I have a tendency to overcomplicate things. For a casual basketball-viewing party, I might throw together a simple vegetarian chili to feed the crowd. And of course, I would need something to go with that chili, so I’d decide to make cornbread. But not just any old cornbread. I would want to bake the most authentic, delicious, pedigreed cornbread recipe known to man—something to impress my friends (who, to their credit, couldn’t care less about such things). But then there’s the problem with tracking down an “authentic” recipe. My people are from Southeast Asia, and my experience with American quickbreads growing up was mostly limited to those paradoxically greasy-yet-stale pucks they call biscuits at Popeye’s. When you’re trying to recreate food that you have no history with, it can seem like an almost insurmountable task.
So naturally, I’d call Lucy. I’d demand that she turn over her family’s heirloom recipe, something I’d imagined had been passed down from her Mayflower-riding ancestors. And then I’d ask if I should take two trains to the fancy grain shop across town to purchase smug, hand-crafted, artisanal cornmeal? She’d reply a short while later, with, “I talked to my mom and she was like, ‘Just use the recipe on the back of the cornmeal package!'”
Over the course of our almost two decade long relationship, Lucy has been a lovely, reassuring presence not only in my life, but also in my evolution as a home cook. Our food backgrounds are wildly different. I’ve learned so much from cooking with Lucy and harassing her for family recipes. When I was making my first tentative forays into pie baking, in response to a casual query, she sent me the recipe for her Aunt Marigene’s No-Fail Pie Crust. The extremely detailed method she outlined gave me the confidence to finally bake a pie on my own. This small success led to my summer of pies (and the consequent fall of trying-to-lose-that-extra-5-pounds-gained-from-baking-a-pie-every-weekend). I’ve taken a break from pie-baking for the time being—crop top season is coming up, after all. but I have a new obsession, thanks again to Lucy.
In Chicago on any given night, there’s a phenomenon that happens at certain dive bars on the west side of town. A few drinks in, when you’re feeling a little peckish, you might consider leaving the bar to find something good to eat. Just then, the crowd will miraculously part, and a handsome mustachioed man will emerge bearing a cooler with hot, steaming tamales. For $5 you can buy a package of beautifully wrapped cornhusks filled with fragrant masa and puerca and pollo for the omnivores—or queso for the vegetarians. They are delicious and always hit the spot, allowing you to not move from your place at the bar for at least a few hours. The Tamale Guy, as he is known here, has a cult following. He has glowing Yelp reviews and a twitter account dedicated to stalking his movements. Many people (myself, included) have been known to dress up as him for Halloween, sporting the mustache, baseball hat, and the plastic cooler that comprise his signature look. If I ever decide to make an honest man of Romeo, The Tamale Guy will be catering our wedding.
Tamales, in my mind, have always had almost mystical associations. How could I, a mere mortal, even attempt to recreate such a delightful food? It was not until Lucy casually mentioned to me that she was making these delicious, corn husk-wrapped wonders for her family that it even occurred to me to try to attempt them myself. She has a killer easy-yet-delicious pork tamale recipe in our book (which, by the way, comes out in a month!). This is a recipe that she traveled many buses and trains—all the way to the wilds of Staten Island—to procure, so you know it’s authentic.
I decided I would make tamales. But since they are rather time-consuming, and there are only so many tamales a girl can eat before getting sick of them, I decided to develop a meat-free recipe so that my boyfriend (who is unsurprisingly not a fan of pork, as he is a vegetarian) could partake in the fun as well. A few batches later, I’ve finally settled on a version that I love. I swap in olive oil and butter in favor of the traditional pork lard. And for the filling, I use roasted poblano peppers, sweet corn, black beans, and chihuahua cheese. The filling is infinitely adaptable, though. I’ve sometimes included sautéed kale, or diced roasted sweet potato and mushrooms. This dish is obviously not authentic, as I use soy sauce, because I couldn’t resist that extra umami boost. And if you are vegan, you can easily omit the cheese and swap in margarine for the butter. As mentioned above, they are a bit of a project, but I recommend making huge batches at once and then freezing. After a short stint in the steamer, you can have delicious homemade tamales anytime. I like to serve my vegetarian tamales with this Rick Bayless roasted tomatillo salsa and lots of Tapatio hot sauce. And if you’re looking for Lucy’s amazing traditional pork tamale recipe, here is my shameless plug for our book.
Roasted Poblano, Sweet Corn, Black Bean and Cheese Tamales
(Loosely adapted from the recipe on the back of the Maseca package)
Makes about 24 tamales
You will need:
A large steamer pot
About 24 large corn husks, soaked in water for 15 minutes and drained
25 thin strips of corn husks, about 1/4″ wide, to tie the tamales
For the dough:
6 cups of masa flour
1 1/2 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
6 c. low-sodium vegetarian broth
1 c. extra-virgin olive oil
4 tbsp. melted butter
For the filling:
8 poblano peppers
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 c. frozen sweet corn
1 15.5 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
Salt and freshly ground pepper
10-12oz. chihuahua cheese, grated
To prepare the masa, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together the masa, salt, and baking powder. In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, add the broth, olive oil, and melted butter. Mix on medium, adding the masa in batches, until the dough is uniform.
To prepare the filling, preheat oven oven to 425 degrees. On an un-greased baking sheet, roast the poblanos for about 40-50 minutes, turning occasionally, until they are lightly browned and blistered on most sides. Carefully transfer the hot poblanos to a bowl and cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap for ten minutes to steam the poblanos. At this point, the skins should come off quite easily. Remove the skin, stems, and seeds, and cut the peppers into 1/2″ wide strips.
In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil on medium high heat. Cook the corn until just heated through, about 3-4 minutes. Add the black beans and cook for an additional five minutes. Season to taste with soy sauce, salt, and pepper.
When you are ready to assemble the tamales, spread a thin, 1/4″ thick layer of dough in the center of a corn husk, leaving about a 1/2″ on the sides and bottom and 1″ on the top. Place about 2-3 tablespoons of filling in the middle of the dough. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of grated cheese on top. Fold over one edge of the corn husk, and then roll the tamale closed. Fold up the bottom, and tie the tamale closed with a thin strip of husk.
After all the tamales are assembled, to cook the tamales, place them vertically a steamer and cook for about an hour, or until the dough is cooked through and easily pulls away from the corn husk. If you are freezing these for later, steam them and then transfer them to a baking sheet and freeze for an hour before transferring to a freezer bag. To reheat, steam for 15 minutes. Serve warm with your favorite salsa and hot sauce.