Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cocina de las madres

The vast majority of the food that comforts us is homestyle cooking. I love how in Europe and South America these foods are often translated as "Grandmother's Kitchen" or "Mama's Cooking", because everyone's Mama or Grandma SHOULD be a wizard behind the stove. Back in the real world though, only a few of my friends have been so universally blessed.

The handsome Venezuelan husband seems to have enjoyed an exceptionally glorious and vibrant woman as his mother, though her glories are rumored to have stopped at the kitchen door. We laughed together over our Thanksgiving dinner at how both of our mothers had scammed us into believing that their opus magnus of the kitchen could only be conceivably prepared at it's designated once a year celebration.

As you may suspect, for me it was my Mama's stuffing. She had me convinced for all the years I enjoyed childhood, that stuffing was a labor of love only warranted on Thanksgiving. It was just too much to consider on any normal day of the year.

For the Venezuelan husband, hallacas were the labor of love limited to Christmas time. For those of you unhappily denied the pleasure of unwrapping and relishing an hallaca, let me describe the treasure.

Venezuelan Hallacas in the Style of Valencia

It's similar in style to a tamal. First you make a dough of pre-cooked cornmeal (traditionally Harina Pan), annato seasoning, stock and lard (or butter if real lard is as unavailable as it is for most of us). The dough is ready if you squeeze some in your hand and it doesn't crack. It's important to find the balance of moisture and fat.

Then you make a "guiso" or stew of chicken, pork tenderloin and beef (brisket or chuck)
with onions, sweet bell peppers, mild chilies, garlic and your own special seasonings. Maybe some tomato, maybe chickpeas, depends on regional and family traditions. The meats need to be shredded or chopped fine and then added back into the stew. Limit the broth in the final product. It should be a dry stew or "sopa seca" in the Spanish tradition.

Cut banana leaves (which can usually be found frozen in latin/carribean ethnic markets, into approximately 10 x 12 inch rectangles. Roast the banana leaves very briefly over an open flame.

Spread some of the dough onto the dull side of the leaf, forming a rectangle
and leaving a border of several inches all around the leaf. Drop a small amount of the stew on one side of the dough. Add two or three small green stuffed olives and a teaspoon or so of golden raisins. Fold the side of the leaf with the dough over the stew. Fold in the sides to completely enclose the package and tie the packet firmly with kitchen twine.

You can freeze these packets for months if well wrapped. When ready to serve, boil the hallcas in well seasoned stock for 20 minutes or so, more if cooking from frozen state. Cut stings and serve letting the guests unwrap and savor the hallaca.

Should this entice you to try out this delicious ethnic treat, Google a real recipe to guide you. It's time consuming, but not overly challenging.

Happily in Venezuela, Christmas lasts from December 24 through January 6. Three days emerge as mandatory for hallacas consuming, December 24, January 1st and 6th. Even more happily, there exists the tradition of sharing your hallacas with neighbors. So as Christmas approaches, your freezer will swell with the neighborhood's bounty. Each hallaca labeled with it's creator's signature. Maria's halacas, Lupe's hallacas, Anna Maria's hallacas, well you get the picture. Sort of a county fair's bounty of hallacas with a American Idol sensibility of judgment. There's some you covet, and some that end up thrown out in February.

Years ago, when he and I were just "enamorados", I threw a birthday party for the handsome Venezuelan. Knowing that hallacas were a special food tied directly to his heart, I announced I would make hallacas in April, a suspicious endeavor to any Venezuelan. As if to heighten his suspicions, I acknowledged that to make real hallacas was beyond the time allotted to create this soiree, so I was going to make "Hallacas en Cazuela", truncating the labor intensive wrapping of individual hallacas in favor of making several enormous hallacas in copper gratins. I lined the gratins with prepared banana leaves, laid in a layer of the corn "masa"/dough, generously ladled in the guiso, topped with more corn masa, and folded more banana leaves over the top. I then placed the cazuelas in the oven with a big pan of simmering stock on the floor of the oven.

When I announced "Dinner is ready!" I was succinctly quieted by the handsome Venezuelan, who politically suggested he should try the "experiment" to assure quality. I smiled and handed him his fork. When he sampled my wares and quickly took another taste before announcing "Dinner, (indeed) was served", I knew I had scored an enormous coup.

And so friends, I encourage you to embrace tradition with the equal fervor that you challenge and experiment with it. Today's inspiration may become your next tradition, however you define family.

Until the next time, which I really hope will be sooner than the past few posts...
Contented Eating,

Big Mary

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