams open—about 6 minutes. When the clams have opened, drain the liquid and cool the clams. Carefully separate the clam from the shell, saving both. Coarsely chop the clams and mix them into the masa mixture. Spoon some of the masa clam mixture into each clam shell, making sure not to overfill the shell (the masa will expand as it cooks). Place a rubber band around each clam or tie them shut with twine. Put clams in a steamer and heat for 45 minutes until the masa is cooked.
Divide the clams onto serving plates, about 4 clams per guest. Gently cut the string or rubber bands. In a small sauté pan, heat the butter, lemon juice, black garlic cloves and cilantro and pour over the clams.
Chocolate-and-Berry Tamale with Strawberry Sorbet
2 pounds basic masa recipe made with 1 cup of sugar and no salt and water instead of stock (see recipe)
1 ½ pound 72 percent chocolate, chopped
1 double espresso
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
24 red cornhusks
2 cups dried hibiscus petals
1 quart strawberry sorbet
Lemon gelée cut into cubes (optional)
48 organic rose petals (optional)
Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Add the dried hibiscus and boil for 30 minutes. Strain and retain and cool the liquid. Place the cornhusks in the liquid and let soak overnight.
Prepare the basic masa recipe with the sugar and mix in 1 pound of the chocolate, the espresso and the cinnamon. Stir in the berries. Lay the red cornhusks flat on a cutting board and fill each husk with ¾ cup of the chocolate masa. In the middle of the masa, add an additional 1 ½ tablespoons of chocolate. Fold over the ends of the cornhusk and tie the tamales. Steam the tamales over medium heat for 50 minutes.
Open the tamales on each serving plate and top with strawberry sorbet and lemon gelée. Rose petals look especially dramatic with the red cornhusks.
BONUS: Mushroom Tamale with Foie Gras and Chanterelles
2 pounds basic masa (see recipe)
1 pound assorted mushrooms, such as crimini, button, portabello, finely chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ cup heavy cream
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
24 soaked cornhusks
1 lobe foie gras sliced into ½-inch-thick steaks
6 cups red wine
1 cup demi-glace
¼ pound sweet butter
1 cup sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, sliced for garnish
½ cup red grapes for garnish, sliced in half
1 cup microgreens for garnish
Sweat the mushrooms with the tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over medium heat until they have released their liquid. Add the cream and continue cooking until the liquid thickens and becomes a paste, 5–6 minutes. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper and mix well. Cool.
Combine the masa mixture with the mushrooms. On a flat surface, open the cornhusks and spread the masa mushroom mixture into a thin square about a third of an inch thick. Fold over the sides of the cornhusks and tie the tamale with twine. Place the tamales in a covered steamer and cook over medium heat for 50 minutes.
In a medium sauce pan over medium heat cook the red wine until reduced by half. Add the demi-glace and cook 10 minutes longer. Lower heat and whisk in the butter.
Heat a large sauté pan. Season the foie gras with salt and black pepper and sear on both sides until foie gras is cooked.
Place the mushroom tamale in the center of each plate with the foie gras on top. Drizzle the red-wine sauce and add the grapes and mushroom garnish. Garnish plates with microgreens.