A Tamal Feast (photos by Javier Cabral)
Chef Gilberto Cetina Showing Everybody What’s up With Tamales Yucatecos
The Mercado, located across the street from the DMV offices and a stones throw away from USC, is a project of the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation with the mission of building local economies, provide services, promote arts and culture and community to a part of town that has historically suffered from disinvestment – including a lack of quality jobs and business opportunities, quality gathering spaces, quality food, and art and cultural opportunities.
The workshop ran for $70 and included a hands-on cooking demonstration and tamal feast hosted by Chichen Itzá Restaurant’s chef cookbook author, Gilberto Cetina. The only Yucatán-born author to write a book on Yucatán cuisine.
From talking about the benefits of using home-rendered toasted lard instead of the conventional supermarket, bland white lard to discussing the pros and cons of wrapping tamales with wax paper, the workshop was a success. Wrapping tamales in wax paper keeps them more uniform and makes them cook faster by the way.
A particular tamal that stood out to us was the “Brazo de Reina,” a banana leaf wrapped tamal shaped like a jelly roll. It is a dense and ultra-nutritious masa cake that captured that pivotal point in Mayan culture with the marriage of both pre-hispanic ingredients such as pumpkin seeds and Chaya leaf as well as post-Spanish Conquest ingredients like eggs and lard.
Brazo de Reina Tamal
To wash down the tamales, Chef Cetina also taught his class how to make an Atole de Pepitas. Atole is a common drink to fight the cold at dawn, and essential during the chilly holiday season across Mexico and Los Angeles. On the spot, my foodie girlfriend and Sonic Trace Community Producer (Paola Briseño) was transcribing the interview from Chef Cetina’s mouth into a Sonic Trace facebook post. She is from a beach town in Mexico, Puerto Vallarta, so her mom’s atole is thickened solely from guayaba (they have natural pectin) instead of the traditional corn and steaming hot milk to thicken. Like her mom’s atole, atole de pepitas doesn’t need corn or milk, just pumpkin seeds, agave sweetener and water. Atole de pepitas and atole de guayaba are quite unique – as far as atoles go.
We will post the Atole de Guayaba recipe next week. For now, here are two recipes to transform you holiday menu into Yucatán-style holiday feast!
Atole de Pepitas (photo by Paola Briseño)
Recipe: Atole de Pepita de Calabaza (sweet pumpkin seed drink)
This is a traditional drink that the Mayans made. Perhaps they used honey or agave nectar to sweeten it, as sugar arrived with the conquistadores.
Recipes by Gilberto Cetina from Chichen Itza.
1 1/2 gallon water + 1/2 cup
1 lb. hulled, unsalted pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 cups agave nectar
1. Bring the water to a boil and add the pumpkin seeds. Let cook over a simmer for 20 minutes or until the seeds are soft.
2. In a blender, pulse the water and seeds until you get a smooth purée.
3. Mix the agave nectar and cornstarch in 1/2 cup cold water until there are no lumps. Then pour slowly into the pumpkin seed purée, and stir constantly over a medium heat until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and serve.
Recipe: Tamales Brazo de Reina (Queen’s Arm Tamal)
4 pounds masa de maiz para tortillas (corn dough for tortillas)
20 ounces lard
1 tsp salt
2 cups chopped chaya leaves (or spinach) fresh or thawed and drained if frozen
12 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
2 cups pepitas de calabasa tostada sin cáscara (ground, toasted pumpkin seeds)
Banana leaves, thawed if frozen
Salsa de Tomate
Toasted pumpkin seeds, hulled or unhulled
1. Mix the masa with the chaya (or spinach), lard and salt until well blended.
2. Cut out large 12″ x 10″ rectangles of the banana leaves, the veins should run lengthwise.
3. Place a banana leaf rectangle, smooth side up, centered on a tortilla press. Place about 6 ounces (or use a #5 food scoop) of the corn dough in the center of the banana leaf. With your fingertips, press out an 8-inch tortilla.
4. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of the pumpkin seeds on the tortilla. Follow that with about 2 tablespoons of the hard-cooked eggs on the lower third of the tortilla.
5. Begin to roll the tortilla, starting at the lower end, carefully peeling the masa from the banana leaf. Basically, you are creating a pinwheel. Be careful to not to roll the banana leaf into the roll.
6. Then lift by the two ends and fold the ends under.
7. Place the tamales in a single layer in a rectangular steamer on stovetop burners and steam covered with aluminum foil for about 25-30 minutes or until the banana leaf is easily separated from the dough. Let rest for 10-15 minutes (if you layer the tamales in the steamer, more cooking time might be required.)
8. Remove the banana leaf and slice each tamal into 8 slices crosswise to reveal the pinwheel of fillings.
To serve: Arrange the slices of one tamal on a plate and top with a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds.
A special thanks to Julio Trejo from Mercado La Paloma for this post.