It has been a very warm and summery winter. I have cosmos blooming in my garden, and ripe cherry tomatoes at Christmas! This is the warmest winter I have experienced as a gardener, and I worry about next year’s pests, with no hard freeze so far.
However, I am still enjoying, for the moment, wearing a sleeveless dress outside while I sit and write here on the lawn under the clotheslines, while most of the cats try to find a comfortable spot on top of me to settle down. A front is coming through tonight, bringing one of those brief spells of cold, but not quite frost, that keep settling in here and again this winter.
2021 wasn’t a bad year to reflect upon. It wasn’t a great year, either. It was a strange year, I suppose. An odd year. A busy year, full of purposeful work. A withdrawn year. A quiet year. A year that feels all muddled in fog, and at the same time, as clear as a blue sky.
I think often the muddle and turmoil on the surface was caused by the ghost of myself that still belongs to the old world – that dreamy world of careless prosperity, where it was easy to get along, where you saw the sunny side of human beings, our well-meaning and contented side, making it easy to find common ground and where exciting possibilities seemed to grow under your feet. It seems this way, looking back from the threshold, at that door that has forever shut and locked.
Somewhat reluctantly, I find myself in this now, where people have fits of existential terror passing other people in the grocery store, where families and people who love each other normally are divided and split apart, friends suddenly die from something “safe and effective,” and the steady tramp of the boot gets louder and louder.
In it’s own way, this time has its own charm. Like all difficult times, you get to see so clearly whose heart lies where, and what masters they truly serve, and who has faith and courage, and who has succumbed unbecomingly to fear and persuasion. What strikes me most about this time is how courage is very much out of fashion. Like crawling Unferth, who never failed to fall in line to fear, who hands off the sword of heroic destiny to one more worthy, or like Sir Kay, the buffoon, who always fails to point chivalry in the right direction.
When I arrive in town, and see the dark cloud surrounding our civilization in these times – so subtle now we have all adjusted to it that you have to see it from the edges of your eyes and the center of your heart – I almost lose hope again, but almost at the same moment, I realize that this is what must be conquered most of all. So I am blowing on that little ember of hope for 2022.
At least this year has been very abundant. Most of my hard work has paid off, and given us a sense of easy living and fine dining.
It took what felt like 1,000 years to harvest all the sweet potatoes out of the summer garden. My arms and back were so stiff and sore from “swimming” through the loose, sandy soil to find all the potatoes, and rolling the dense, tangled vines aside like a huge carpet, but it was a big harvest of many different kinds of sweet potatoes, all in beautiful, jewel-like colors and different colors and tastes – all different and all sweet and wonderful.
This recipe is an adaption of one from our family friend, Velia, from Guatemala. She used to care for my grandfather many years ago, to earn a little extra income while her husband worked on his PhD at University of Florida. She always had these tamales, made with regular potatoes, at any birthday or special gathering. I am substituting my abundance of sweet potatoes for the white potatoes – which I almost like better.
I apologize for the terrible photos at the end with the ugly, glaring lighting. I ran out of daylight in these short days, and had to make do with my totally inadequate electric kitchen lights.
First of all, this recipe requires preparing banana leaves to use as wrappers – it’s very easy if you have a banana tree that hasn’t been frozen yet. You simply cut off a few nice leaves, cut the leaf away from the stem, and boil them for about 5-10 minutes and drain off the water. They give everything a nasty, bitter flavor I was told if they are used without boiling.
SWEET POTATO TAMALES
For the potatoes:
5 lbs of potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks
1 cup butter or lard
1 Tablespoon annato seeds
1 teaspoon allspice
salt and pepper
For the salsa:
1/4 cup water
about 10 small Fall spice peppers, seeded
2 cups of cherry tomatoes, de-stemmed (you can also use tomatillos)
2 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper
For the meat filling:
lard or other fat for browning the meat
1 lb ground pork (Velia actually used a pork roast, but I only had ground, so this is my version)
Sat and pepper
1 bay leaf
- Boil the potatoes until tender, drain and mash and set aside.
- While they are boiling, also make the salsa – put all the ingredients in a sauce pan and boil until tender. Set aside to cool slightly while mashing the potatoes, and then blend or mash into a salsa texture. Add to the potatoes
- Melt the fat and add the annatto seeds. Stir-fry them until they release their orange color. Pour the melted fat into the potatoes, straining out the seeds. Add the allspice and season with salt and pepper. Mix everything up very well.
- Melt the lard in a frying pan and fry up the meat, seasoning it with salt and pepper and the bay leaf while cooking. Remove the bay leaf afterwards, of course.
Now to assemble:
Lay out a piece of banana leaf on a work surface (a 6×6 piece is ideal, but you can make larger or smaller pieces work. You don’t always get a perfect piece to work with), and put a generous dab of mashed potato on it with a spoon. Make a little hollow in the dab with the back of the spoon.
Add a spoonful of meat.
Fold over one side of the banana leaf. Then fold over the other side, so it’s like a tube.
Now fold over both ends, respectively, to make a little package:
Stack them up in a long baking dish like so. Velia cooked hers with aluminum foil on top, but I don’t use aluminum foil. I just set a cookie sheet on top. It keeps the steam in. Bake for 20-30 minutes in a hot oven at about 350F (Confession: I always guess at oven temperatures. The oven on my wood stove bakes completely differently. At 250F, it’s hot and ready to bake. At 350F, the oven incinerates everything, but I have cooked them as above in my old regular gas stove before though, so I know it works).
Ready to eat! They are SO good!