Emphasizing food in one’s mystery novel adds an element of tremendous interest, at least to me. It really gives human depth to any story when the reader has a meal with a character. Besides, I write about a farm wife living in Oklahoma during the early 20th Century, so it wouldn’t be realistic if she weren’t continually thinking about what to fix for dinner.
When I read about a meal that an author has described in intimate detail, I often want to know what it tastes like. This is why I always include some of the recipes for the dishes I describe in my books. The only problem for any author who does this is that she actually has to know how to cook the dish in order to reproduce the recipe for it. Not so hard, you think? When the dish is being served by a 1910’s farm wife, I guarantee it’s not so easy, because believe me, she had no shortcuts, conveniences, or out-of-season or many out-of-region ingredients to work with. She was the original Slow Cooking chef.
The new Alafair novel I’m working on takes her out of her native place in Oklahoma and all the way to Arizona, where the style of cooking, especially in that day and age, was very different than she was used to. Different than I’m used to, as well, so right now I’m learning some old-fashioned Southwestern cooking techniques that are quite a revelation.
Yesterday I made a green corn tamale dish. It took me all day long, between buying the ingredients, shucking the corn, soaking the husks, slicing the kernels from a dozen ears, blending them (this was a cheat. The 1910s Arizona cook would have pressed them through a sieve or mashed them in a metate.) Mixing, arranging, cooking...
I hope that if one makes tamales more often than once in her life, she becomes more competent at it than I was. The dish was delicious, but I was wiped out, and I made one big tamale dish. I can’t imagine making dozens of individual tamales and steaming them for hours in batches!
Here’s to you, Latin cooks. You’re better women than I am.
For brave people who’d like to try it, here’s the ‘easy’ version of a green corn tamale.
9 large ears of fresh corn
2 tsp salt
3-4 tsp melted butter
1 to 1 1/2 cups of yellow cornmeal
4 to 6 oz of sharp cheddar cheese, sliced into @1/4 inch-thick slices.
2 small cans of green chiles or 3-4 fresh steamed or roasted and peeled green chiles.
1 1/2 Tbsp chili powder
Shuck the corn, saving the husks, and slice the corn kernels off the cobs from top to bottom with a sharp knife. Grind the corn in blender until mushy (about 3 cups). Transfer mush to a large bowl and add salt, butter, and enough cornmeal to make a thick spreading consistency. Mix in the chili powder. Rinse and drain the corn husks and spread them flat. Then line the bottom and sides of a greased 2 quart casserole dish with the husks. Place a thin layer of mush in the dish and press it down to hold the husks in place. Then top the mush with a layer of cheese and layer of chile strips. Cover with the remaining mush, spreading to the edge of the pan. Fold husks over the top of the tamale and press gently into the mush. Cover the top of the dish with aluminum foil and back at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve with pico de gallo, or a nice green enchilada sauce, or a creamy cheese sauce. Beans are excellent with this dish.