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Acorn squash tamales

Acorn squash tamales
Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

In my continuing obsession with the evolution of Latin foods in America, I've noticed that the latest rage has been dining on demand, a merger of traditional cooking and fast food. And I don't mean Taco Bell's widely advertised new breakfast menu.

The way I see it, the familiar taco truck — long a fixture on L.A. streets and the padrón of the new super-trendy gourmet food truck — has crashed through the restaurant wall. Diners more often now want to order a bunch of food, appetizers and main courses alike, have it arrive all at once and share like mad.

At Rivera, we recently launched our own version of loncheras, the old-fashioned term for taco carts. But my smaller loncheras, which can be pushed easily among the restaurant's tables, are anything but old-fashioned. They're beautifully designed objects in their own right, but more important is the food, which is modern takes on traditional Latin dishes like tacos and tamales.

What my kitchen team and I have done is to strip the traditions down to their essence and then reinterpret them in surprising new ways. And the principles behind those reinterpretations are something you can do in your own home kitchen, even if you don't have a fancy new cart.

Take these pastrami tacos. They're crispy fried blue-corn taco shells that we stuff with sauerkraut, pastrami and a smear of ballpark mustard, then top with sliced pickled jalapeño — all ingredients you can find in your local market (though you may have to sub yellow corn tortillas for blue and make them bigger if you want).

The lesson: Feel free to go unconventional and global with your taco fillings. You could just as easily fill them with Philly cheesesteak, Southern pulled pork, French duck confit or Indian tandoori chicken, all with appropriate traditional accompaniments and garnishes.

Then there's the acorn squash tamales, which are big enough to share, among its other dishes. The essence of any tamale is to steam cornmeal masa inside a flavorful, fragrant wrapper, which in Mexico is usually corn husks but also, particularly in Oaxaca, big squares of banana leaf. So why not use a steamed and hollowed-out whole acorn squash as the container for masa and diced roasted pork shoulder in a guajillo chile sauce?

At home, you could substitute other meat fillings, a vegetarian filling such as the diced-zucchini mixture known as calabacitas or crumbled cotija cheese or goat cheese; and you could make larger squash tamales in small hollowed-out sugar pumpkins or even larger, longer winter squashes halved lengthwise.

That's what modern Latin cooking is all about, simultaneously respecting traditions and breaking free of their straitjackets. Just be sure to serve it up fast and all at the same time, and encourage your guests to share. That's the lonchera spirit.

Sedlar is chef-owner of Rivera in downtown Los Angeles.

food@latimes.com

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Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling times | Makes 2 tamales, serves 6

Guajillo chile sauce

  • 1 dozen dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 3 cups good-quality chicken broth
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 white onion, coarsely chopped

Step 1Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add the chiles and cook gently until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain well. In a separate pan, combine the broth, garlic and onion. Bring to a boil, add the drained chiles and simmer briskly until the onion is tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool about 10 minutes. Then, working in batches if necessary, purée in a blender. Set aside in a bowl. The sauce can be made up to 3 days in advance; cover and refrigerate until ready to use if making ahead of time.

Seared pork

  • 2 boneless pork shoulder chops, each about 6 ounces
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons grape seed oil
  • Guajillo chile sauce

Step 1Season the chops generously on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat a sauté pan over high heat. Add the oil and, when it is hot enough to smoke slightly, swirl it evenly around the pan and then carefully place the pork chops in the pan. Sear until deep brown and crusty, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside until cool enough to handle.

Step 2With a sharp knife, cut the seared pork chops into one-fourth-inch cubes. Put the cubes in a bowl. Add enough of the chile sauce to coat them generously and stir well. You will probably not use all of the chile sauce; save any extra for another use, covered and refrigerated. Set aside or cover and refrigerate up to one day in advance until ready to use.

Acorn squash tamales

  • 2 acorn squash
  • Coarse sea salt
  • 3 ounces creamy goat cheese
  • 1 1/4 cups prepared fresh masa (bought from a good Latin market)

Step 1Bring several inches of water to a boil in the bottom of a stove-top steamer or a saucepan with a steamer basket that fits neatly on top of it. Meanwhile, using a sharp serrated knife, carefully cut off about 1 inch from the top of each squash's stem end. Place the squashes and their tops, both cut side up, in the steamer basket. Cover and place the basket over the boiling water. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle boil, and steam the squashes until their flesh is just tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a small, sharp knife, about 15 minutes, taking care not to overcook them. Remove the basket with the squashes from the steamer and set aside until the squashes have cooled to room temperature.

Step 2Heat the oven 375 degrees.

Step 3Meanwhile, assemble the tamales: Use a sharp-edged spoon to scoop out the seeds and fibers from the center of the squashes. Generously salt the cavities and cut tops of each of the squashes with one-fourth teaspoon salt, or as desired. Divide the goat cheese among the squash, placing half in the bottom of each squash cavity. With the back of an oval serving spoon, evenly spread about 2 tablespoons of the prepared masa per squash along the sides of the cavities. Evenly distribute the pork-and-chile mixture between the squash cavities leaving clearance at the top of the cavity for more masa; depending on the size of the squash, you may not use all of the pork-chile mixture. Top the pork in each squash with the rest of the masa, spreading it evenly. Replace the top on each squash.

Step 4Put the filled squashes right side up in a loaf or baking dish just large enough to hold them. Bake until the interior of the pork filling in each tamale registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 25 minutes if the fillings are room temperature or warm, and up to an hour if the fillings are cold.

Step 5Carefully transfer each squash to a serving bowl just large enough to hold it upright. Serve immediately, accompanied by enough spoons for everyone to share; or, remove the lid and use a sharp knife to cut each squash vertically into individual portions.

Each serving:
Calories 419; Protein 17 grams; Carbohydrates 37 grams; Fiber 3 grams; Fat 22 grams; Saturated fat 8 grams; Cholesterol 48 mg; Sugar 4 grams; Sodium 572 mg.
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