Friday, December 25, 2009

A Meal to Remember: Christmas Tamales (de Guatemala)

Antigua, Guatemala
December 2006

I found while living in Honduras, very few things inspired two whole days of labor in such a hot lazy country. The tamale is one. Hondurans made my mouth water with the promise of the tamale, an apparently laborious tradition, reserved for the festive weeks leading up to Christmas and into the New Year. Questioning friends in La Ceiba only resulted in longing looks and a gurgling stomach; they were all too busy to cook, but promised me if I stopped by their homes on Christmas, I would be rewarded with the revered tamale. Sadly, Carter and I left for Guatemala before any pots were put on the stove. I was devastated - I might have to wait a whole year before experiencing Honduras’ most delicious culinary treat.

After crossing into Guatemala, we were easily distracted from our tamale woes. The rambling cobble stone streets of Antigua took us from one picturesque earthquake mangled ruin to another, spit us out into palm-shaded city plazas, which in turn lead us to explore various churches, a monastery built in the 1500’s, and endless hip boutiques. A deeper layer of charm and intrigue hides behind the brightly colored concrete walls lining the streets. Peer through a beautifully crafted wrought-iron door and find a spacious courtyard, sometimes the size of a city block, laid out in front of you. We were delighted to find that café culture has taken hold here; it felt so European after living in Honduras. Sitting in beautiful cafés carved into the Spanish ruins situated around tranquil fountains, enjoying delicious dark coffee and rich decadent black forest cake (Carter’s breakfast one day), I couldn’t help but daydream of my Spanish hacienda just outside of town, and my fabulous farm with happy delicious animals. I was in heaven.

In the evenings, a whole new life erupted. The central plaza was ablaze with Christmas lights and practically vibrating with reggaeton Christmas tunes. People gathered in the streets parading lanterns and statues. Groups of adults and kids carried statues of Mary and Joseph from house to house searching for lodging for the night. We slid alongside one merry entourage to ask where these plaster deities were being taken. Amidst the chaos of children high on sugar and the constant boombastic crackling of firecrackers, the basic premise of The Procession of Mary and Joseph was explained to us. Known as las posada, from December 15 until Christmas Eve the little parades fill the streets each night looking for someone to host Mary and Joseph until the next evening. When they find a family who will take them, a celebration ensues. And what do they eat to celebrate?!…. The Christmas Tamale! Oh joy! Merry Christmas to me! The tamale was being consumed all over Antigua.

The procession was growing as we went from house to house. I began to develop a bit of anxiety- if our numbers grew much more, would there be enough tamales for everyone, or more specifically, me? And then it happened: Huge carved double wooden doors were opened and the procession was welcomed into a modest family courtyard surrounded by an unassuming brightly painted coral wall. There they were, piled high, and steaming away in their tea green banana leaves: the two day tamale.

A roly-poly lady with a bright smile handed over the holiday delicacy. Steaming in my hands, I unwrapped my present, then using the banana leaf and my hand as a plate, I dug in to the delight of our host. It was perfect!! Over a twenty-four hour period, the hominy is boiled with cal or lime, husked, then boiled again and transformed from an indigestible dried, starchy kernel the size and shape of candy corn into creamy masa. Once completely puréed, a light airy consistency is achieved; so smooth, it is pudding-like. The masa is wrapped around tender braised pork, colored red by chilies and achiote. Then it is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. The banana leaves impart a subtle smoky, gamey flavor that is complimented by a traditional beverage of whole plumped-up dates and raisins, shredded carrot, plantain, pineapple, papaya, bits of orange and fresh shredded coconut swimming around in a sweet viscous liquid served warm on the side.

Crashing holiday traditions is fun!!

Friday, December 18, 2009

News Flash!

My Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark has been recognized by the Food52 community as a finalist for their Best Edible Present Recipe contest. I am soooooooo excited! Constant checking of this site has become a daily due diligence. See contests here. Check out the slide show of the making of the recipe here.

If you haven’t visited the website Food52 yet, you most definitely should. It is a cookbook project- that you can help write. Each week they announce two contests. Home cooks have a week to submit recipes. Two finalists are chosen, and then the voting goes to the public. (AhhUmmm... that's you.) The winner gets published in the cookbook! In the meantime, they are creating a dynamic and creative web resource for original recipes by home cooks and food bloggers. It is a food-lovers treasure trove!

Warning: Clear your calendar for the next couple months, because if you are anything like me, or just like to eat and think about food you will become completely obsessed with Food52.

Move Over Martha! Recipes for Two Holiday Treats

Tis' the season to gorge yourself on sweets and high-calorie cakes. Save the skinny jeans and the commendable promises of a healthy new regime for January 1. Everyone will be too schnockered on high-octane punch at the holiday party to notice that you are hiding your holiday heft with a sparkly new moo-moo-- so indulge!

I offer you two recipes to help get you in the holiday spirit. Tie a bow around them and buy your co-worker's silence about your clichéd bad behavior at the holiday-hiccup or, in my case, give the goodies to your neighbors in hopes that they will start picking up their dog's shit from my front "yard".

My Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark is a tasty treat to spice up any fiesta or light up a lucky recipient's tired holiday palate. I often make this easy dessert when I have friends coming for dinner who love wine. I know that we will sit at the table well after the meal is over and continue talking and drinking for hours. I serve this on one plate and put it in the middle of the table. It is a casual dessert, so easy to make and great with a good Cabernet. I first wrapped this up for an edible gift a few years ago while conceiving of a delectable present that would not be tossed aside amongst the mountains of cloying Christmas sugar. With so many sweets being passed out, this subtle spicy and salty chocolate makes for a nice surprise. Use good chocolate when making this; it will make all of the difference. And, of course, feel free to substitute your favorite nuts and fruits.

Not a chocolate person? (Really! Do those people actually exist?). The second recipe I am gifting you, my dear readers, is Sniff's and I's Grandma's Caramels. I grew up on these caramels. From the moment I had two front teeth that met in the middle, I was chomping down on their wonderfully buttery taste. Grandma made sheets and sheets of them every Christmas to give away to family and friends and the wrap, twist, warp, twist, EAT, wrap, unwrap, EAT would go on for hours. I am slightly reluctant to publish this recipe, because if any of you are in the mood for mass production, these caramels will definitely make you very very rich.

The recipe itself is nothing short of brilliant. If you have ever tried to make caramel sauce, you may be familiar with deflating terms such as "crystallization" or "seizing", neither of these are a good thing when combining sugar and water. This caramel recipe eliminates any possibility of that dreaded moment when the whole bubbling sugary pot goes to Whoville. Honestly, try it. It is almost impossible to not end up with a perfectly gooey, mouth-watering caramel.

I made second batch of these caramels and added 2 teaspoons ground ginger and 2 teaspoons ground green cardamom. If you are feeling like adding a little zip to a classic, go for it. You will not be disappointed.


Makes about 3 gifts

1 large ancho chili
1 whole star anise
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
3 cloves
2" cinnamon stick
2/3 cup pistachios
2/3 cup cashews, very lightly crushed
12 oz dark bittersweet chocolate, cut into very small pieces
1/2 cup dried cherries
Kosher salt, or sea salt

  1. To make the spice mix, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Place first 5 ingredients on a baking sheet and place in oven. Toast until fragrant or about 10 min.
  2. Remove stems and majority of seeds from the anchos. Place all spices in a spice grinder or coffee grinder and pulverize. You may need to grind spices in batches.
  3. Toast the nuts by placing them on the baking sheet and put in the oven. Check after 10 minutes. When done, remove from oven and let cool.
  4. Place ¾ of the chocolate in a bowl and slowly melt the chocolate, either in the microwave checking and stirring it every 25 seconds or over a double broiler on the stovetop.
  5. When all of the chocolate is melted, take it off of the heat and add in the remaining chocolate, stir until it is completely melted.
  6. Add one to two teaspoons of the spice mix. Add one at a time and taste; add more if you want it to be spicier. I like a subtle spice flavor, it keeps those eating it wondering what the secret spice could be.
  7. Line the baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat. Spread out the nuts and cherries, reserving a few of the nuts to decorate the top.
  8. Sprinkle salt over the nuts and cherries.
  9. Pour the chocolate onto the pan, covering the nuts and cherries in an even layer. Add remaining nuts to the top of chocolate and press them into the chocolate.
  10. Put in fridge and allow to cool for 45 min. Break into pieces and keep in a sealed container in the fridge.


2 pounds light brown sugar
14 oz sweetened condensed milk
16 oz light Karo corn syrup
1 pound butter (minus 1 slice)

Special Equipment: candy thermometer, wax paper

Makes about 200 1" x 1" squares
  1. Combine all ingredients, except vanilla, in a pot over medium heat. Stir often.
  2. Bring to 248 degrees. This will take about 15 minutes. Large frothy bubbles will start to appear. NOTE: adjust temperature if you are not at sea level.
  3. Stir in vanilla and turn out onto a very well buttered sheet pan or a sheet pan lined with a silpat.
  4. Let cool for at least 4 hours on the counter top. Then measure and cut into 1" x 1" squares. Cut wax paper and start wrapping and twisting!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: Amalia's first encounter with Santa

I know I said in my post from yesterday that Henry and Amalia loved the Romanian Santas at the glühwein stand in the Rathausmarkt Weihnachtsmarkt in Hamburg. Perhaps I should clarify: they loved dancing when the Santas played "Jingle Bells" - at a safe distance. They did not love sitting on Santa's lap for what mama thought would be a cute photo.

One day she'll laugh at this.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

If I had to name one reason to love Germany...

It would be WEIHNACHTSMARKTS i.e. Christmas markets.

And glühwein i.e. hot mulled wine. Consumed outside when it's cold.

Under bright lights and pyramids of life-size nativity scenes and candles.

In the main square of a well-preserved German town like Lüneburg.

Musically accompanied by my favorite Roma Santa band. Did you know that Santa hails from Romania originally? These are his peeps. Representing my favorite glühwein stand. We come here so often that when we walk up, they stop playing and yell, "Hey! Harry! Maya!" Henry and Amalia love them.

Right down the way from the Südtiroler stand...two reasons to reconsider your stance on eating meat or your religious beliefs...

The famous northern German specialty grünkohl mit pinkel - green cabbage with sausage.

And goulash mit semmelknödel - goulash with dumplings. Is there anything better when you are standing outside in the cold at Christmas time?

Yes at times like these, I looooooooove Germany.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: Chichicastenango Guatemala

Chichicastenango is 90 miles northwest of Guatemala City and is a market-lovers paradise. Uhhh... that would be me: Professional Mercadodora. On Thursdays and Sundays, this tiny town fills up with a massive collection of mazes and stalls overflowing with Mayan food, clothing and crafts.

As luck would have it, the day we swept through for last minute Christmas shopping four years ago was their Dia del Patron, or Saint Thomas's Day- held every year on December 21st. This means the deities were on the march, taken out for their one day in the sun, strutting their feathers and grandeur. A procession of saints and believers in traditional garb with the added fanfare of headdresses, bells, masks, banners and songs clogged the narrow streets. The popular theme of firecrackers and chaos was in full effect. The merry-makers lite cans full of gun powder strapped to flimsy bamboo sticks in the middle of a dense crowd and detonated the explosive package- no chance of that backfiring! So dangerous. So awesome.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Big Night Out

Guadalajara, Mexico

6:15pm Woo-hoo! We are free! After a quick good-bye to our life-saving babysitter, and a brief, “here’s what to do when...,” Carter and I run skipping and leaping out of our house. Did we remember to give her our cell-phone numbers? Ha! Who cares! We’re out!

6:30pm Giddy as a virgin at the senior prom we launch into our evening full-steam ahead by hitting a martini bar/Argentinean steakhouse before our sushi dinner. As we walk towards a table we realize we are in great danger of being surrounded by families who are finishing up a late lunch. I am not about to spend my get-out-of-jail-free card oogling at other people’s babies. (Check the time, that’s right, I said LUNCH. In Mexico the big meal of the day is called comida and starts at around 2pm). We quickly veer towards the bar and take a stool. Perfect.

7:30pm The uber hip sushi restaurant we had carefully chosen for our Big Night Out had everything going for it: big buzz about town, a sleek modern interior, psychedelic jelly fish floating in a tank by the door, swanky highly-stylized leather lounge chairs perfect for sipping sake cocktails, chill down-tempo beats sealing the scene. So why were we the only people in the restaurant?

We knew why. It cannot be blamed on the new trend towards penny-pinching. We were tragically unhip. You see, in Mexico, it takes more than just picking the talked-about spot, you really CANNOT expect to dine among the living until the sweet hour of 10pm. This is siesta culture. The life we were trying to dip into did not start until much later, and those who live it were napping.

9:00pm Full on sushi, we leave the still-empty restaurant and try to find a happening place to have a drink before we meet up with friends, who are mostly likely throwing matches all over their floor and sticking things in their outlets…. because they don’t have kids and they can. We are still pretty amped up with the naughty feeling of getting away with something, but as we roam the oddly quiet streets the momentum begins to fade.

Really?! Is it possible that at, and now it is 9:30pm on a Saturday, a city of seven million can actually feel empty? There isn’t even the pre-party hustle of a liquor run, a last-minute dash to the bodega, or a … N-O-T-H-I-N-G. The city is eerily quiet. We walk to a couple bars we know will have lines out the front at 1am, and I swear they are mopping the floors in anticipation of the merry-makers. I am starting to feel like I am trying to make something of nothing. The lack of distraction is allowing the grim reality of the sad truth to sink in: the baby-sitter will not be there in the morning. You see, it is the thought I always have in the back of my head, but if everything is going well on a Big Night Out I can lethally push it to the back of my mind and wait to deal with it at 7am, when Oscar wakes up.

10:00pm The debate to call it a night or soldier-on has landed us at the bar where our friend’s band will be playing later that evening. We order a shot and make a couple calls, fruitlessly reminding people that we are on babysitter-time. As usual, they are on Mexican-time.

11:30pm People are trickling in fresh-faced and excited for the night to start. They have the same right out of the gates tear-on that was trying to find a venue in me FIVE hours ago. A second-wind looks to be hours away. I am thinking I will save my late-night babysitter points and cab it home. Oscar has five hours of sleep on me at this point, and sometimes, at 7am, I think he is rubbing it in.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Berlin Secret Restaurant Series: Cantina

Berlin, Germany

Before I continue with the "secret restaurant" series, I have been asked to explain what makes a "secret restaurant" "secret". Right. Good question. As I mentioned, it is indeed perplexing to be classified as secret when you have been written up in the NYT. There are perhaps different categories of secret and the two which I am posting in this series fall under the category of real restaurant (i.e. professional kitchen and professionals chefs) in a location that was not originally intended as a restaurant- in the two examples in this series that location is a club. Cookies Cream is above the Cookies club and Cantina is in the backroom of the bar Tausend. There are other secret restaurants in Berlin that are located in residences, in someone's living room where the chef is an amateur and so is the kitchen. There is no bill for dinner but rather a suggested donation as these establishments are not licensed to serve food or alcohol. Unfortunately, I have not yet made it to one of the home-spun secret restaurants but intend to as soon as possible. In the meantime, I submit for your perusal the second in the series and my personal favorite...

Catina. In Tausend. Found at the bottom of the steps up to the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn, opposite side of the river from the Reichstag. Go around the corner from the main entrance. Around the back. Ring the bell. Enter the kitchen. And then behold....

The Miso Cod with pickled ginger. Oh. My. God. Our mustached, soft-spoken and very patient waiter recommended this. About three times. Before I finally said, 'I think we'll try the miso cod.' He smiled approvingly. The meat slipped off the fish like catching a greased watermelon. It was like this fish had been brined in vasoline. The texture was firm, the fish fatty and the miso was subtle and delicious. I still dream about this.

The ceviche. Oh. My. God. A white fish and squid marinated in lime, tossed with red onion and topped with red chillies and coriander. Corn and sweet potato on the side. I wanted to rub my face in the plate. I may have - but have you ever gotten red chilli in your eye? Not fun. I abstained. But this was every bit as good as the amazing ceviche we ate in Lima, Peru, where ceviche was born and raised. And maybe better - because we were in Berlin, rather than the cerviche capital of the world. But we would not have been blamed for mistaking Cantina for a cevicheria in Lima.

Seared tuna with foie gras served over wild herb risotto. Perfection on a plate. I can't even talk about it. Lick the screen. Go ahead, lick it. You know you want to.

Beef skewers. Topped with red onion, cilantro and chillies. Oh. My. God.

The creme brulé. Very good.

I would say more but I think these pictures speak for themselves. And if they don't let me say it for them, "Deeeeeeeeellllllisssssshhhhhuuuuouuuuus!!!!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: The Day after Thanksgiving

Hamburg, Germany

Do not fear. This is not a wild manimal raised by wolves in the dark heart of the forest who has crawled up through the sewers, infiltrated the old bunker in our backyard and burrowed his way into our kitchen to gnaw on a leftover turkey drumstick. No. This is my dear friend Richard, flown in especially from Rome where he was in the fourth month of his bicycle journey from Lisbon to Amman (check out his blog), to celebrate Thanksgiving with us.

With the table set for 30, two 13 pound turkeys and enough mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, corn bread, pecan pie and sooooo much more, for a small army - or at least a motley crew of mercenaries - we had our hands full of leftovers by the time the last guests left around 3 a.m. And so what do you do with a mean hangover, more empty beer bottles, plastic cups, dirty dishes and post-fesitivity general merry-making mess than you can possibly wrap your warbled little head around? You tuck into leftovers, open a beer and gossip about the revelations shared during "dankbarzeit" (thankful time), the famous German TV actress who made an unexpected appearance, the couple caught making out on the front porch and whether or not that port wine cranberry sauce is what did us all in.

Full post to follow. In the meantime, happy post-Thanksgiving official start of the holiday season!