Chili today, Hot tamale

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The stack of unread New Yorkers grows.

For years I've been trying to get the Kitchen Sisters to come to town. We became friends when our book tours crossed paths at an SFA symposium in Oxford, Mississippi in 2006. I knew their work from NPR so I was already a fan, when I attended a workshop that they gave there about the nuts and bolts of their style of audio archiving. The presentation was fascinating, even to someone who had no intention of becoming a radio journalist. Since then, we've talked from time to time about the possibility of a fundraiser for our WUNC, our NPR affiliate here in Chapel Hill. Finally, this spring we were able to pull it off, with great success if I do say so myself.

The lead up to the event was wonderful and complicated. A Southern Season agreed to host the event in their cooking school. This was great, because I love working with Marilyn Markle, its director, and her staff is the absolute best. Marilyn and I decided to plan the bulk of the menu around their book, Hidden Kitchens, published in 2005. It is a print version of some of their radio essays that deal with food, paired with recipes. We wanted to highlight as many of our local producers as possible. Susan Stamberg was to be mistress of ceremonies, so of course we had to include cranberry relish. They had also requested one example of a local hidden kitchen to be included as well.

In the introduction to their book there is a St. Mary's County Maryland stuffed corned ham. I've been making corned hams forever, but I have never ever seen a reference to one anywhere else. That was a must. It had been suggested to them by Phyllis Richman, one of my favorite food writers, who was once the restaurant critic for The Washington Post. She now writes food themed mysteries and she told me that in her latest one a prominent role is played by the ham. It was good to make her acquaintance, if only electronically. The ham from Maryland is stuffed with cabbage, kale, celery and such. It is then boiled, instead of roasted and served cold! I'd never heard of any of this. We found out late from Phyllis Richman that the Maryland ham was really a sort of country ham, but we decided to combine the North Carolina ham with the other preparation. The result was beautiful as well as delicious. We served it with green tomato pickles from The Farmer's Daughter, our friend April McGreger.

All over town, you can buy tamales, gorditas and elotes from taco trucks, but these things are also available from the trunks of cars or from home kitchens, when ordered by phone. Cooks trying to make extra cash can be spotted in parking lots. There is a woman from Guatemala here who makes really delicious banana leaf tamales in her home. Sometimes my cooks call in orders to her for their own dinners. This seemed like the perfect choice for Chapel Hill's Hidden Kitchen. These tamales have big pieces of chicken, bones and all and somehow make their own gravy. My Guatemalan friend didn't have time to teach me how to make these, but as luck would have it, my friend Rossy Martinez Cruz knows the same technique. She comes from Oaxaca in southern Mexico, one state up from Guatemala. Her sauce was different, made with dried red chilis. I took lessons on one Monday, and then Marilyn and I went to work on the next. Although it wasn't as easy as Rossy made it look, we did it and our tamales were really good. While we cooked, we listened to a piece about a Brazilian woman who cooks for cab drivers in the middle of the night in San Francisco. It seems that many of the drivers come from the same town as she, and they come to her stall at four in the morning to eat the foods that they miss from home.

Our quirky menu continued with a beautiful roasted spring vegetable salad, to showcase our farmers. We finished up with grilled lamb chops simply brushed with honey, and creme brulee, both also taken from Hidden Kitchens. Everything was locally produced. I have to say that custard made from really fresh eggs is a thing apart. I was too busy running my mouth to take any more pictures, so here is one last one from my tamal lesson. Rossy is the mother of mi nieta , Dolores, so I had the added pleasure of her company while I learned.

posted by Bill Smith at 2:35 PM 0 comments

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