Latin, Leftover Recycling, Pork Products, Quick Meals

Recycling is good, the cross-border edition.

So let’s say you made the pork shoulder and the grits the other night, and now you’ve got leftovers. Some people love leftovers, just as they are. But for a lot of people – more, in my experience – leftovers = been there/done that = wasted food. And the pork and grits are too good to go to waste. In these cases, it’s always good to recycle.

We don’t have tamales often at home. Normally, tamales begin with a corn-based dough, called masa. To prepare masa, corn is soaked in a solution of ash (generally potash [K2CO3] dissolved in water], or limewater (calcium carbonate [CaCO3] dissolved in water); the alkaline solution makes available niacin, a B vitamin that is not available in unprocessed corn. This process, called nixtamalization, is ancient, and probably made possible the reliance of Mesoamerican people on a corn-based diet.

Conventionally, to make tamales, one combines nixtamalized cornmeal (masa de harina) with water to hydrate, and then with lard to add unctuousness and flavor, and baking powder for lightness. The masa is spread inside a banana leaf or corn husk (or occasionally a chard leaf), enclosing a savory or sweet filling. The leaf is wrapped to enclose the filling, the tamales are stacked in a steamer, and steamed until firm. It’s not difficult, but I don’t make tamales or tortillas often enough to use up the biggish bags of masa de harina from the Latin market before they go stale. And you probably don’t either.

I had an idea last night, when I looked through the refrigerator and found the leftover grits. Sure, they’re not masa. For a quick evening meal, though, spreading the leftover grits inside banana leaves and enclosing some of the leftover pork might make a perfectly good imitation tamal. The grits, like all cornmeal dishes, tend to firm up on cooling, like masa; the sour orange flavors in the pork, combined with the banana leaves, would be reminiscent of the Yucatán. And the whole thing would take about twenty minutes, from wrapping to eating.

Are these authentic tamales? No. Are they quick and delicious? Yes. They’re also much lighter. To complete the tasty bastardization, serve the tamales with a little of the remaining red or green chile sauce, and follow up with an avocado and orange salad.

Pork “tamales”

Banana leaves are widely available in the freezer section of the supermarket. Check the Latin foods section – Goya provides frozen banana leaves in large, square plastic packets for just a couple of dollars. If you live in an area with a large Central American or Southeast Asian population, you may be able to find them fresh at a Latin or Asian market. Rinse well and remove the large central rib from fresh leaves – it usually has been removed in the frozen product. For maximum flavor and pliability, steam the leaves in a basket above simmering water for about 15-20 minutes before using. You can skip this step to save time.

The recipes for the grits, pork, and the red/green chile sauces all come from the “Christmas” post.

2 1/2 c leftover grits
1/2 c corn kernels, cut off the cob (optional – I was trying to use up some corn in the freezer)
1 c leftover pork shoulder in mojo, diced 1/4″
6 banana leaf sections, about 12″/30cm square or so
leftover red and/or green chile sauce

Spread a banana leaf on a cutting board. Spread out about 1/6 of the grits into a 3″ x 4″ rectangle in the middle of the leaf (the grits rectangle should be wider than it is tall). Don’t worry if the grits have become firm – they will spread easily. Sprinkle corn over, if using. Place 1/6 of the pork down the center, vertically. Carefully fold the banana leaf over so that the grits totally enclose the pork filling. Continue to fold closed so it forms a small rectangular packet and place in a small steamer basket. Repeat until you have used all the filling and leaves. Cover the basket.

Set the steamer basket over a pan of water and bring to a simmer. Steam for about eight minutes, until heated through. If you like, serve with the chile sauces.

Ersatz tamal with pork.

Avocado, orange, and onion salad

one bunch watercress, washed well and spun dry
one avocado, pitted, peeled, and sliced
one large orange, peeled and cut into supremes
about 1/2 red onion, sliced into thin rings, rinsed in cold water
2 tbsp vinegar
2 tbsp water
pinch salt
juice of one lime
salt and pepper

Combine the vinegar and water. Soak the onion rings for at least ten minutes in the vinegar water.

Meanwhile, arrange the avocado and orange on the plate. Squeeze the juice of half a lime over all the avocado. Drain the onion rings and blot dry; add to the plate. Season with salt and the remaining lime juice. Top with the watercress.

Avocado, orange, onion salad