Spring into Cinco de Mayo Olive Oil Tamales

Basket o' tamales

Tamales and Spring. Two great things that are just brilliant together. Consider that tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo–a holiday that you don’t need to be Mexican to appreciate the robust delights of Mexican cuisine–and that we’re now full swing into Spring, and connection becomes clear. Or at least to me it does.

I’m not going to make sweeping assumptions on what you’ll be doing this Thursday, but if you ever lifted a margarita to your lips or enjoyed an plate of enchiladas on the occasional 5th of May it sounds like a perfect time to make tamales, no matter if you’re a seasoned pro with masa harina or never got any closer to tamale crafting beyond peeling away a steamed corn husk.


It might be a slightly chilly Spring in NYC, but it’s still the ideal time to seek out those fresh green flavors our palates crave after the heavy richness of winter foods. I haven’t had a chance yet to get down the princess charming of spring vegetables, asparagus, so into the tamales they went. Olive oil enhances asparagus like nothing else, and not since my Veganomicon days have I experimented with an oil-based tamale, so this recipe has Mediterranean bend that just feels so right with the whole spring theme. Note that olive oil gives the masa dough a moist, dense and tender quality unlike the fluffy shortening-based tamales in Viva Vegan!. Any boldly flavored extra virgin olive oil will really sing with the capers, a garnish sometimes found in traditional tamales, so reach for a good quality oil for these guys. Alongside the asparagus lightly cooked mushrooms, leeks and a hint of carrot lend their talents to fill these tender corn dough bundles with fresh spring intentions. Serve with a green tomatillo salsa, either homemade or store bought spiked with a handful of chopped fresh cilantro and you’re on your way to a totally fresh and green tamale fiesta.

As with all tamales these can be assembled a day or two before steaming. Reheat already steamed tamales in the microwave, wrapped in moist paper towels or set once more in the steamer basket for 6-8 minutes until hot in the center. Tamales freeze beautifully too and require just an additional 10 minutes or so of steaming to reheat.

Olive oil tamale heaven

Olive Oil Tamales with Asparagus & Mushrooms
makes 18-20 four inch tamales

Be sure to take a look at these photos for more detailed steps on tamale assembly.

Tip: To freeze olive oil pour into a thin plastic container (like the kind used for takeout soup) and freeze for 1-2 hours until opaque and the consistency of soft sorbet. If the oil becomes too hard let sit on the kitchen counter for a few minutes to soften up.

Tamale tip: Have a bowl of warm water handy when patting out the masa dough; anytime things get sticky dip your fingers in water and continue to pat away.

Masa dough
3 ½ cups Mexican masa harina corn flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
⅔ cup olive oil, partially frozen
2 ½ cups flavorful vegetable stock, slightly warm (I love vegetarian Vegetable Better Than Bouillon)

Filling
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 small leek, cleaned and sliced into ¼ inch pieces
3 tablespoons white wine or vegetable broth
10 ounces cremini mushrooms, brushed clean and sliced into quarters
3 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
1 small carrot, scrapped and shredded
1/2 pound asparagus, thick end trimmed and sliced into 1 inch pieces
freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste

24 large dried corn husks plus 5 or more additional husks for making ties and lining the steamer

1. Set corn husks to soak in a large baking pan filled with enough hot water to cover and soak until husks are soft and pliable, at least 20 minutes. When husks are soft tear 2-4 husks into strands no thicker than ¼ inch to use for tying ends of the tamale (sort of like a huge wrapped piece of candy). In a large mixing bowl stir together masa harina, baking powder, salt and garlic powder. Spoon in olive oil and use an electric hand mixer to beat until mixture looks sandy. Slowly stream in half of the vegetable broth, continue to beat with the hand mixture and stream in the remaining both until a soft fluffy dough forms. If too dry add a tablespoon of additional broth at a time, if too moist sift in a tablespoon of masa harina. Cover dough tightly with plastic wrap to prevent drying out.

2. Make the filling: Saute in a deep 12 inch skillet over medium heat the olive oil and garlic for 30 seconds until fragrant, then add leek and saute 3-4 minutes until softened, then add wine and deglaze the pan for 30 seconds. Add mushrooms and sweat for 5 minutes, covering half way through to soften mushrooms. Stir in capers, crumbled rosemary, and oregano and remove from heat. Stir in shredded carrot and chopped asparagus, season with pepper and salt and let cool enough to handle.

3. To assemble a tamale spread about 3 heaping tablespoons of dough in the center of large soaked corn husk and pat it into a rectangle shape less slightly more than ¼ inch thick, leaving at least an inch of free space on the husk. If your corn husks are on the small side overlap two or three husks to make one large husk. Spoon 2 heaping tablespoons of filling down the center of the dough, then grab the long ends of each husk and press the dough together to encase the filling. Tuck one side of the husk under the dough to cover it, then wrap the remaining half of the husk around the tamale. Tie both ends of each tamales with a strip of soaked corn husk; it will look a little like a giant piece of wrapped taffy. Repeat with remaining husks and dough. Line the bottom of a large steamer basket with leftover husks and gently stand tamales upright in the basket but don’t pack them in; tamales will expand during steaming and it’s best to make two batches if you can’t fit them all in the steamer at once. Steam for 40-45 minutes until dough is firm (a little like soft, cooled cooked polenta) and easily peels away from a corn husk. Serve hot to guests and let them unwrap their tamales before dipping in salsa or enjoying naked as is.

Jumping to Conclusions: Rabbit-Year Carrot Cake Dumplings

My brain likes to play free-word association games: usually at my expense, but sometimes with amusing results. An embarrassing example: a store window features a tall poster with massive read letters reading HUGE SALE. I see HUG SALE, and for a split second with Care Bear-like awe I wonder how many? before the rest of my mind catches up and realizes the totally awkward nature of that scenario (and me being wary of strangers baring “free hugs” signs). See, wasn’t that a totally ridiculous thing to own up to?

Now, for a more fruitful cerebral collision: reading an invite to a casual vegan Chinese New Year’s celebration, the host requests we bring something tasty–either Chinese or bunny themed–to honor this new Year of the Rabbit. To paraphrase: “bring a carrot cake, or dumplings”. Dessert-minded me immediately reads “carrot cake dumplings”. I then realize there’s no way he would make such a specific food request. A careful re-read of the invite confirms, but moments, hours and days later I can’t shake it. I have never seen, made or eaten one, but I’m craving hard these imaginary carrot cake dumplings.

Fast forward to the morning of the party. It’s 7:30 am on a Sunday and most of the country is dreaming of all things Superbowl, but I’m busy inventing a test-run (or perhaps crash) of this crazy dessert with hopes of serving it to the nice people who invited me to their party. Asian dumplings are simple once you’re in the rhythm, but the only thing I’m in are my pajamas. There’s a lot to do, but thanks to my obsession the dough was made last night; it warms on the counter as I fold together a sweet, spicy filling of carrot cake inspired mush.

The dumpling dough, the only thing having time to relax this morning, is easy going like a Lionel Richie song. Soon there are two dozen little pouches of rabbit-friendly sweets steaming on the stove; I note to myself I really should get a bamboo steamer, my much banged up steel steamer basket that’s served as midwife to hundreds of tamales is a tight fit for a few dumplings. But soon, by Watership Down, I have chewy Shanghai-like dumplings stuffed with a melange of brown sugar, carrots, pineapple, coconut and even an appropriately Asian hint of star anise and black pepper from the benefit of Chinese five spice powder. It’s a dumpling, and it’s somehow carrot cakey at the same time; soon after the party guests approve and I’ve finally had a taste of accidental dream dumplings.

The carrot cake dumplings proved to be a happy experiment after all, and I’ll continue to fine tune this recipe, but for now enjoy and give homemade dessert dumplings a go; they would make a fresh addition to a springtime dim sum or brunch menu. And may your Year of the Rabbit have you jumping to interesting, unexpected and delicious conclusions!

Carrot Cake Dumplings
makes 24 smallish dumplings

Coconut flour adds body and great coconut flavor to the filling. If you can’t locate any (it’s popular with the gluten free baking set), use more breadcrumbs. Like all steamed dumplings there are best served piping hot straight from the steamer, but these re-steam up beautifully. Serve with wedges of orange or scoops of dairy-free coconut vanilla ice cream.

Filling:
2 cups firmly packed finely grated carrots (about ½ lb whole carrots)
8 ounce can crushed pineapple, well drained of juices
⅔ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup dark raisins
3 tablespoons shredded coconut
2 tablespoons coconut flour
2 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts
½ teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¾ cup or more soft, freshly made breadcrumbs, firmly packed

Prepare dumpling dough wrappers and set up steamer according to manufacture’s directions.
In a mixing bowl combine grated carrots, pineapple, brown sugar, raisins, coconut flour if using, shredded coconut, walnuts, five spice powder, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and sea salt. I like to use may hands to really knead together the ingredients. After everything is mixed knead in breadcrumbs; filling should resemble a very moist dough. If dough seems too wet, knead in a few big pinches of breadcrumbs.
To assemble a dumpling place a wrapper in your non-dominate hand (for me that’s my left) and place a heaping tablespoons of filling in the center. With your other hand take a generous pinch of dough from the edge of the circle and pull it away from the center; do it again right next to your first pinch, then pinch the two points together bending the dough toward the filling. Repeat this grab, pinch, and bend technique, taking care to pinch all of the ends together to form a big fat point. Work around the entire circle this way until you have something that resembles a little pleated, peaked pouch of dough. Grab and pinch any ungathered ends of the dough and give the whole thing a firm pinch and a twist to seal the top of the dumpling. Don’t sweat it if your dumplings are not perfectly shaped: all dough adventures take practice to be perfect. Just relax and enjoy the act of pinching something cute that won’t pinch back.
Steam dumplings fro 18-20 minutes, until wrappers are firm. Serve immediately, or keep tightly covered if serving within 10 minutes of steaming to help it keep hot. Cooked dumplings can be stored in the refrigerator for several days and re-steamed.

Dessert Dumpling Dough
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 to 1 ¼ cups cold water

In a mixing bowl stir together flour, sugar and salt. Form a well in the center and pour in vegetable oil and 1 cup cold water. Using your fingers or a wooden spoon stir together to moisten flour. Keep stirring to form a soft dour, adding a little more water at a time if necessary. Gather up the dough and knead in the bowl; the dough should no longer stick to the sides of the bowl but not be overly dry. Lightly flour a work surface, turn out the dough and knead for 3-5 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. Tightly wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let rest for an hour before using; or store in the refrigerator overnight: let dough warm on counter for 20 minutes prior to using.
To make dumpling wrappers, on a lightly floured surface use your palms to roll dough into a log less than 2 inches thick. With a sharp knife cut in half, cover and set aside one piece of dough and roll the other half about 12 inches long. Cut in half again, line up both halves and slice both pieces so that you have 12 pieces of dough total. Pat each piece of dough into a thin circle. With a lightly floured rolling pin (I prefer a thin, “solid state” French style rolling pin), roll a piece of dough into a thin circle about 4 inches wide, lightly flouring and turning the dough frequently to help get a nice evenly shaped circle. You can layer the rolled out dough circles to help keep them moist, just be sure they have a little bit of flour on them to keep from sticking. Rolled out dough circles should be used soon, but they can also be stored by layering between sheets of waxed or parchment paper and then tightly sealed in a zip top bag.

Rad for Rampe (and pumpkin curry)

Greetings from the frozen depths of central Queens! This winter is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory in NYC, but bad winters mean one thing to me and that’s staying inside and making good curries. Curries have roots in mild, often tropical climates but it’s the riot of spices and vegetables performing culinary kung fu that kicks the hell out of most any frozen day.

Sweet winter squash is the obvious choice ingredient for a mid-January Sri Lankan style pumpkin curry. One of my favorite aromatic herbs unique to this dish are frozen rampe (RAHM-peh) leaves (as seen in the photo above), also known as pandan, the awesomely sophomoric sounding screwpine or if packaged in Thailand, bai toey. My friend Danaher–who’s been schooling me in Sri Lankan cuisine since last year–opened my eyes to rampeh last year at his annual birthday dinner that’s a virtual Sri Lankan curry-a-thon. Since then I’ve been hooked on this grass-like herb, obsessed with how a few stalks rampe infuses into food the mouthwatering aroma of gentle citrus and toasted vanilla. That particular flavor really blooms in this sweet, mellow winter squash curry, but if you can’t find rampe near you don’t hesitate to make a batch without it.

But with a little help from online shopping it’s possible to get that authentic flavor with pandan essence, if you can’t find the frozen leaves at an ethic grocery that stocks Southeast Asian goods. My friend usually makes a special trip to Kalustyan’s in Manhattan to replenish his frozen rampe stash, but I found mine for a paltry $1.30 at a tiny Thai grocery in Woodside in the Queens. Without further ado, my favorite pumpkin curry recipe, at least this week, great with any aromatic rice or even a crusty baguette. If you do go for the rice, try poking a few strips of frozen rampe into the rice just before covering for the final simmer for an extra splash of that exquisite vanilla creme aroma.

Pumpkin Coconut Curry
Serves 4 along with steamed rice or bread

If good quality pumpkins are in short supply near you (they are by me), butternut and kabocha squash are usually plentiful, of decent enough quality and always make for tasty curry. If using kabocha you may need to cut down on the final simmer: this starchy squash cooks somewhat faster than it’s crisper cousins.

2 lbs pumpkin, butternut or kabocha squash
1 medium red onion
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons dried shredded unsweetened coconut
1 tablespoon vegetable or coconut oil
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds

4-6 curry leaves, fresh or frozen

4-6 three inch pieces of frozen rampe leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1-2 dried hot red chile peppers (optional)
¾ teaspoon sea salt or to taste
One 3 inch cinnamon stick
1 cup coconut milk (reduced fat coconut milk is fine)
½ cup vegetable broth

1. Wash the squash, removing any dirt or debris. With a sharp Y-shaped vegetable peeler scrape off the skin and remove the seeds and the stringy flesh around the seeds. Cut the squash into 1 inch cubes. Peel and roughly chop the onion, then place along with the garlic into the bowl of a food processor.

2. Over a low heat in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, dry roast the coconut until golden brown, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Watch carefully, as the coconut will appear not to be doing anything then bam!, suddenly roasted coconut. Just as the coconut is starting to get dark pour into the food processor along with the chopped garlic and onion. Add 2 tablespoons of water and grind to a smooth paste, stopping to scrap the sides of the bowl frequently with a rubber spatula. In a separate clean spice grinder grind together coriander and cumin seeds, ground turmeric, and chile peppers.

4. In a large measuring cup combine the coconut milk with vegetable broth and salt. In a heavy pot with a lid add oil, heat over medium heat and the mustard seeds, cover and fry until the seeds begin to pop. Add the curry leaves and the ground spices, cover and fry for 30 seconds. Stir onion mixture into the sizzling spices, fry for 1 minute then add coconut milk mixture, cubed pumpkin and cinnamon stick. Partially cover and gently simmer for 15-20 minutes or until a fork easy pierces a tender chunk of pumpkin. If liquid level reduces too much add ¼ cup more broth or water, but not too much: the curry should be moist but not swimming in liquid. Remove from heat, let stand covered for 10 minutes and serve with hot cooked aromatic rice or Indian-style flatbread.

New year, new book(s)!

How has your 2011 been so far? I’ve been hitting the cutting board once again; cooking, recipe making, researching and writing. I’m involved in two big projects for 2011; though the foundations were laid months ago it feels more real to launch new projects in this shiny new year.

Big project number one: I’m working on a new solo cookbook with a publication date for 2012. In a way Viva Vegan! was the stepping stone to my dream of working on a great big global book; a vegan vision of region cuisines all over the world. Besides, there is yet more Latin vegan food to uncover, and I’m thrilled to have an excuse to dive into my growing obsession with curries, all things Asian food and Middle Eastern cuisine. Essentially the continuing Terry spin on the great ethnic foods that inspire our vegan way of eating.

And the second project is a collaboration with Isa concerning all things pie; sorry no savory pies, just dessert. This one has a tighter deadline than the former book, and I’ll have more to add come early February.

Will I need testers? Certainly my dears, especially for ethnic vegan book. Currently my website elves are building a new blog-style format for recipe testers. Expect general fixing, updating and more website grooming thrills as well. I aim to have the testing open for business mid-February, with recipe testing itself extending into the fall/early winter in an attempt to cram in all seasons of produce.

Do I have a name yet for the “big” book? Heavens no, but for now it will go by codename: World of Vegancraft. It’s just a name; testers won’t have to commit to the grueling quest for The Scepter of the Shifting Sands*, only be willing to make some curries, noodles, roti breads, soups and dips once or twice a week, such as the lovely Sri Lankan style Butternut Curry depicted above (recipe post coming very soon). So clean out your coffee grinder (get ready to stuff it with coriander and cumin), it’s going to be a fragrant-as-hell 2011.

*Disclaimer: A hardcore mmorpg-ing friend schooled me on this insanely grueling of World of Warcraft task. Though nerd, I’m not of the online gaming tribe; I just like the name. Testers don’t need to know a thing about WoW, all you need is a burning desire to quest on for cooking and eating.