*THANKSGIVING TAMALES

“While out of our New England norm, it WAS culturally relevant to eat tamales… With all the tamales I ate on previous visits, I knew my favorite were the ones  wrapped in banana leaves. As I ate through my tamale that Thanksgiving, I got something unexpected…”

Banana Leaf Tamale

Banana Leaf Tamale

Sonodoro’s arrest put a big strain on our relationship. Sure, he was bonded him out of jail (using the car of his best friend’s fiancée). He was able to stay out because the judge gave him community service. But, somewhere before the kidney stones or after the arrest he lost his decent-paying full time job translating and transcribing Spanish commercials to English. His “I hate the world and all my managers are idiots” attitude didn’t curry favor with his supervisors and his inability to keep these jobs put added stress on the remaining “relationship” we had. I was growing increasingly frustrated he wasn’t committing to turning his life around and be the man I needed. I kept trying to fix him and love him into the man I knew he could be.

He was growing harder to love. . . and fix.

My friends who were vocal about their dislike remained steadfast in their dislike, but supported me as I dealt with his undesirable behavior. I maintained mild optimism I could fix this, but my baby sister advised me, “If there’s something you don’t like when you’re dating, it only gets worse when you’re married.” She should know; she was separated from her husband after a year and a half.

I contemplated an exit strategy.

That fall, Nature Chick, my baby sister and I decided the best thing to do was celebrate Thanksgiving together. She and her husband drove 14 hours from Salt Lake City, UT for a visit.

Despite Nature Chick and I holding our unhappiness in, we made the most of it. We still giggle about my cupboards. She marveled I arranged them by nationality. I thought it was an extremely intelligent way to organize. She thought it looked like segregation.

I had a lot to be thankful for that Thanksgiving— Sonodoro was not in jail and I had my sister with me. For dinner, the four of us piled into my SUV, with Nature Chick hiding the secret she knew about Sonodoro’s arrest. When we got to his mother’s apartment, the doors opened revealing the world of glitter and tchotchkes from quinceaneras, trips around Southern California (like Universal Studios and Sea World) and to Latin and South America. My brother-in-law’s reaction was priceless— His face was filled with wonder and fear all at once.

quincera tchotchkes

Even though Sonodoro was growing harder to love, I still loved him and I was thankful to celebrate Thanksgiving with him and his family and not by visiting a jail.  Sonodoro’s mother had a lot to be thankful for too. She thought Sonodoro and I were close to marriage, especially with the visit of Nature Chick and her husband. With the blonde hair and light complexion I looked like the All-American girl and I was her American Dream.

Despite mismanaging her diabetes and poor parenting skills, Sonodoro’s mom was a master at entertaining. She was able to turn her one-bedroom apartment into a comfortable place to feed many. Grandma’s bed was still off her corner of the common room and a banquet table took up the rest of the area. Sonodoro’s brother was there with his family of four and the15 year old sister was there with her boyfriend. All totaled, there were 12 people over the age of 15 and two kids, one seven the other eight.

The guest of honor lounged on the table, looking like the love child of a Thanksgiving turkey and Hawaiian ham. The turkey may have well just come from a Hawaiian Tropic photo shoot. The sugar glistened like it was lacquered for optimum photographic excellence and it wore accouterment of pineapple rings and maraschino cherries. This was slightly (sarcasm) different than the New England Thanksgiving Nature Chick and I grew up with and only served enhanced the deep homesickness we were both feeling.

hawaiian tropic

Sonodoro’s niece and nephew ran amuck and their parents didn’t seem to care. Nature Chick and I were appalled. Not only did the parents not encourage the children to eat with the family, they ate chicken nuggets. ON THANKSGIVING OF ALL THINGS!

Chicken nuggets were not special. They were not culturally relevant to my Guatemalan boyfriend his Mexican sister-in-law or my Jewish brother-in-law. They are boring and something you pop in the oven when you need dinner but are too tired to cook.

Eating chicken nuggets on Thanksgiving is sacrilege!

There’s something about the holidays that makes one a little more optimistic. That Thanksgiving the kernel of optimism spoke through my despair. I told Sonodoro that when we had kids they would not be permitted to eat chicken nuggets on Thanksgiving and they would eat dinner with the rest of the family. He was cranky that I was criticizing his brother (which miffed me), explained that it was easier to feed the kids first, but ultimately agreed with me.

While out of our New England norm, it WAS culturally relevant to eat tamales. I had eaten multiple tamales while visiting Sonodoro’s family and knew that my favorite were the chicken ones wrapped in banana leaves. As I ate through my tamale that Thanksgiving, I got something unexpected–

I found it to be  as empty as my relationship with Sonodoro and my aversion to continuing the relationship was renewed. Instead of finding chicken, I found an old chicken bone that someone decided to reuse after eating the chicken off.

I almost lost my dinner.

I composed myself  and pushed the rest of the tamale to the edge of my plate. Wary of what I may find if I had another tamale, I asked for a helping of turkey. Sonodoro said he thought I liked banana leaf tamales; I tried to quietly explain to  what happened, but nothing could be quiet in that family. Sonodoro was upset which made his older brother  (33 years old) upset and then the brother yelled at the mom (in spanglish), asked her where she bought the tamales and how could she buy from someone who would do that. With my high school level Spanish, I understood that she bought them from someone locally. That person needed money and she wanted to help. Sonodoro gave his exasperated, “Ma,” that he always used in situations like this (when she would use her money to help someone even though she was struggling). The family insisted that she get her money back and not buy from them other again. I tried to defuse the situation giving a “No te preocupes. Todo esta bien.” (Don’t worry about it. It’s all good.)
Thank goodness! The kids wanted dessert and we could get this conversation over with. We had pastry and sweet bread from the local panaderia.

PanaderiaIn addition to being introduced to tamales and sweet breads, Nature Chick discovered the unpredictable personality of Sonodoro’s mother. We both cleared our plates to the kitchen (while her husband and Sonodoro stayed at the table). I left, expecting her to follow me, but Nature Chick stayed in the kitchen to help. Now, many hostesses would playfully banter with their guests or use soft language if they didn’t want help. Even with a language barrier, a simple, “no thank you” (which I had her use on occasion) and gentle push out of the kitchen would suffice. Not Sonodoro’s mother. She yelled at my sister and hit her until she left the kitchen.

We left shortly after.

BANANA LEAF TAMALES WITH CHICKEN (and not just the bone)

This recipe is inspired by Joe Pastry.

INGREDIENTS:

DOUGH
1 1/3 cups Crisco
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp baking powder
3 ½ cups masa harina mixed
2 ¼ cups warm water, vegetable stock, or chicken broth

FILLING
4 pounds tomatillos husked and washed
2 chilies (optional/to taste)
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ TBS olive oil
2 cups low-salt chicken broth
4 cups coarsely shredded cooked chicken
2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

And of course…

2 pkg banana leaves

CHICKEN FILLING: (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.)

Preheat broiler. Line heavy baking sheet with foil. Arrange tomatillos on prepared sheet. Broil until tomatillos blacken in spots, turning once, about 5 minutes per side. When done, transfer tomatillos and any juices to processor and cool. Add chilies and garlic to processor and blend until smooth puree forms. Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add tomatillo puree and cook on boil for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add broth. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until sauce coats spoon thickly and is reduced to 1 cup, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Season with salt. Mix in chicken and cilantro. *As an alternate filling, homemade refried black beans works well.

 

DOUGH:
Using electric mixer OR heavy spoon, beat Crisco with salt and baking powder, in large bowl until fluffy. Slowly beat in masa harina. Reduce gradually beat in 1 1/2 cups broth or stock, forming tender dough. If dough seems firm, beat in enough broth, 2 tablespoons at a time, to soften. (*If using an electric mixer, reduce speed!)

banana leaf

THE REST:

1. Cut banana leaves into pieces about 10″ x 10″ (discard stiff stems), then pass the pieces slowly over a gas or electric stove burner to soften them. They’ll become shiny as the waxes on the leaf melt — that tells you they’re done. (Please hold them with tongs so you don’t burn yourself.)

2. With one softened leaf cut strips that are 10 inches long by about 1/4 inch wide. Set strips aside. You will need these later for securing tamales.

3. In a large pot, put your steamer basket. Fill with 2 cups of water.

BUILDING EACH TAMALE:

1. On a flat work surface, place leaf.
2. Spread ¼ cup dough in 4-inch square all the way to one side.
3. Spoon heaping tbs filling in stripe down center of each dough square.
4. Now, like giftwrapping a present: Fold sides of leaf over filling and then fold top and bottom sides to cover.

 

Tamale tied

Tie with strip of leaf to secure. Stand tamales in steamer basket.

 

 

Steamer Basket SmallSteamer Basket Large

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repeat.

*Point to note- Banana leaves are not uniform and sometimes have tears and holes. Be creative using your leaf.  To be green, I try to use only the leaf, but I often see tamales wrapped in aluminum foil.

If necessary to keep tamales upright in steamer, insert pieces of crumpled foil between them.

Bring water in pot to boil. Cover pot and steam tamales until dough is firm to touch (about 45 minutes on a medium low heat). Given that each stovetop is different, at 30 minutes check water level. Add more water if necessary. Let stand 10 minutes.

Tamales can be made 2 days ahead of eating. If you’re going to use another day, Cool 1 hour before chilling. To reheat, re-steam tamales until hot, about 35 minutes. Otherwise, ENJOY!

dancing tamales

 

*CRUSH YOUR HEART VALENTINE’S DAY SPECIAL

My longing desire to date was fed by the popular Christian Slater romance films of the 1990s. Like most teenage girls who like boys, I crushed on unattainable ones, particularly the letterman basketball player (a junior) who was in my upper-division “Great Books” English class, (he did a brilliant report on Thomas Mann).  The seats and tables were arranged in a hippy circle, so we all faced one another. I spent the better part of my sophomore year staring at him.

Despite my lack of coordination, a friend encouraged me to join the basketball cheerleaders. Cheering didn’t affect my social status or lack there of. Nobody cared about cheer (it was only in its second year at my school), but I got to ogle, I mean cheer, during his games. Cheering for the team by extension brought me closer to him.

For Valentine’s Day, I decided to make gift bags of Hershey’s hugs and kisses, sealing each with curling ribbon. I gave them to the friends (that I barely spoke to) and saved one for the letterman. I carefully crafted the words that would accompany my gift, but shyness overcame me each time I could have given him the chocolates.

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The big game against our rival was that night. It was heated. Players on both sides were ejected, including the letterman. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was completely within his right to throw the ball at the face of the opponent; the other guy fouled him first! I don’t remember if we won or lost. My heart ached from sadness because this ejection meant he’d be benched for several games.

After the basketball game everyone piled into cars and hitched rides to the hockey rink to cheer on our classmates and watch fights that wouldn’t end in ejection.

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He was there too… huddled amongst his teammates and mere feet from where I was standing. I was emotionally and physically frozen. How was I going to do this? I gave myself a pep talk.

First period ended. The chocolates remained in my coat pocket.

Second period ended. I inched closer.

Somewhere during the third period I managed to hand him the bag of un-melted chocolates with crimpled ribbon. My carefully crafted message escaped my memory, and I blurted out, “I’m sorry you got ejected!”

He took the chocolates; said, “thanks,” trying to stifle laughter and passed them out to his friends, who clearly were amused by my lameness.

I didn’t regret giving him the chocolates. My only regret was that he was a junior and the greater embarrassment came from having to see him for another year and a half before he graduated and got out of my life.

CRUSH YOUR HEART VALENTINE’S DAY RECIPE

Put Hershey’s Hugs & Kisses in a baggie. Tie with decorative ribbon. Serve to an un-attainable crush in front of lots of people. Wait for laughter. Embarrassment soon follows.

*FIRST KISS SURPRISE

It probably won’t be a surprise to you, but I was quiet in elementary school. My sweet and quiet demeanor endeared me to teachers, and some boys (I was clueless at the time), and my short stature regulated me to the front row. Often, misbehaved boys shared the row with me so teachers could keep an eye on their shenanigans. Robbie Nelson was one of these boys. He played ice hockey in a local pewee team and is probably why for many years I was drawn to men that were tall and broad. He was a good foot taller than me and was incredibly strong.

Robbie is an October baby. He invited me to every party since Kindergarten, and by the time his third-grade birthday rolled around, I knew the benchmarks. His birthdays were organized chaos. We played in leaf piles, his dad taught us how to make paper airplanes, his little brother would get stuck in a tree and we would watch his dad coaxed him out. I was usually the only girl.

When my dad came to pick me up from his eighth birthday, Robbie walked me to the kitchen. His mom cajoled him, “Don’t you have something to give Sarah?” He gave me a Trapper-Keeper folder with a neon-heart (this was the 80’s after-all) and a kiss on the cheek.

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Holy smokes! It was a magical as rainbows and unicorns. My dad being a good man didn’t say anything about this kiss. During the car ride back, he simply asked me if I had fun.

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Of course I did!!!

Then, I went into my head, reflecting on the most contemporary media I was watching at the time: The Flintstones. After meeting her actor-crush, Betty Rubble was vehement to Wilma that she wouldn’t wash her hands. That’s how I felt; I didn’t want to wash my cheek. Being dutiful, I didn’t question my parents’ authority when they told me to wash my face before I went to bed.  Oh well.

Since then there have only been a few men that have given me a kiss that has elicited the same excitement I felt that day.

POPCORN BALL RECIPE:

As part of the birthday delicacies, there were always popcorn balls.

Popcorn balls are one of those foods that are often over-looked. Making your own for hostess gifts etc. gives what might be considered a mundane gift a little extra panache.

I find that being generous with the marshmallow (and using mini marshmallows) makes for an easier popcorn ball making experience and on the whole a more flavorful popcorn ball. I like the Kraft Foods recipe and have modified it only slightly to suit my cooking preferences.

INGREDIENTS

¼ cup  (1/2 stick) butter or margarine

4 cups mini marshmallows (or 40 large jet-puffed)

½ tsp.  vanilla

¼ tsp.  salt

3qt.  (12 cups) plain popped popcorn (air popped or stove popped)

OPTIONAL: A squirt of dye.

DIRECTIONS

MELT butter in large saucepan on low heat. Add marshmallows, vanilla and salt; cook until marshmallows are completely melted and mixture is well blended, stirring constantly.

PLACE popcorn in large bowl. Add marshmallow mixture; mix lightly to coat.

SHAPE into 10 (3-inch) balls with lightly greased hands. Place on sheets of waxed paper; let stand until firm.

*To make mixing easier, separate popcorn into 3 large bowls and evenly distribute marshmallow mixture between them. This way all the popcorn will be coated evenly.

Image

Special Thanks to The Party Animal Blog for use of the picture.

*IN THE BEGINNING

There was loneliness. 

I was painfully shy growing up and had major body image issues that made me feel like Quasimodo. These insecurities led me to being nearly mute around people I considered close friends. My friendship circle consisted of people I barely spoke to, people that made me feel like I was on a rollercoaster and my sister. Even though I felt close to those I was nearly mute around, we didn’t hang out beyond school walls. Through it all and despite typical sibling disagreements, my sister was my closest friend. It was hard enough for me to make friends, the idea of making myself vulnerable to date was incomprehensible.

When I was in high school, the contemporary version of Sabrina was released. I immediately connected. I wanted that beauty, class, and for men to see my full potential. (I subsequently saw Billy Wilder’s version and fell in love with the food.) When I was younger I desperately hoped by traveling away from my hometown I would magically transform into a sophisticated woman men would fight over.

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From Paramount Pictures’ 1995 Remake of Sabrina.

I first moved to Boston (where I have the esteem of being the subject of a drunken bar fight…), then I moved to Los Angeles (no bar fights yet). The internal me still sees myself as squatty (I’m 5 feet tall) and painfully shy. Genetics doomed me to being short, but, like Sabrina, life experiences changed and matured me (like a fine wine).

Nonetheless, dating has still been a challenge.

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From Paramount Pictures’ 1954 Sabrina. Here, the baron explains why Sabrina’s souffle did not rise.

I almost went to culinary school, but didn’t want a career cooking for strangers. I realized my inadequate dating skills could benefit from my love of cooking. I’ll be the first to admit that my favorite part of dating is cooking, and I’ve probably overlooked some early incompatibility signs all for the excuse to get into the kitchen. Going on dates with the goal of it leading to the kitchen gives the experience a unique shape. I like learning about people and using food preferences to steer the conversation. “You like Mexican. You don’t like bell peppers. Oh, you have a peanut allergy…” These are important points to know when you’re preparing your first meal for the object of your affection. While many practice the “traditional 3 date standard” before they give up the goods, it’s usually 3 dates before I cook.

I had one long-term relationship in college, followed by another in my mid-twenties with a third in my early thirties. Sprinkled around these three questionably long relationships are men. Some got to my kitchen (and only my kitchen), and some stories are included because the early dates were such a fantastic disaster it’d be criminal not to include them.

When you first like someone, you look for the smallest thing to connect to: “You breathe air, oh my God, me too! We’re meant to be together.”  It has been a work in progress, but I’ve figured out what I need (and it’s more than the similarity of breathing air).