Give The Gift of Tamales For Christmas

Christmastime in Texas means tamales.

From sunrise to sunset, the air is thick with the smell of masa wafting from open windows. Slowly but surely, the bundles stack up, two dozen, three dozen at a time, before plunging into the steamer or freezer to await their fates. Wrapped with care in corn husks and banana leaves, rather than paper and tinsel, each parcel truly is a gift to receive.

Tamale Traditions

Tamales aren’t just for Christmas, of course. Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Aztecs and Mayans, enjoyed tamales as a portable and convenient food source for sustenance during long journeys and battles. Anything and everything was fair game in terms of fillings, from meats and vegetables to sweets like fruits and honey.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the 16th century, their mission to spread Christianity ensnared the humble tamale as a celebratory food. Already a staple of Mexican and Latin American cuisine, tamales have a unique way of symbolizing the spirit of togetherness and unity that defines the holiday season.

Crafting tamales is a labor of love, a communal affair that brings family and friends together. As generations gather in the kitchen, sharing stories and laughter while assembling each bundle one by one, much of their importance is about the actual assembly, rather than the end product alone.

Come For The Craft, Stay For The Feast

Naturally, we wouldn’t be here talking about tamales if it was just a fun arts and craft project. Eye-catching green masa makes a more festive impression than typical yellow cornmeal, especially when offset by equally vibrant salsa roja on top and a red meatless stuffing hidden inside. While I love a simple veggie tamale, often made with zucchini, corn, and all sorts of peppers, I wanted to bring a more substantial offering, that eats like a whole meal, to this dinner party.

Who needs meat when you have tender red beans adding ample amounts of plant-protein, infused with the crimson color of red beets, and amplified by the naturally meaty richness of Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms?

Roughly chopped caps and stems create the compelling illusion of ground beef, deeply umami and toothsome in a way that defies written descriptions. Somehow juicy, chewy, tender, and springy all at once, the thicker Koshin variety are unparalleled in their quality. If you splurge on just one thing this holiday season, make it the mushrooms.

Corn Husks vs. Banana Leaves

Corn husk-wrapped tamales are more commonly seen across Texas, as an easily accessible, affordable ingredient, also owing to their Mexican heritage. Banana leaves, on the other hand, are favored in some Central and South American regions. I’m not going to say that one is better than the other, but after finally finding frozen banana leaves at H-Mart, I can’t go back.

Ready to use right out of the package rather than waiting for them to soak, they’re quicker and easier to work with, large and accommodating for any amount of filling, flexible and less likely to tear, and most importantly, incredibly fragrant. Subtly floral, slightly fruity, and even reminiscent of freshly cut grass, it reminds me of pandan, if it was spoken at a whisper.

That said, the flavor imparted by banana leaves is quite gentle and won’t overwhelm the flavors of the dish. Instead, it complements and enhances the food, adding a touch of tropical freshness and a subtle layer of complexity. Banana leaves also retain more moisture, yielding the most succulent tamales I’ve ever had.

Cooking Options

Once you’ve decided on your wrapper, you have more choices left to make: What’s the best way to cook tamales?

  • Steaming is recommended, as a time-honored method that never fails. There’s more than one way to steam, however, which brings me to my favorite approach…
  • Pressure cooking gives you the same results as stove-top steaming, in a fraction of the time. Plus, it helps keep the kitchen cooler; an important consideration for balmy Texas weather.
  • Grilling is a great alternative, taking the party outside, and imparting a wonderful smoky flavor to the food.
  • Baking in the oven can work, in a pinch, but does create a firmer, drier texture. For best results, place the tamales in a baking dish alongside a ramekin of water, and wrap the whole thing tightly with foil to keep the steam inside.

Make-Ahead and Storage Tips

To ease the holiday hustle and bustle, you can make these tamales ahead of time. After they have cooled completely, store them in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to three days. Alternatively, freeze them for longer storage, making sure to wrap each tamale individually before placing them in a freezer-safe bag or container. Reheat tamales by steaming or microwaving until heated through.

Making tamales to celebrate events big and small is a way of preserving Latin American and Mexican heritage, which has now become a Texan and overall American tradition, too. Though dressed up in the red and green trappings of Christmas, these tamales are for everyone. Full of warmth, love, and the gift of good taste, it doesn’t even matter that they happen to be vegan and gluten-free, too.

When you unwrap a tamale during your own holiday celebrations, whatever they may be, the experience is universal. Pass the tamales; share the joy.

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Tzimmes, Rooted In Tradition

If not for its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah would be largely overlooked as a minor holiday, more akin to the significance of Labor Day in the US, rather than a blockbuster event. Adapted and transformed to align with Christian celebrations, it’s no less significant when it comes to family traditions. Any day is only as important as you believe it to be; Hanukkah, remembered for the miracle of survival, of light in the face of darkness, is every bit as relevant, inspiring, and comforting in the face of modern strife.

Is Hanukkah Really That Important?

That’s why, as a person that considers themselves more culturally Jewish than religious, I do love the rituals; lighting the menorah every night; the smell of frying onions and potatoes wafting through the kitchen; the exchanging of novelty socks. My associations with Hanukkah would no doubt confound my ancestors. Still, I’d like to think it might still resonate. At the heart of it all is the enduring story of hope and resilience, woven into the fabric of the culture, no matter what that might look like.

This year, since the Festival of Lights arrives well ahead of Christmas Day, it’s the perfect time to delve into the heart and soul of Hanukkah cuisine, recognizing our roots beyond latkes. Tzimmes, a humble yet richly symbolic dish embodies the essence of the holiday, encapsulating centuries of tradition and the enduring spirit of the Jewish people.

What Are Tzimmes?

Tzimmes, derived from the Yiddish word ‘tsimlen,’ meaning ‘to make a fuss,’ is more than just a culinary creation; it’s a piece of history on a plate. This sweet, slow-cooked medley of root vegetables, dried fruits, and honey, often accentuated with warm spices, serves as a reminder of the Jewish diaspora’s resilience and adaptability. Its origins date back to Eastern Europe, where Jewish communities sought ways to celebrate Hanukkah using the limited ingredients available to them.

Typically, carrots are an essential factor, sliced into tender rounds like golden coins, to represent a sweet and prosperous future, particularly relevant when observing Rosh Hashanah. In fact, carrots are one of the most commonly used foods in Eastern European meals, both for their symbolism and affordability. The Yiddish word for carrot means to increase or multiply, perhaps like rabbits, though that connection is purely accidental.

A Twist on Tradition

Each ingredient tells a story, though I’d like to write my own narrative. My tzimmes won’t look like your bubbie’s, nor will it look like hers before that. Changing and morphing with our circumstances is part of our collective history. This time, I’m using rainbow carrots for diversity and unity, purple sweet potatoes for their striking hue and abundance, and the figs instead of prunes for added texture and depth. As we gather around the table to savor this modern twist on Tzimmes, we honor our ancestors’ resourcefulness and unwavering determination while embracing the adaptability and creativity of our present.

Join me in celebrating the spirit of the season, creating another set of delicious memories, traditional, unconventional, and everything in between.

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Plantain A-Peel

Don’t Call It A Green Banana

The humble plantain is so much more than just another starchy fruit. This tropical staple has been gracing tables and nourishing generations for centuries, as early as 500 BCE. Despite that, they remain mysterious and unapproachable to many American cooks, at least in my experience. After fielding the same questions every time I share a plantain recipe, time has come to set the record straight. Rich with history, flavor, and nutrition alike, plantains are a culinary treasure that deserve a place in your kitchen, too.

A Very Brief History of Plantains

Plantains, often mistaken for their close relative, the banana, are actually a distinct and hearty fruit that originates from Southeast Asia. Over the centuries, they’ve become a staple in many tropical regions around the world, with particularly strong roots in African, Caribbean, and Latin American cuisines. The spread of plantains can be attributed to their affordability, durability, and adaptability, making them a reliable source of sustenance for many cultures across the continents.

Selecting the Perfect Plantain: Shopping Tips

When it comes to picking ideal plantains, a little patience and a keen eye are key. Unlike bananas, plantains are usually selected for their starchy nature. This means you’ll often find them in varying stages of ripeness, each lending itself to different culinary uses.

  • Green Plantains: Firm, green plantains are perfect for savory dishes. These are the ones most commonly called for in recipes, and the ones I’m referring to when I call for them unless otherwise specified. They’re not sweet, similar to potatoes in consistency and flavor. Look for ones with minimal black spots or blemishes for the best results.
  • Yellow Plantains: As plantains ripen, they turn yellow and develop a sweeter taste. These are excellent for both sweet and savory preparations, offering a balanced flavor profile.
  • Black Plantains: Fully ripe plantains with blackened skin may seem past their prime, but they’re actually at their sweetest, similar to their banana brethren. They’re perfect for making sweet dishes like desserts and snacks.

Common Cooking Methods

Plantains are incredibly versatile, embracing a wide range of cooking methods to suit your culinary desires. Here are a few popular techniques to explore:

  • Deep frying or air frying: Sliced plantains can be fried until golden brown to create the beloved dish known as tostones or patacones. These crispy delights are often served as a side or appetizer, accompanied by a variety of dips or salsas. Cut into paper-thin coins, you’ll create crunchy plantain chips, especially popular as a grab-and-go snack at convenience and grocery stores worldwide.
  • Boiling or steaming: Boiled plantains are a staple in many Caribbean dishes. They take on a softer, smoother texture that’s easily mashed or pureed, and can be enjoyed alongside meatless proteins, stews, or beans.
  • Baking or roasting: Baking plantains brings out their natural sweetness. Simply slice them, drizzle with a touch of oil, and bake until caramelized for a healthier take on this tropical treat.

Unlike bananas, they’re not as tasty eaten raw. While perfectly safe to consume, they can have a slightly bitter flavor that disappears with the application of heat, and an unpleasantly chalky texture.

Must-Try Plantain Dishes

Plantains play starring roles in a multitude of traditional dishes across different cultures. Here are a few iconic preparations that truly showcase the versatility and flavor of these remarkable fruits:

  • Mofongo (Puerto Rico): Mashed green plantains combined with garlic, pork cracklings, and seasonings, resulting in a savory dish that’s both hearty and comforting.
  • Fufu (West Africa): Plantains are boiled, mashed, and shaped into a dough-like consistency. They’re often paired with stews or sauces, serving as a delightful alternative to rice or bread.
  • Maduros (Latin America): Sweet plantains are fried until caramelized, resulting in a delightful side dish or dessert that perfectly balances sweet and savory flavors.

Less conventional but more creative takes abound for such an endlessly versatile ingredient. Just a few ideas to get you started include:

  • Baked in their skins and stuffed like a loaded potato
  • Steamed and mashed, with vegan butter or gravy
  • Sliced and grilled, on or off skewers
  • Thinly sliced lengthwise and used to make lasagna
  • Mashed and used to make quick bread, tortillas, pancakes, or burger buns
  • Diced or shredded and sauteed like hash browns

That’s only the start! Anything you’d make with potatoes or sweet potatoes, you can make with plantains, too.

Nutritional Bounty of Plantains

Beyond their delectable taste, plantains offer a range of nutritional benefits. Rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, and magnesium, they support immune health and heart health especially. They’re also a great source of dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, making them a satiating source of energy, but bear in mind that they are very calorie dense for this same reason.

Platano, Good To Go

Plantains are more than just a tropical fruit; they’re a culinary adventure waiting to unfold. From their storied history to their myriad of cooking possibilities, these versatile gems have found a place in kitchens and hearts across the globe. Whether you’re savoring the crispy delight of tostones or relishing the sweetness of maduros, plantains are sure to make every meal a richly rewarding journey worth savoring.

Beans Are The New Black Friday

Black Friday isn’t what it used to be.

I say that not with sadness or nostalgia, but a deep sense of relief. Holiday sales will forever persist, pushing everything from lawnmowers to lingerie, but the singular focus on one big shopping day has dispersed to encompass the entire interval from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Door busters are digital and shipping is free; why bother waking up early to fight the crowds? This tradition of dubious appeal from the onset is now fully obsolete. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to redefine Black Friday.

Black beans are the antidote to Black Friday’s typical excess. Decidedly unglamorous, unassuming, and unpretentious, black beans won’t force you out of bed early or judge you for the previously night’s debauchery. Taking it a step further, braised black beans, gently stewed in velvety coconut milk and invigorating aromatics, speak of a wholly different sort of richness.

Rifling through the pantry and freezer, this combination of Southeast Asian staples spoke to me above the cacophony of typically autumnal herbs and spices. The fragrant, floral notes of makrut lime leaves and lemongrass share the spotlight, bolstered by the sharp undertone of ginger and jalapeno. Balanced by the natural sweetness of the coconut milk, it’s already so buttery that no additional oils need apply.

Take It Easy

For anyone else still weary from cooking marathons or hosting duties, I’ve got you. Just one step more complicated than a genuine dump dinner, you don’t even need to drain the cans of beans or dirty another dish. Go ahead, take other shortcuts like using pre-minced garlic or ginger paste; no one will be able to argue with the end results.

Serving Suggestions

Personally, I’m perfectly happy spooning these beans right into my mouth, straight out of the pot, while hovering over the stove. If you have more patience though, your time and effort will be rewarded when you round out this entree with proper sides. Ideally, add at least some come kind of starch to soak in all that savory potlikker.

  • Rice, be it basmati, jasmine, or any fluffy steamed long grain rice
  • Bread, thinly sliced and toasted
  • Stewed collard greens, meltingly tender
  • Arugula salad, for a subtly bitter contrast
  • Avocado, for a buttery bite of extra decadence

Alternately, switch up the prep to transform it into an entirely different dish.

  • Roughly mash to make them approximately the texture of refried beans, then use in tacos, burritos, tamales, enchiladas, etc
  • Add vegetable broth and serve as a soup, optionally pureeing some or all
  • Simmer rice right in the same saucepan to make one-pot beans and rice

Make It Your Own

There are no hard and fast rules here. Born out of convenience, this formula is ripe for adaptation. Almost everything is changeable, like…

  • Using chickpeas, white beans, or adzuki instead of black beans
  • Adding more or less garlic, ginger, and jalapeno, to taste
  • Switching up the seasonings with curry powder, chili powder, or lemon-pepper

Don’t Over-Think It

Black Friday can be a complicated mixture of emotions and memories, wants and needs, no matter what the reality of it is today. Black beans, however, should always be simple.

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Modern Cosmopolite

It’s impossible for me to throw food away.

I don’t say this to brag or as a point of pride, but by way of apology. If anything, it’s more of a character flaw than anything else. My stubborn belief that anything can be made delicious with the right treatment drives many of my most questionable creations, as I tell myself, “someone likes this stuff; I must simply be doing it wrong!” Granted, I don’t think that ketchup cookies are necessarily right but it certainly did transform a condiment I’m not fond of into a genuinely tasty dessert.

That’s where cranberry sauce comes in. Whether it’s spicy or citrus-y, raw or slow-cooked, I don’t want it on my Thanksgiving table. Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t think it fits with the other flavors. It’s either too sweet or too tart and nothing in between. Don’t even get me started on those jellied monstrosities, clearly imprinted with the rings of the tin can from which they emerged.

Regardless, I always find myself making a batch and thus, having leftovers to be disposed of. By “dispose,” I mean “repurposed,” of course. While I would typically think of cakes or muffins, I’m craving something cooler, quicker, and easier this year.

Enter: The Cranberry Cosmopolitan Smoothie

Inspired by the cocktail of the same name, otherwise known as “cosmo” for short, it works especially well for my usual approach simmering cranberries in orange juice to make the classic sauce. Add in a touch of lime and you have the full compliment of flavors. The original drink gets its punch from a shot of vodka and triple sec, but it’s easy to omit these for a healthy, non-alcoholic option. In fact, this blend is probably a good antidote to such a rich meal.

Tips and Tricks

If you’re not the sort to save everything or end up with excess cranberry sauce, I’ve got you covered. Substitutions are a snap!

  • Cranberry sauce: Use plain fresh or frozen cranberries, and consider adding a touch of agave or maple syrup to taste, since they’ll be much more astringent, especially raw.
  • Bananas: Some people can’t stand bananas in smoothies which is perfectly fine! For you lovely folx, might I suggest using frozen peeled and sliced pears instead? They’ll have a similar sweetness, creamy texture when blended, and more mild flavor.
  • Orange juice: If you want to keep the party going straight through to the new year, don’t let me dissuade you. Go ahead and replace 1/4 cup of the orange juice with triple sec.

Cheers, to Thanksgiving leftovers, and being thankful that nothing goes to waste!

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