Madhur Jaffrey's Curried Roast Chicken, Durban Style
Five Years

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger's Green Corn Tamales


Remember back when the Food Network was a cute little channel with quirky shows featuring those Two Fat Ladies with impenetrable English accents, roaring motorbikes and wacky recipes, and a lisping bloke named Jamie who bashed herbs together a lot and made good cooking seem a lot less daunting, and those two women who endured the hideous moniker of Two Hot Tamales to bring authentic Mexican cooking to the masses? That's the Food Network that used to be informative and funny and weird and delicious. Don't get me started on the mess that it's become, or I'll get completely thrown off point.

After my recent delicious encounter with Mexican food, I've become a lot more amenable to trying the stuff out in my own kitchen, which is why I chose this tamale recipe out of the three recipes Regina Schrambling included in her article on corn husk cooking in the LA Times a few weeks ago. Well, that, and it meant I could use up some of the grits I've had sitting in my fridge since March, which for me is as good a reason as any. Regina adapted the recipe from Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger's Mesa Mexicana. Which is what got me thinking about those too hot tamales and the state of food television these days in the first place. Anyway. Moving along.

I thought the recipe sounded totally fantastic. Corn kernels cooked up with some cream and seasonings, then mixed with grits and cheese and hot peppers and steamed for an hour in delightful little husk packets tied up with darling husk strips. Arts and crafts and dinner in one go! A fresh corn dumpling of sorts! My first foray into the intricate world of corn husk cookery! I was totally sold. Of course, I should have known that things were amiss when the husks I was shucking and soaking in water instantly rolled up into themselves as they hit the water. Never mind! I thought, blithely as I ran my knife down corn cobs and corn juice spurted all over my kitchen. They'll soak and unroll in no time!

Yeah. If you're wondering? They didn't.

I took a few of those rolled-up husks, flattened them out with my fingers, overlapped a few, and then, with one hand holding the suckers down and the other hand precariously tipping in a spoonful of cooked corn, attempted to dump that little mound of corn in the center and delicately fold it up. The second I lifted even a finger up from one edge of my husk packet, it flipped inwards. Grinding my teeth, I removed some of the filling and then with the determination of, well, I'm not sure what, I folded that packet into the One and Only Tamale I Could Bear to Make.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I had the wherewithal to make one puny tamale and after huffing and puffing over several more flippy, unrollable husks and deciding that my life, dammit, was just too precious to spend an hour and countless gray cells on making twee little corn packets, I dug some cheesecloth out of a drawer and fashioned a snood of sorts that I filled with the remaining corn mixture and tied together with a few of my husk ties.

I steamed my corn snood and my one silly tamale for an hour (replenishing the water) and the apartment filled with a delicious fresh corn scent. Which is good because my nerves were so frayed from the prep work (I might have been a leetle hungry by then, too) that if it hadn't smelled good, I probably would have just made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and called it a night. Which, in retrospect, would have been the better choice.

After removing both from the pot and letting them cool, I dug in. At this point, I should probably mention that I couldn't find canned Anaheim chiles, so I bought what seemed the next best thing (I have a lot to learn about chiles, obviously) - canned green chiles that had been roasted. They contributed next to nothing to the dish - I think that piquillo peppers are spicier than those were. I also substituted grated Parmigiano for the Monterey Jack cheese, because, well, it's what I had in the fridge.

So what did it taste like? Like corn kernels mixed with grits and a bit of cheese and cooked for a long time. I'm not quite sure I get it. The grits were imperceptible and could someone explain just what the baking powder was doing in all of this? Why not just save yourself all the trouble of the prep work, grill up a few cobs of corn and slather them with mayo and cheese and spices like they're served at Cafe Havana? I don't even know.

Green Corn Tamales
Makes 12 tamales

5 ears corn
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grits (not quick-cooking)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup roasted, peeled, seeded and diced Anaheim chiles, or 1 (4.5-ounce) can, drained well, rinsed and dried
1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack, lightly packed
Salsa and sour cream for garnish

1. Remove the corn husks by cutting off both ends of the cobs, then peeling off the husks while trying to keep them whole. Scrape off the silk. Place the husks in a large bowl and cover them with warm water and let stand 15 minutes.

2. Working over a bowl, run the tip of a sharp knife down the center of each row of kernels on each cob, then scrape with the dull side of the knife to remove the kernels.

3. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the corn and its juices, the salt, the pepper and the cream, and simmer until the mixture thickens, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool, then stir in the grits, baking powder, chiles and cheese. Chill 15 minutes.

4. Drain the corn husks and dry them on paper towels. Make ties for the tamales by tearing a few husks into thin strips.

5. Overlap 2 or 3 husks on a work surface and spoon 3 tablespoons of the filling into the center. Fold or roll into a package and tie each end with a strip of corn husk. Repeat with the remaining filling.

6. In a steamer or a pot fitted with a steamer rack, make a bed for the tamales with the remaining husks. Add the tamales. Cover and steam over low heat for 1 hour, adding more water as necessary.

7. Remove the tamales from the steamer and cool for 10 minutes. Serve them in the husks with salsa and sour cream.