Sunday, February 13, 2005

If you let it, preparing food can be a kind of rite, a connection to all the people who ever prepared and ate food before you.

You should start by taking the corn husks from the bag - cutting the knotted piece of cornhusk that was used to tie the back shut - then pick through them and choose 12 that seem large enough or maybe just please you for no particular reason. It seems a bit cruel to have to weigh them down with a heavy pot on top when you soak them in hot water, as if you were drowning them. But they are corn husks after all, and quite dead ones at that.

While the husks soak, you prepare the mole, first melting a spoonful of pork lard - you think of your grandmother when you unwrap the block of lard - then slowly adding spices to the frying pan: four ancho chile peppers, leaving the seeds to give the sauce a little bite, a generous spoonful of cumin, a less generous spoonful of dried coriander powder, caraway seeds. Let the smell go to your head, but not so that you forget to add a good squeeze of tomato paste from the tube, stirring, stirring, stirring with your wooden spoon, before you had a nice handful of chopped cherry tomatoes. Then, as it turns to a lovely paste, you add a clove of minced garlic before you drop in two or three chicken breasts that have been cut into small bite-sized pieces, coating them with the paste until they are cooked through. And at last, you add the final touch, a small square of rich bittersweet chocolate, resisting the urge to eat it by itself, instead letting it melt around the chicken until it's turned the sauce a non-descript reddish-brown color. The color is nothing spectacular, but the aroma is sublime.

On the other counter, once you've beaten 4-5 tablespoons more of pork lard - thinking again of your grandmother - for five minutes by itself in a mixer, you slowly add 2 cups or so of masa harina from Quaker Oats (this is cheating because real tamales are made with hand-made corn flour) as the lard mixes in the mixer, until the two form a coarsebut even meal, then just as slowly you add a cup of chicken broth or so until, beating and beating and beating it in the mixer, adding more and more air, the dough is finished. Marvel at the soft consistency, but be gentle with it.

Now all you have to do is spread the dough on the cornhusks that you've removed from the hot water and dried off. One at a time, spread the dough on a corn husk, then press a small handful of the chicken mole into the dough and add a bit of fresh cheese on top, then fold the cornhusk shut and steam the packets in a steamer lined with more corn husks, reading a book - perhaps Under the Volcano - at the kitchen table with one eye so that you can with the other eye carefully watch that the water doesn't boil away. Let the tamales steam until they are cooked through and tender, at least 45 minutes.

When you've set in front of your husband a plate of black beans cooked in chorizo, rice, and a salad of lettuce, avocado, red pepper and tomatoes, and a tamale or two, you have earned the right to sit and open up your own tamale, peeling away the corn husk and smiling at the impression it has left on the perfectly cooked dough.

As you take that first bite, remember all the cooks who have cooked tamales before you - perhaps even in Aztec kitchens - and it will taste all that much better.

The Swedish word for the day is vana. It means habit.

- by Francis S.

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