Monday, November 26, 2007

An Unconventional Thanksgiving? Sweet Potato Tamales. . .

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It combines my three favorite ingredients – cooking, eating and family. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s also one of the least conducive occasions for experimenting. You don’t want to disappoint your guests with a charred, under-seasoned or all-out failed dish. It’s an occasion to let your tried and true blue-ribbon recipes shine – the perfect pecan pie, creamy mashed potatoes and delectable turkeys get their moment.

But sometimes tried and true gets boring. Years of eating the same dishes – mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with either marshmallows or maple syrup, too-tart cranberry sauce, turkey which is rarely evenly cooked, green bean casserole with too much canned mushroom soup, give or take a pumpkin pie or two – can leave the taste buds craving something different.

Mind you, not everyone needs adventure in their Thanksgiving menu. I’ll admit, there’s real value and skill in consistency. This entry isn’t for those tradition-bound eaters. It’s for those of you, who like me, are looking for something a little different to grace your tables – at least for next year!

In search of something more interesting, I tried a few new recipes on my Thanksgiving table this year. And the results were exciting. I’m sharing my favorite here – it's Bobby Flay-inspired, and it’s a real fusion dish suited to the part of Florida where I'm from, where Mexican and southern influences run together – just as they do in these sweet potato tamales.

20 dried corn husks
1 1/2 cups canned corn kernels
1 medium onion, chopped
1 head garlic, cloves removed and roasted
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening or margarine
1 1/2 cups masa or yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon honey
2 medium sweet potatoes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
¼ - ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons maple syrup

1. About 2 hours before you plan to form the tamales, soak husks warm water for 2 hours, until softened.

2. Roast the sweet potatoes at 375F for about 1 hour or until soft, then peel and mash

3. Puree the corn, onion, roasted garlic, and stock in a blender. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl and cut in the butter and shortening.

4. Mix in the masa, honey, and salt and pepper coarsely, until there are no visible lumps of fat.

5. Fold in the sweet potato puree, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, allspice, and maple syrup.

6. Remove the cornhusks from the water and set aside the 20 biggest husks. Pat dry. Tear the remaining husks into 1-inch wide strips to be used for tying.

7. Form the tamales: lay 2 husks flat with the tapered ends facing out and the broad bases overlapping by 2-3 inches. Place about 1/3 cup of masa mixture in the center. Bring the long sides up over the masa, slightly overlapping, and pat down to close. It’s OK if the masa spills a bit from the seams. Tie each end of the bundle with a strip of cornhusk, folding the short ends in towards the middle and centering the filling when you tie. The tamale should look like a little tied packet.

8. Arrange the tamales in a single layer on a steaming rack, cover with a lid or tightly with foil, and steam over boiling water for 45 minutes. To serve, allow to cool slightly and serve with salted pecan butter.

(Pecan butter - grind 1/4 cup of pecans and blend with 1 stick of softened butter, and salt to taste - yummy!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Taste of Home: Vik's Chaat Corner

I've found a little taste of home in the East Bay. It's called Vik's Chaat Corner in Berkeley and it's awesome. Tucked into an unassuming warehouse near the corner of 4th and Allston Way, this restaurant dishes up Indian street foods reminiscent of Bombay's Chowpatty. You should go. Soon.

It was a great place to quench my cravings for real Indian fast food - from papri chaat to dhokla and chole batura - even good old South Indian specialties like masala dosa were on offer! Vik's isn't a well kept secret either - it was packed the Sunday that I went with family with college kids, Berkeley residents and, of course, Indians. The latter audience is a living testament to the quality of the place!

The eatery is totally casual and laid back. In real Indian style, you can wait in line at a register surrounded by super hot stoves and men rushing around to make your food, yelling in Hindi (and Spanish), all the while staring at a display of mouth-watering Indian mithai.

For those of you who feel especially inspired by your eating experience, you can also step next door into Vik's Distributors, the neighboring Indian store, to pick up ingredients and try recreating the Vik's experience at home.