lunes, 11 de octubre de 2010

Hay Nacatamales

Nacatamales are an almost religious culinary tradition in Nicaragua, a gigantic overstuffed tamale with a standard list of ingredients uniform throughout the country. Nacatamales are prepared fresh in locals' homes; in every pueblo there are several infamous residents who display the sign Hay Nacatamales, meaning they are available for sale on Saturday and Sunday.
The Nicaraguan version of the tamale, wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf rather than a corn husk, is large, undeniably a meal in itself. The key ingredient is either chicken or pork, accompanied by rice, potatoes, tomatoes, an olive or raisin, and a leaf of yerba buena. This is the tried and true recipe, delicious, and available for only $1 anywhere you go. Why mess with a good thing? the only reason I attempted my own was the vegetarian factor. 
Based on hints from neighbors and friends, as well as gringo guidance from this online recipe, i set out to make my own vegetarian nacatamale.
First up, and arguably the most important ingredient: masa. Traditional nacatamale masa is made with lard, the ultimate cooking fat. When I asked around about vegetarian substitutions, I was met with chortles, smirks, and a couple of suggestions. Since I was making a large batch, I went with what I had the most of, sunflower oil. 

Using a pre-packaged masa, I added a cup of oil and mixed until it was too thick to stir. Following a tip from an authentic nacatamale recipe, I squeezed a sour orange into the dough, and then a flavorful veggie-based broth and worked it in with my hands.
The masa is then left to sit for at least 30 minutes. Time to prepare my tasty fillings!
I flavored up a batch of red beans and potatoes,
and a soy meat with summer squash medley. These would be the savory protein-rich centerpieces of my tamales.

Wrapping the masa and filling into a banana leaf was the most fun and most challenging part. I am proud to announce that I myself went out on the farm to harvest nice long smooth leaves with few tears. In order to make the leaf pliable, I warmed each one over a gas burner. The leaves must bend and fold over to hold the tamale inside, and I found this method extremely effective.
A small circle of masa is patted out in the center of a leaf, and I learned after my first batch, a dollop of homemade hot sauce keeps the filling from drying out.
Upon this I heaped shredded cheese, a spoonful of either the bean or soy mixture, and a sprinkle of cilantro leaf. With a few, I also added cooked rice. Later, as I recounted this process to some veteran nacatamale chefs, raucous laughter erupted at the mention of the cilantro. Apparently I was breaking all kinds of culinary taboos.
Sorry, don't have any action shots. The wrapping process took a little practice, eventually I got it. My little banana packages came out cute, no?
These guys were all tossed into a pot which I first layered with bunched up banana leaves in the traditional method for steaming. Being somewhat of a modern chica, however, I did cook with my gas stove rather than over open fire.
Unlike the wood fire fueled kitchens of most Nicaraguans, in which a pot of nacatamales takes up to 6 hours to cook, mine were ready to unwrap and enjoy in about one hour.
Not too shabby!
Die hard fans of the original nacatamale may argue that my masa/veggie creation is only that, an inauthentic copycat of a cultural classic. at worst, I could be accused of culinary sacrilege.
Yet, despite altering the sacred recipe, tasters from the veggie as well as the meat-eating contigency report success!

4 comentarios:

Elephant's Eye dijo...

Just wondering - do you eat the banana leaf (like spinach) or is it just a package for cooking in?

Liz dijo...

Diana, the banana leaf is tough and fibery, not edible! Like a corn husk tamale, it serves only as a cooking medium, as well as a biodegradable plate!

Mark Willis dijo...

I may have found what I have been searching for -- proper advice on how to make Tamales. I love your descriptions! I also recently bought a "mexican" tortilla-press. Do you have any advice for me on how to use it to best effect?

Live Simply Love Strongly dijo...

Just thought of you today when I was looking at some gardening ideas. I know you have been looking for a way to get tomatoes to grow. Have you ever tried using a hay bale?