Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making Tamales Should Be a Group Effort

Whenever people get together to make tamales, fun and laughter are sure to follow. Both were prominent on Sunday night when my LIFE group merged with a Latin women’s LIFE group from my church to make tamales at the home of Eren and her mother, Olga.

Eren is the common denominator for both groups. She, Olga and friend Judy attend the same group on Wednesday night as my wife and I, in the home of Fair Oaks Baptist Church pastor Steve McCoy and his wife, Andrea. We’re all sort of new to the church, and Steve and Andrea recruit leaders by way of their home fellowship studies.

During one of our Wednesday night meetings, the Latinas and I started talking about Mexican food. (Eren and Olga are from Mexico and Judy is from Guatemala.) Before you know it, we were planning a get-together to make tamales. Everyone else in the group was like, “Yeah, we’ll come” – and eat!

Making tamales is a natural in a group setting. One of the traditions in Latin countries is for families and friends to get together on Christmas eve and make tamales, eat them for a late supper, then go to midnight Mass, stuffed.

Easily, there is room for 7 to 8 stations. People talk, laugh and work side by side for hours while making these tasty treats. In Central and South America, tamales are made differently in virtually every country. Some are made with corn husks, whereas banana leaves are more prominent farther south.

On Sunday, Mexico (Eren, Olga and Alicia), Guatemala (Judy) and Colombia (Lucia, Carmen and Dora) were represented, as well as a few gringo hangers on from Los Ustados Unidos. The Latin Ladies meet Friday night in Eren and Olga’s house and study the Bible together, sometimes in English, sometimes in Espanol.

Me? I’m kind of a cross-over between gringo and Mexican. I grew up on the border of Mexico and love the culture and the cuisine, which I have studied – in the kitchen and in word – intently over the years. When I started catering in 2004, tamales were my specialty. In 2005, I won a prize for my mushroom tamales at the San Jose Tamale Festival, against dozens of other competitors.

And, yet, it’s been three years since I last made tamales, with Susan. Making tamales is time consuming and a lot of hard work. When I pitched the idea to Eren, she readily agreed to host it.

Sunday afternoon, I was slaving away in the kitchen, making adobo (red chile salsa) and my three-mushroom (button, Shiitake, and portobello) concoction. Eren had prepared chicken, roast pork in adobo and cheese and jalapenos, so we had four different types of mushrooms to make – and eat.

Sue and I were the last to arrive a little after 4 p.m. All the ladies were eager to make tamales. My wife had an interesting observation. Why weren’t the Latin ladies teaching us how to make tamales? The answer is because most of them had never made tamales.

Eren and I traded off sharing a few secrets, then we got started. Eren had an oblong table set up in her kitchen covered with a plastic table cloth – when you’re done, you just throw the dirty thing away.

I gave a quick demonstration on how to make the little treasures, then I got out of the way and let them have fun. When they made a mistake, I stepped in to correct them. We had tall ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones and every combination thereof. Some were pretty; some were kind of hideous. Some had blogs of masa, and others were paper thin. Who cares? All that matters is what they taste like.

The Latin ladies – along with Andrea and Earlene (see Dec. 11 post) dived right in. There was much cackling – I mean talking – going on while they worked. The tamales are fitted into a steamer when they’re done for a 75-minute wet sauna. Eren took care of boiling the water, while I prepared the masa (corn meal, mixed with salt, baking powder, lard and chicken stock). Eren had soaked the corn husks in boiling water for an hour before we arrived.

Every 20 minutes or so, a new pot was boiling. Occasionally, we’d have the ladies switch positions and learn a new task. At one point, I led the group in singing the famous Latin song “Cielito Lindo.” The refrain goes “Ay, ay, ay, ay. Canta y no llores.” As soon as I sang those lines, the Latin ladies jumped in and sang. When they finished, they all laughed heartily. Later, I changed up the tune a little and sang “Ay, ay, ay ay. I am the Frito Bandito” and my wife took it from there with a solo. “I love Fritos Corn Chips, I’ll get them from you.” It was hilarious.

By the time we finished all four types of tamales, the first, Eren’s roast pork, were done. Everybody who came brought a side dish, and we had a nifty little potluck happening by 7 p.m.

We all sat around the table chatting. The gringos asked questions about life in Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia and what brought them to the United States. We asked about the foods they grew up with. Life sharing was going on.

That is what good food should do. Good things happen when food and people collide. That combination brings conversation and laughter, two essentials for budding friendships. As you talk, you get to know each other. A get-together becomes a celebration. When you're done, share the extras with friends and family, because Christmas is about giving and sharing with others.

Caption: Making tamales in group settings is a Latin tradition, especially on Christmas eve. Here, I gave a quick demonstration to Eren (middle) and my pastor's wife, Andrea.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Friendship Based on Love of Food

My grandmother canned various fruits and vegetables from her vast garden, and she taught my mom how to can. My mom didn’t have any daughters to pass on the art of canning, and, even though I’m a pretty good cook, my mom did not teach me how to can. (Don’t worry; Mom; I’m not mad.)

Frankly, I never thought twice about learning how to can until I went to Haiti in August and began planning a garden project at the orphanage my church is rebuilding in Leogane. Canning, as my vision states, is something we need to teach Haitians how to do because most of the country is without electricity and, hence, refrigeration. Canning is a necessity in third-world nations so they can eat healthy foods more often.

So when I received an offer to learn how to make pepper jelly from a friend at church, Earlene Boyd of Walnut Creek, Calif., I jumped at the chance. The benefit to me was twofold: 1) I wanted to learn more about canning; and 2) I wanted to learn how to make pepper jelly (think spicy jalapenos) so I can serve it over cream cheese as an appetizer for a dinner I’m catering in a couple of weeks.

Earlene had given my wife, Susan, and me a jar of pepper jelly awhile back, and we fell in love with the stuff. You pour it over cream cheese and dip your favorite cracker into the concoction, and viola, instant yummy appetizer at a fairly low cost.

As we worked, we chatted, which is how it should be while working together in the kitchen. I asked Earlene if her mom taught her how to can, and she said no, she just wanted to learn how to can and simply followed the directions. Ugh. I hate following directions.

I see Earlene at church just about every week. She and her husband, Duane, sit right behind Susan and me. She knows I like to cook, so we often end up talking about food, even during church.

What I learned from Earlene was that we both have a passion to use food as gifts for friends. Earlene gives away treats at church all the time. We have gotten into her inner circle, praise the Lord, which means regular goodies. A few weeks ago, we were guests at her home for her annual “pumpkin” dinner, in which pumpkin was the featured guest.

I told Earlene of my desire to set aside one day in the next few weeks and do nothing but make candy and baked goods for friends, and that set off a 30-minute conversation about food gifts. We agreed that it was a wonderful way to love on someone. My list started off with chocolate and peanut brittle, two of my childhood favorites my mom used to make (and, no, she didn’t teach me how to make those either.) I’m even thinking of presentation of the packages and how to make it … pretty. I might even buy bows.

So out of my morning with Earlene, I gathered up a few treasures. I learned how to can, how to make pepper jelly and our friendship blossomed a little.

How do I pay her back? She heard a few Hispanic ladies from church and me are getting together to make tamales. She asked if she could come. “Of course,” I told her. We’re both already thinking about how to invite others into the fold.

Food is a gift from God, and we should share it with others as often as possible. Celebrate the Christmas season by inviting friends over for a meal or by setting aside a day to make treats for cherished friends or maybe even people you don’t even know. Like a neighbor you’ve been dying to get to know better.

If nothing else, bring me some goodies, and I’ll be your friend!

Note: For the rest of December, I’m going to share some of my food secrets that I learn, such as my candy-making escapades.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Latkes for Everyone

Hanukkah began at sunset Dec. 1 and ended Dec. 9. Every year, the date changes slightly. According to, Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah) is a Jewish holiday also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorating Israel's freedom from the oppressive Syrian-Greek rule and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C.

Hanukkah is celebrated mostly in the home. Each night, families light menorahs, play dreidel (played with a spinning top) and sing songs. Presents are given, under the influence of Christmas.

And, yes, food is a big part of Jewish customs during Hanukkah. In particular, Jews eat deep-fried foods to commemorate the miracle of Hanukkah, in which a cruse of oil lasted for eight days instead of the usual one. Potato latkes are the most famous Hanukkah traditional food, usually served with a slow-roasted brisket.

I stumbled onto potato latkes years ago and absolutely love them. As Christians, I think it’s important that we understand Jewish customs and traditions. Food is a great way to connect with our Jewish brethren.

Here is a simple potato latkes recipe. Last week, I made them for my family, along with braised brisket for dinner. We all loved the dinner, shared in a family atmosphere.

Potato Latkes

Prep time: 15 minutes; cooking time: 15 minutes.

Recipe yield: 10 to 12 latkes


3 cups peeled and shredded potatoes (3-4 whole potatoes)

¼ onion grated

1 clove garlic, minced

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil for frying

2 tsp. chopped green onion for garnish


Place the potatoes in a cheesecloth and wring, extracting as much moisture as possible.

In a medium bowl stir the potatoes, onion, eggs, flour and salt together.

In a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until hot. Place large spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the hot oil, pressing down on them to form ¼- to ½-inch thick patties. Brown on one side, turn and brown on the other. Let drain on paper towels.

Serve hot, with applesauce (preferably homemade) or sour cream and sprinkle with chopped green onions!