Cooking Par-Tay: Tamales and Fruit Compote

For our weekly extracurricular cooking gathering last week, I decided to use za’atar to create tamales. Za’atar is an herb mixture from the middle East that I thought would work well in a tamale format. I learned about Za’atar in a class last week and liked it instantly. It’s herby and robust and just begs to be rubbed on bread or just about anything (food, that is :P). I drove down to a Middle Eastern grocer down the street from school after class and bought a small bag.

For the tamales, I used mushrooms for flavor and texture, and added onions for more depth. Mushrooms cook down to a chewy texture and have a earthy flavor that I knew would work well with the za’atar. Google helped me create a vegan masa, which is the soft corn-based outside of a tamale. Traditionally, lard is used to help the masa hold together but I used olive oil to make it more heart, body, and Earth healthy.

Not to get too sappy here but it’s fair to speculate that I would never have taken this project on had I not started culinary school, so that is really cool to think about and makes me feel good about where I’m at. It’s also cool to be able to discuss our cooking outside of class with our teachers, and they provide useful information to help us get better. All of the Natural Epicurean staff have been really helpful to discuss our home cooking experiments. Plus I’ve come into contact with fellow students who have brought food knowledge into my life, so that’s been great as well. Going to cooking school has accelerated my food knowledge and experience for sure.

Below: Boiling 2 cups of water with some olive oil and salt before adding about 1 cup of masa – use more or less masa until the dough gets thick like a typical dough.


Below: Spread some masa on a water-soaked corn husk, then put some of your filling in the center.


Below: Bring the edges together, roll, then fold the bottom end up.


Below: Stack the tamales into a steamer basket in a deep pot. Put about 1-2″ of water in the bottom.

Below: A cooked tamale, garnished with a cashew lime cilantro sauce and chili powder (lime zest + cilantro + soaked cashews). A VitaMix would have been very useful in creating the sauce to help smooth it out. Maybe I’ll get one soon… 🙂  I found that the masa was sturdier after the tamales sat in the fridge overnight.


Below: Sweet corn bread with fruit-coconut milk compote. The compote was spicy with cinnamon and cloves and sweet from fruit and a touch of honey. Mmm!



Mushrooms have been my latest fascination. In prior blog posts, I’ve discussed their nutritional properties while roasting them, and sauteeing them. What are mushrooms, anyway?

The mushroom you can eat and see is the fruiting body of a fungus. The main part of the fungus is the mycelium that you never see. It runs like a thread of cells through the soil and other matter near the surface of the ground. A mycelium can run for miles and some species of fungus can be among the heaviest organisms on earth, once you factor in the weight of the fungal cells stretched out over an area of hundreds of acres.

Fungus is an organism that does not use the process of photosynthesis, this is one reason why fungi are not in the Plant Kingdom – they have their own kingdom in biological nomenclature. Fungi use enzymes to break down the compounds adjacent to them – organic matter such as trees and soil – and break it down for energy. Fungi provide a useful service by breaking down organic matter and helping to recycle its elements back into nature.

Below: A beautiful portobello mushroom. A portobello is another name for a crimini mushroom which has reached over 4″ – 6″ in diameter.


Below: Shiitake mushrooms. I got these a the Sunset Valley Farmer’s Market and I found them to be a bit dry. Nevertheless, I sauteed them into a nice plate of warm greens.



Below: The backyard garden collards are being eaten by a species of catepillar. I can understand why – the greens are tender and mild.



Below: Portabello sandwiches have been a favorite of mine recently. I’ve found there to be variation in the flavor of the mushrooms. Perhaps I’m cooking them too hard, or the cast iron is somehow robbing them of flavor. The capers on this sandwich are one of my favorite condiments. They’re salty, acidic, and speak in the vernacular of the Mediterranean.



Below: I decided to try a vegan mayonnaise, as it’s a condiment I use on sandwiches fairly often (too often), and I’d like to avoid eating too much egg. I chose this brand of “vegenaise” because it had the fewest ingredients of all of the vegan mayos.

Traditional mayonnaise is basically oil + egg + vinegar/lemon juice (an acid) + spices like garlic and mustard. This vegan mayo seems to use soy protein to help provide the protein properties lost by leaving out the egg.





Roasted Mushrooms

I found myself craving the umami flavors so pronounced mushrooms and Big Vegan delivered a great roasted mushroom recipe that I wanted to try. (If you’re not familiar with umami, it is recognized as the “fifth flavor” in addition to sweet, salty, bitter, and sour, and it event has its own website! –… and you can become a member!)


Above: A pack of baby bellas. I am just getting familiar with mushrooms and this was my first time buying baby bellas. I am not quite sure how they differ from the generic button mushrooms you find in a typical salad.



Above: Some fresh thyme. So nice!


Above: A nice big shallot. I don’t use shallots much and I really enjoyed it’s oniony, garlicky flavor.



Above and Below: After the roasting process completed, the pan had a lovely dark glaze on the bottom. So I put the pan on the stove, let it heat up nicely, and poured in about a quarter cup of wine to dissolve the dark glaze and let the mushrooms soak up those concentrated flavors. This technique is called deglazing. I didn’t – but could have – added a small pat of butter or some other oil to produce a flavorful sauce. As it was, the deglazing really brought out the flavor of the shallots and cooked mushrooms. The dish was a great success!