Homemade Tamales: Good things come to those who wait

Homemade tamales with chicken, queso fresco & pico de gallo

Homemade tamales with chicken, queso fresco & pico de gallo

Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly trying my hand at making some of my favorite Mexican dishes at home. My homemade tortillas and sopes were so successful that I soon started dreaming about tamales, something I had never considered making from scratch.

Just as I was thinking about them, my husband (who must have been reading my mind) brought me home two bags of fresh masa from Three Sisters Nixtamal, a Portland company that specializes in masa and tortillas. We had some leftover chicken, a wheel of queso fresco and all the makings for pico de gallo so I figured my project would come together lickety split.

However, this is one of those times when taking a few minutes to do some research really pays off — it turns out I was woefully unprepared for the project I was about to begin! Luckily I found this article, which had oodles of helpful advice and saved me from certain tamale doom.

First off, I had no idea that (unlike when making tortillas, pupusas or sopes), the dough for tamales is not straight masa mixed with water. Instead you need to whip the masa with a fat, most often lard, resulting in a fluffy aerated mixture.

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Phat Si Ew: With patience and persistence comes perfection

Making Phat Si Ew, Pok Pok Style

Making Phat Si Ew, Pok Pok Style

This is a story about a restaurant empire, an unfulfilling trip to an Asian market, the ensuing trials and tribulations and, finally, a meal worth blogging about.

It all starts with a girl who loves to eat…

I’m usually pretty easy to convince when it comes to dining out. I can be happy eating conveyor-belt sushi or sitting down to a multi-course dinner with wine pairings. However, in a rare show of culinary defiance, I hadn’t been very interested in checking out Sen Yai, Portland’s noodle-based spot by chef/owner Andy Ricker. I have no idea why I wasn’t drawn to it, considering I love his other restaurants immensely, but every time my husband would suggest it, I’d push to go somewhere else.

Finally, last week we joined an out-of-town friend for beers and food industry gossip. After a few pints, it seemed like a perfect time to meander over and eat some Thai food.

In an ironic twist my husband was a bit meh on his entree, but my dinner totally bowled me over. It was nothing crazy or unique, in fact Phat Si Ew is probably right up there with Pad Thai for its ubiquitous placement on all American Thai restaurant menus.

But this rendition was spot-on — it was slightly sweet, smokey from the char on the noodles and the pork was tender and delicious. The thin sprigs of Chinese broccoli added crunch and a touch of bitterness. It was a winner. And that’s not just the beer talking!

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Homemade tortillas, smoked brisket tacos & a trip to Texas

Smoked brisket tacos on homemade tortillas

Smoked brisket tacos on homemade tortillas

My mind is on BBQ, Tex-Mex and tacos.

This could be because my husband and I will soon be traveling to Austin for a week to eat and drink our way through the city. (Hello Franklin Barbecue — we’re coming for you!)

Or it could be because of Podnah’s Pit — a Portland BBQ institution that within the last few years opened La Taq, their sister restaurant. La Taq specializes in seriously tasty Tex-Mex and is responsible for introducing my husband and me to a previously unknown form of deliciousness: smoked brisket tacos.

Ever since January, when we first dined there, my husband has been dreaming of them. In fact he’s already slipped away once without me to indulge in a late-night taco fest. Not that I’m bitter. Well I would be but he was smart enough to bring me home a chicken sopa.

A few weeks ago I found myself at home with the remainder of my bag of masa and a pound of smoked brisket (bought straight from Podnah’s). It seemed like the kitchen gods had a plan for me!

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Capturing the magic of the daikon “carrot” cake

I was so happy with this meal, I almost cried. For real.

I was so happy with this meal, I almost cried. For real.

I have mentioned the Pok Pok cookbook on this blog a few times, as it’s one of the few cookbooks I actually use. The majority of the (hundreds of!) cookbooks in my house belong to my husband, and at most I just peruse them for the pretty pictures. But Andy Ricker, chef/owner of Pok Pok, makes food that is so addictively good I can’t help but want to make it at home — as often as possible.

Despite Ricker’s nation-wide fame, some people might not know about Ping, a restaurant that he ran in Portland’s Old Town until it closure 15 months ago. I ate there several times in its heyday, but I quite clearly remember my first dinner there — only because of the dish that made me fall head over heels in love, the savory “carrot” cake.

I had no idea what to expect from such a dish when I ordered it. The menu described it as a stir fry made with eggs, bean sprouts and seared daikon radish cake. It made no mention of carrots whatsoever. And when the dish arrived, there was not a carrot to be found. Instead it was a plate of pure magic.

It’s hard to describe what made the dish so perfect. Perhaps it was the Kecap Manis, the sweet soy sauce that seems to make every stir fry taste ‘just right.’ Or the crispy squares of daikon cake, which were chewy but tender and so full of umami flavor. Or the eggs, which were scrambled in such a way that they helped the sauce coat every single bite.

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Adios breakfast burritos, hola sopes benedicts!

Breakfast Sopes topped with chorizo, a fried egg and salsa

Breakfast Sopes topped with chorizo, a fried egg and salsa

Like most of Portland, I love brunch. Unlike most Portlanders, ninety percent of the time I am unwilling to wait for two hours to eat it. And while I wish my husband and I went to brunch more often, it’s just a huge time waster: wait forever, suck down a few cocktails at a nearby bar while waiting, finally get seated, stuff your face for 15 minutes because you are so hungry and then go home and nap the Bloody Marys off.

Going to brunch basically means that will be my only accomplishment of the day (which is not necessarily a bad thing, I admit).

But I’ve found cooking brunch at home is so more rewarding. My husband is usually still sleeping or just waking up when I start cooking, giving me free reign to make whatever I want.

Usually I go fairly standard — eggs and a veg-heavy hash for instance, but a few weeks ago I was feeling the need to mix it up. I had leftover masa dough from the night before and the idea of making breakfast sopes was too enticing to pass up.

I made the shells just like I did in this post and then focused on the toppings. I cooked up some chorizo, adding in some leftover carmelized onions and black beans. Garnished with a bit of queso fresco and paired with a cabbage slaw, they looked tasty enough…

Breakfast Sopes - chorizo and queso

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Sopes Fabulous!

Homemade Sopes

Sopes with seasoned ground turkey, black beans, tomatoes and cilantro.

I have been trying to put a dent in the giant bag of masa I bought and so far I’ve been pretty successful. I used the tortilla press my husband brought home ages ago and made a dozen or so homemade tortillas, which were crazy good. I also went on a bit of a sopes bender.

Sopes, pronounced so-pez in case you’re unfamiliar, are like little masa bowls — ready to be filled with whatever delicious things you want. I discovered the magic of sopes fairly recently. I had eaten them before but it was the chicken and chile sopes at Portland’s La Taq that really haunted me. I’ll admit, mine were not quite that good but they were still pretty awesome for a first attempt!

I started by making a dough from the masa by blending it with warm water and a bit of salt. Once the mixture came together and was moist but not tacky, I divided it into eight pieces. Those pieces were then rolled into ball and flattened into disks, resembling thick tortillas.

In a hot pan with no oil, I heated the sopes on one side until brown spots started to appear. Then one at a time, I removed them and crimped the edges up to form a small shallow bowl. Once I had them crimped, it was time to fry them. While I’m fairly certain you can deep fry these guys (and I’m sure that makes them even tastier), I went for just enough oil to get them all brown and crispy.

Bottoms up! I did think the masa was a bit bland so I sprinkled salt on each shell after it was fried.

Bottoms up! I thought my masa dough was a bit bland so I sprinkled salt on each shell after it was fried.

Then the hard work is done! Seriously, you are already half-way to eating.

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