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Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Mexican Evening, part 2

In our last episode ... sorry, I saw too many of those old TV "Batman" shows as a kid.

Well, Sunday I began the chopping and cooking odyssey that was preparing for Mexican food for 10 in a kitchen with 2 electric burners, a half-sized fridge (thank God for having access to an extra shelf in the kitchen refrigerator!), a microwave, a coffee maker, and a mini-prep food processor.  I cleared off my desk, which became my main prep space for the last few days, and got to it.

The menu was: guacamole, pico de gallo, Tostitos, Spanish rice, refried beans, chicken enchiladas with mild green chili sauce, pork tamales with spicier red sauce, lemon cookies, Abulita hot cocoa, South American wine, and Mexican beer (the latter supplied by my guests--thank you!).  Even though I'm still full, I must admit that I look at it and go, "Yum."

Monday was the big prep day: cooking the chicken, making the red and green sauces, getting the pork just right for shredding for tamales, chopping 5 tons of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and chilis and generally getting everything ready for assembly the next two days.  (Cookies were on Sunday, and I managed to eat only 6 of them before the Wednesday dinner.  I should get an award there.)

Of course, there were complications, but funnily enough, it wasn't with my little kitchen; we worked amazingly well together, although I did feel like I was doing dishes every 2 seconds (the sink here is about 1 foot by 1 foot by 8 inches deep).  It was with the ingredients.  Late last week, when I was doing my first grocery shops, I went to Stockmann for the chilis and tomatillos, both of which I'd seen in the store in August and September.

That was August and September.  In November, there was no joy.  There weren't even jalepenos in stock anymore!  All we had were habeneros, which I later learned were so old that they were actually quite mild (for habeneros), some things called Dutch and Paprika chilis, and the standard yellow, green, and red peppers we have at home.  Agh!  Now I was never planning to make things particularly spicy because of both my tastes and my audience, but you do need some spice other than chili and cumin powder.  The green chilis I brought back from Texas were just enough for the enchiladas, not for the tamales, too.  Double agh!  Then it turned out that Finns don't use lard in their cooking, so it would be tricky to make truly authentic tamales.  Well, I figured I could buy shortening instead.  Guess what?  Finns don't use shortening either.  Triple agh!  Tamales made with butter?!  Quadruple agh!

Well, to make a long story short, I started combing the flagship stores of all the big supermarket chains; thank goodness, they're all based here in downtown Helsinki.  At about the fourth one, the S-Market near the train station, I lucked into this shelf of, of all things, Herdez salsa.  There were about a dozen cans for us discriminating palates, and I could've been generous and left some on the shelf for fellow wanderers.  "Could've" is really the key word there.  At the same market I also ran into both red and green "Dutch chilis" (my guess is that they're Indonesian) that supposedly had the same spice rating as jalepenos, so I figured I'd give them a try and supplement them with a lot of others.  Finally, I solved the shortening dilemma by going to the local "American" grocery here in town.  What a disappointment.  Not only is it a hole in the wall, it's half candy bars and probably half of the other half is a weird collection of condiments.  It's also amazingly overpriced.  I did, however, walk out of there with the last small container of Crisco.  Yippee!

Now cooking could begin.  To be perfectly honest, I don't know if I could ever recreate some of the things I did, but the products were sure yummy.  To get more flavor out of all the types of red(dish) peppers, I roasted them in the little oven in the main kitchen.  (Weird oven that.  The broil function works fabulously, but the temperature gage has got to be screwy; the difference between 375 and 400 Fahrenheit acts more like a 100 degree, not a 25 degree, difference.)  The tortillas I bought in Texas were really a little too thick for enchiladas but the flavor was good, and I managed to get just enough to fold over without cracking that I had ones that looked appropriate for the dinner.  (As for the broken ones, I made enchilada-lasagna by layering tortillas and fillings.  You put enough cheese on top, and no one can tell or cares about the difference.)

The tamales were a hoot, too, since I'd never made them before.  I've actually now come to the conclusion that the main reason they take so long is cooking the meat, and after having had homemade ones, it's going to be VERY hard to go back to store bought.  First, there were the corn husks.  When I'd bought them in Texas, they said each bag had 10, so I bought 6 bags.  Well, what they don't say is that each bag has 10 GROUPS of husks, and each group has about 6 husks in them.  Let's just say I have a plethora of corn husks even wasting some by being picky about which I used.  As for the filling, it turns out that my made-up red sauce was KILLER--just the right combination of flavorful and bite.

Then there was making the dough and spreading it on the rehydrated corn husks.  Well, I'd come back from Texas with a 5 lb. bag of masa harina, so I had the right supplies there.  I'd also come up with what sounded like a decent recipe by combining several highly ranked ones online.  Reading the reviews and customizations for those recipes actually led to me to an incredibly useful YouTube video (found under "making tamales" and "skeltons") by a Mexican family that would be totally intimidating if you didn't have a recipe but was GREAT for showing the right consistency of the masa and how to spread and wrap them.  So I dove in.

Let's just say every first-time tamale maker needs to have a Golden Retriever sleeping under the table.  It's the only reason my rug doesn't have masa and bits of pork embedded into it!  Because my little mini-prep couldn't in any way handle the type of mixing I needed to do with the masa dough, I spread waxed paper on my table/desk and went to it.  Messy is kind of an understatement, especially since waxed paper here comes in pre-cut sheets--very handy for cooking, impossible to seamlessly cover a table with.  After about 15-20 minutes of pushing, pulling, and scooping, though, I achieved the magical "creamy peanut butter" consistency and got ready to start smearing dough on the corn husks.

Now, the ladies in the video made that smearing look oh, so easy.  You take a big tablespoon full on a damp spoon and push it around the husk, right?  Wrong.  It stuck to my spoon but came right off the husk.  I finally opted for effectiveness over polish, laid the husks out on the table, and used my fingers to get the masa on the husk to the desired 1/4 inch thick.  Funnily enough, I think this worked better in the end.  It was almost certainly a little slower, but it meant that I had a much better proportion of masa to filling than many tamales have.

Then there was the steamer issue.  Tamales need to be steamed covered for 1-2 hours.  I have a metal pot that holds maybe 2 liters of water and I don't have any deep dish pans that I could use for oven steaming.  So I exercised the ingenuity of my pioneer ancestors (cough, cough, gag, gag).  I took that pot, put the tops to 2 vinegar bottles in the bottom (metal so they wouldn't melt), and put a slightly bent metal hot pad on top of them.  Add 3 layers of aluminum foil (the foil here seems thinner than that we get back home) and instant steamer.

By Wednesday around 5 I had almost everything ready to be heated--the only thing that still needed to be cooked was the Spanish rice--and now the challenge was to prep the room.  Several of my fellow fellows who lived here volunteered to come help set up--and keep me company while drinking beer and wine afterwards.  (The latter is an essential part of any dinner party.)  So here are two set-up photos.


Here Rogier, one of the 3 EURIAS fellows, is putting the final touches on the napkins, while in the one below Ken, Mathias, and Rogier are posing with the completed table.


I'd bought some big votive candles at a local craft store and Rogier had inherited some from a resident who was leaving, so we had a ledge next to the window full of them and some scattered on some shelves to the right (you can see a few in the picture below).  With a low light it made for a very nice effect, and Tuija, one of our guests, commented that it was lovely seeing all the little candles from the street as they walked in.

My apologies for the next photo.  It shows everyone at the beginning of dinner, and I don't know if I was laughing too hard or what, but it came out blurry.  Markku was right; I should've taken a few.


Going around the table from the right, here's our little group: Markku (who I met through William and Tuija, teaches linguistics at UH and is Finnish), Tuija (who's one of the architects at the big World Heritage Site, Suomenlinna, here in Helsinki, is married to William and is Finnish), William (one of my fellow EURIAS fellows; he's the archeologist at Pompeii and is French), Elisabeth (one of the other Collegium fellows who works on modern China and is Norwegian, although her English is so good I thought she was from the US), Rogier (another EURIAS fellow who works on philosophy and economics; he's from Belgium), Luis (he's Rogier's friend and they've both ended up here in the Towers; he's another philosopher and economist and he's from Mexico); Philippe (a long-time friend of William and Tuija's, Markku's partner, and a language instructor here in Helsinki; he's French); Ken (he's on the governing board of the Collegium and is a philosopher; he's from Chicago); and Mathias (he's a fellow at the Collegium, one of our Towers residents and a fellow early modernist; he's from Sweden.)  Me, the invisible one, you know all too well.

Despite some glitches with the oven, as always happens with these things, the meal went great.  People seemed to really like the food and were fascinated with (1) some of the new tastes and (2) the differences between what I served and what they'd had here.  I'd been terrified when Rogier told me he'd invited Luis that I'd disappoint someone who really was Mexican, but Luis was so nice and seemed to be in culinary nirvana; when the tamales came out, his eyes got so round, and he kept eating them forever.  I thought he was going to tear up when the Abulita appeared as part of dessert.  Did my heart good.  Everyone was so nice, too, about helping me pick up, sort out furniture, and all the end of the party stuff, although us die-hards kept it going until close to midnight when finally Ted couldn't hold it any longer.  (Ted spent the meal in his crate, but once we were on to cookies, coffee, Abulita, and Baileys, Ted came out and was happy to join the party.)

This morning I was absolutely wrecked (in fact, I spent the day at home playing hooky), but as I was doing the last bits of clean up this morning, I stopped and smiled: I have an enormous amount to be thankful for.

Thank you to friends new and old, near and far, for making this a wonderful Thanksgiving!

And now I'm off to eat leftover tamales.

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