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Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger's Green Corn Tamales

Corn

Remember back when the Food Network was a cute little channel with quirky shows featuring those Two Fat Ladies with impenetrable English accents, roaring motorbikes and wacky recipes, and a lisping bloke named Jamie who bashed herbs together a lot and made good cooking seem a lot less daunting, and those two women who endured the hideous moniker of Two Hot Tamales to bring authentic Mexican cooking to the masses? That's the Food Network that used to be informative and funny and weird and delicious. Don't get me started on the mess that it's become, or I'll get completely thrown off point.

After my recent delicious encounter with Mexican food, I've become a lot more amenable to trying the stuff out in my own kitchen, which is why I chose this tamale recipe out of the three recipes Regina Schrambling included in her article on corn husk cooking in the LA Times a few weeks ago. Well, that, and it meant I could use up some of the grits I've had sitting in my fridge since March, which for me is as good a reason as any. Regina adapted the recipe from Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger's Mesa Mexicana. Which is what got me thinking about those too hot tamales and the state of food television these days in the first place. Anyway. Moving along.

I thought the recipe sounded totally fantastic. Corn kernels cooked up with some cream and seasonings, then mixed with grits and cheese and hot peppers and steamed for an hour in delightful little husk packets tied up with darling husk strips. Arts and crafts and dinner in one go! A fresh corn dumpling of sorts! My first foray into the intricate world of corn husk cookery! I was totally sold. Of course, I should have known that things were amiss when the husks I was shucking and soaking in water instantly rolled up into themselves as they hit the water. Never mind! I thought, blithely as I ran my knife down corn cobs and corn juice spurted all over my kitchen. They'll soak and unroll in no time!

Yeah. If you're wondering? They didn't.

I took a few of those rolled-up husks, flattened them out with my fingers, overlapped a few, and then, with one hand holding the suckers down and the other hand precariously tipping in a spoonful of cooked corn, attempted to dump that little mound of corn in the center and delicately fold it up. The second I lifted even a finger up from one edge of my husk packet, it flipped inwards. Grinding my teeth, I removed some of the filling and then with the determination of, well, I'm not sure what, I folded that packet into the One and Only Tamale I Could Bear to Make.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I had the wherewithal to make one puny tamale and after huffing and puffing over several more flippy, unrollable husks and deciding that my life, dammit, was just too precious to spend an hour and countless gray cells on making twee little corn packets, I dug some cheesecloth out of a drawer and fashioned a snood of sorts that I filled with the remaining corn mixture and tied together with a few of my husk ties.

I steamed my corn snood and my one silly tamale for an hour (replenishing the water) and the apartment filled with a delicious fresh corn scent. Which is good because my nerves were so frayed from the prep work (I might have been a leetle hungry by then, too) that if it hadn't smelled good, I probably would have just made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and called it a night. Which, in retrospect, would have been the better choice.

After removing both from the pot and letting them cool, I dug in. At this point, I should probably mention that I couldn't find canned Anaheim chiles, so I bought what seemed the next best thing (I have a lot to learn about chiles, obviously) - canned green chiles that had been roasted. They contributed next to nothing to the dish - I think that piquillo peppers are spicier than those were. I also substituted grated Parmigiano for the Monterey Jack cheese, because, well, it's what I had in the fridge.

So what did it taste like? Like corn kernels mixed with grits and a bit of cheese and cooked for a long time. I'm not quite sure I get it. The grits were imperceptible and could someone explain just what the baking powder was doing in all of this? Why not just save yourself all the trouble of the prep work, grill up a few cobs of corn and slather them with mayo and cheese and spices like they're served at Cafe Havana? I don't even know.

Green Corn Tamales
Makes 12 tamales

5 ears corn
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grits (not quick-cooking)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup roasted, peeled, seeded and diced Anaheim chiles, or 1 (4.5-ounce) can, drained well, rinsed and dried
1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack, lightly packed
Salsa and sour cream for garnish

1. Remove the corn husks by cutting off both ends of the cobs, then peeling off the husks while trying to keep them whole. Scrape off the silk. Place the husks in a large bowl and cover them with warm water and let stand 15 minutes.

2. Working over a bowl, run the tip of a sharp knife down the center of each row of kernels on each cob, then scrape with the dull side of the knife to remove the kernels.

3. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the corn and its juices, the salt, the pepper and the cream, and simmer until the mixture thickens, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool, then stir in the grits, baking powder, chiles and cheese. Chill 15 minutes.

4. Drain the corn husks and dry them on paper towels. Make ties for the tamales by tearing a few husks into thin strips.

5. Overlap 2 or 3 husks on a work surface and spoon 3 tablespoons of the filling into the center. Fold or roll into a package and tie each end with a strip of corn husk. Repeat with the remaining filling.

6. In a steamer or a pot fitted with a steamer rack, make a bed for the tamales with the remaining husks. Add the tamales. Cover and steam over low heat for 1 hour, adding more water as necessary.

7. Remove the tamales from the steamer and cool for 10 minutes. Serve them in the husks with salsa and sour cream.


Madhur Jaffrey's Curried Roast Chicken, Durban Style

Chicken_3

I don't know what's come over me, but I can't seem to stop cooking exotic meals lately. I wonder if it's the chill in the air, and the sadness over summer ending that has me craving spicy food. Strong spices and forceful flavors promise a different kind of warmth these days. Soon, I'm sure, this will give way to a spate of bread-baking and long-cooked stews. And I am looking forward to those crisp days. But for now, I mourn the end of our hot and sultry summer. Wasn't it over in a flash?

In the fall and winter, Ben and I cooked many a chicken for our Sunday night dinners, and somehow it seemed fitting to go back to that trusty stand-by last night, jazzed up substantially, when we returned to the city from our last summer weekend in Beacon. The jazzing-up of the standard roast chicken comes thanks to Madhur Jaffrey, whose recipe was excerpted from her Curries and Kebabs book in Florence Fabricant's Pairings column (apparently, this chicken tastes great with a nice, cool Beaujolais).

You take a whole, raw chicken and skin it - which sounds fussy, but really isn't that bad. More annoying is the fact that Balducci's ran out of raw, whole chickens (how? Exactly how does a fancy food store run out of raw, whole chickens?), which condemned me to the questionable fate of having to buy our chicken from the dubious spot that is D'Agostino's poultry case.

To make the spice paste that would be slathered all over the skinned and slashed bird, I blended together the juice of two lemons, chopped jalapenos, garlic, and ginger, coriander and curry powder (in place of cumin), salt and oil. Madhur says that the resulting puree should be a "thick paste", though mine was more of a wet sauce. If you make this, I'd only use the juice of one lemon and perhaps just one spoonful of oil.

I slathered the greenish sauce all over my naked and rather undignified chicken and let the incendiary juices impregnate the meat for a half hour. I, meanwhile, nursed the pain of jalapeno puree smeared all over the rather delicate skin of my recently dermatitis-afflicted palms. All I can say is, OW.

The chicken, after an hour of foil-covered roasting, and then basting, and then 15 minutes of uncovered roasting, came out incredibly fragrant and still juicy. The sauce had dried up into spicy little pockets of flavor here and there along the chicken's contours. It was intensely lemony, almost too much so, which further proves my point that less lemon juice in the spice paste would be fine. We ate our chicken with the coconut rice that blew my mind back in January and provided a cooling counterpart to the spicy heat.

I liked this a lot, but I'm not sure I'd make it again. Perhaps because it feels like more of a fleeting-fancy dinner than the kind of thing to keep for posterity. Still, it's worth at least one meal. One that will warm you to the bone while the breeze outside picks up momentum and chill, and the first leaves start falling, brittle and faded, to the ground.

Curried Roast Chicken, Durban Style
Serves 3 to 4

1 3 1/4-pound whole chicken, skinned
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 2-inch piece peeled ginger, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 small fresh green chilies, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin (I subbed 1/2 teaspoon curry powder)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Cut two deep diagonal slits, down to the bone, in each chicken breast and one in each leg and thigh. Place chicken, breast side up, on a sheet of heavy-duty foil large enough to enclose it. Place in a roasting pan.

2. Place lemon juice, ginger, garlic, chilies, salt, oil, cumin and coriander in a blender and process to a thick puree. Rub puree over chicken, inside and out, and into slits. Set chicken aside for 30 minutes.

3. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Dust chicken with chili powder and black pepper, enclose in foil and crimp to seal. Roast for 1 hour.

4. Open foil and baste chicken. Return, uncovered, to oven for 15 minutes, basting twice more. Transfer chicken to serving platter. Pour juices from foil into a small dish and serve alongside chicken.


Ana Sortun's Flatbreads with Spiced Chicken and Pistachios

Flatbreads

It is exceedingly difficult to photograph flatbreads appealingly. It is, however, exceedingly easy to consume said unphotogenic flatbreads at an alarming rate. Especially when smeared with a spoonful of yogurt or dipped into a greenish mound of smoked aubergine crush (I can't stop repeating this recipe title over and over in my head). Fragrant with herbs and sesame seeds, spiced chicken and the barely-there whisper of ground pistachios, the flatbreads bend and break in your hands. They're crunchy in some places, pliant in others. The yogurt adds a smooth textural note and a cooling sensation.

The recipe comes from Ana Sortun's cookbook that has been featured in both the LA Times and NY Times. Sortun, the chef at Oleana in Cambridge, is a spice obsessed and her recipes are vehicles for all those spice-filled jars and packets you have stowed away in your kitchen (or freezer, though it might drive your co-habitants nuts to have all those little glass jars clinking up against frozen brussels sprouts and limeade concentrate).

Despite the long list of ingredients, this recipe is quick and easy. You pulse together chicken with minced vegetables, dark-red sumac, aromatic Aleppo pepper, savory za'atar, toasted pistachios and some binding agents. This mixture is smeared onto Persian lavash (I bought a Lebanese version called pain du village that might have been a touch too thin, and got crispier results) and baked in a hot oven.

I left off the garnish of roasted red peppers and didn't miss them at all. For two girls catching up on life, the flatbreads were good enough for dinner, along with the eggplant and yogurt. But for future reference, I'll slice the cooked flatbreads into thick strips and serve them as an hors d'oeuvre. As for the leftovers? I created sort of Indo-Mexican roll-ups, with a layer of eggplant and then a layer of yogurt smeared onto the warmed flatbread and folded.

Tasty indeed - they could give Ilene Rosen's hot sandwich choices a run for the money.

Flatbreads with Spiced Chicken and Pistachios

Makes 8 servings

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts
3 red bell peppers, 1 minced, 2 roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into strips
1 small onion, minced
3 scallions, minced
2 teaspoons sumac, more for garnish
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon za'atar, more for garnish
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
1 egg
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 cup lightly toasted, finely ground pistachio nuts
4 large rectangles of lavash
Pepper to taste
1 cup thick yogurt

1. Cut chicken into 2-inch chunks and place them in a food processor. Process to a smooth paste until it forms a ball, about 1 minute. Add minced red pepper, onion, scallions, sumac, Aleppo or cayenne pepper, za'atar, salt, egg, cream and pistachios, and pulse together just until incorporated, about 6 pulses.

2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees; heat a pizza stone if you have one. Cut lavash into rectangles, about 5 by 6 inches. Cover each piece with about 1/3 cup chicken mixture, spreading to edges.

3. Place on a heavy baking sheet or pizza stone and bake 12 to 15 minutes, until crips and chicken is cooked through. While still hot, sprinkle with additional sumac and za'atar. Serve warm with a dollop of yogurt, and strips of roasted pepper on each.