For many generations, Christmas in Costa Rica has involved serving traditional foods and maintaining a legacy of “family flavors.” Families usually meet for dinner on Christmas Eve prior to the Misa del Gallo (“Rooster’s” or Midnight Mass), or for lunch or dinner the next day, followed by the customary exchange and opening of presents.
Making tamales is an affair that involves the whole family, often including grandparents and children, in a perfect assembly line, with each person assigned a particular task.
The kids might add cilantro, while the mothers, at the top of the line, are the official tamal wrappers. Grandma, of course, always has the last word on taste, firmness and ingredient selection, playing the role of executive chef marvelously.
Some “secret recipes” are so elaborate that they may call for a specific kind of corn or pork, as well as the perfect combination of seasonings. I remember my aunts getting ready for the holiday season by collecting a tremendous amount of banana leaves and making several trips to the local mill, where many pounds of dry corn that had been cooked with ashes created the finest, richest dough, needing very little seasoning.
Several days of preparation are needed before the big day, when the experts put their hands to work and make enough tamales for the whole extended family. It is not unusual for tamales to be created in batches of hundreds at a time. A common practice among neighbors is to exchange tamales to taste each other’s handiwork, develop favorites and crown some of the ladies for having the best recipes.
Here, I’ve taken some of my grandmother’s traditional recipes and adapted them, adding a fusion of flavors with hints of new Costa Rican cuisine and a healthy vegetarian approach. This holiday season, let’s honor our ancestors by making the most of eating together, celebrating and reviving old recipes, reborn with a sense of modern times.
Cassava and Veggie Tamales
2 lbs fresh, raw cassava root (yuca or tapioca), peeled and chopped
1/4 cup corn flour (masa harina)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbs cold water
Salt to taste
Picadillo (filling) ingredients:
3 tbs olive oil
1 green onion, chopped
1 red pepper, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 small carrot, cubed
1 ear sweet corn, with the kernels removed
1/2 cup fresh heart of palm (palmito), chopped
1/2 cup butternut squash, cubed
1 tbs curry powder
1/4 cup quality stock or broth
Salt and pepper to taste
12 eight-inch squares of plantain or banana leaves, tender
1. For the dough, in a large pot bring a quart of water and the cassava to a boil, then simmer until the root is spongy but not too soft. Drain and cool. Grate cassava coarsely and combine with flour, cheese, water and salt. Set aside.
2. For the picadillo, start by sautéing onion and garlic in olive oil at medium heat for three minutes. Add vegetables, curry and stock and sauté until fork tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
3. Clean banana-leaf squares with a wet towel. Lightly toast over a flame until soft.
4. Form 12 balls out of the dough, place each on top of a banana leaf and spread.
5. Top with the picadillo and wrap carefully, first lengthwise, then folding over the two sides, laying it with the flat part facing up. Let stand for at least 15 minutes.
6. Tie tamales together in pairs with twine.
7. To cook, steam for at least 10 minutes. Tamales may be refrigerated up to a week or frozen up to three months.
8. Serve tamales by removing from the banana leaf or cutting the packet open in half or diagonally. Top with sliced avocado.
Makes 12 tamales. Serving suggestion: two tamales with coleslaw and fried plantains.
1 quart whole milk
3/4 cup raw sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1 cup coconut rum
2 tbs cornstarch
3 egg yolks
1 tbs grated lemon zest
1. In a deep pot, bring milk, sugar, spices and lemon zest to a quick boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. In a mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks and cornstarch together. Slowly add the milk mixture, constantly stirring. Strain to remove the peel.
3. Let cool before adding rum, then transfer to a glass bottle and refrigerate.
Makes eight servings. Serve cold with breads, cookies or other sweets.
Rice and Coconut Custard
1 cup white, long-grain rice (jasmine or basmati),
soaked overnight in two cups water
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
3 tbs grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/2 cup grated coconut
Pinch ground annatto
2 banana leaves
1. Wash and drain rice and transfer to deep pan. Combine with cream and two cups water.
2. Bring to a boil, then simmer until rice is soft, about 45 minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 425° F.
4. Add sugar and annatto to rice and mix well. Remove from heat.
5. In a mixing bowl, whisk eggs, cheese and spices. Add rice mixture and combine.
6. Transfer to a 10-inch baking dish lined with two banana leaves on the bottom.
7. Bake at 425° F for one hour or until golden brown. Let cool before serving.
Makes 10 servings.