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The Big Ears Festival is a big deal around the MSV house. Since it revived this year after a too-long hiatus, we decided to make it an even bigger deal by hosting brunch on the final morning of the fest. The menu:

  • sweet & spicy sweet potato-prune-pecan tamales served with maple syrup and a rich coconut-lime spread
  • refried beans served with avocado slices and habanero salsa
  • broiled grits cakes
  • jicama-grapefruit salad with sweet citrus-mint dressing
  • tortilla chips and mild tomato salsa
  • ginger-mango agua fresca
  • lime-cucumber-mint agua fresca

We cannot get over how great these tamales are. Tons of flavor, but with a fairly short list of ingredients, these little guys hit our homestyle culinary sweet spot. And since the filling is fairly firm at room temperature (it does soften upon steaming), these tamales are some of the easiest to assemble you may ever find.

And note that we had extra dough left, which we formed into plain tamales, and they rival the filled ones for our affections. Like biscuits or tortillas, tamales without fillings make wonderful meal accompaniments, and we found these particularly charming. (Plus, dead simple to form.)

Print the recipes

Sweet Potato-Prune-Pecan Tamales

yields about 30 filled tamales, plus another 6 or so plain

For the filling

3 cups chopped pecans

3 cups (about 60) prunes, roughly chopped

1 ½ tsp smoked paprika

1 ½ tsp chipotle powder

1 TBSP ground cinnamon

For the dough

24 oz sweet potato, peeled, diced, and boiled until very tender

¾ tsp ground cinnamon

¾ tsp freshly ground nutmeg

3 TBSP maple syrup

3 ¾ cups warm water

¾ cup vegetable oil

1 ½ tsp salt

1 TBSP baking powder

5 ¼ cup masa harina

To assemble:

corn husks, soaked for about an hour

Heat oven to 400 and toast pecans until darkened and fragrant, about 10 minutes, being careful not to burn. Transfer to a food processor and grind to a minced texture. Meanwhile, mash prunes with spices in a mortar and pestle (alternately, pulse in a food processor).

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine cooked sweet potato, spices, syrup, and oil. Mix well. Add water and mix again. Sift together salt, baking powder, and masa harina. Add to the wet ingredients and mix with the paddle attachment until fluffy and smoothed out a bit. The dough will remain a little sticky.

Assemble tamales using 2-3 TBSP of dough and a generous TBSP of filling for each. Steam for 40-45 minutes.

If desired, serve with maple syrup and our Coconut-Lime Spread.

The coconut-lime spread is adapted from Saveur, but we found their version far too sweet for our liking. And that goes double when you're already offering maple syrup on the table. So we put the emphasis back on the richness of the coconut milk and ended up with a silky, totally luxuriant condiment.

Coconut-Lime Spread

yields 3/4 cup

1 can coconut milk

1 TBSP natural cane sugar (evaporated cane juice)

1/8 tsp pectin

zest of ½ lime

Simmer coconut milk and sugar until reduced to 3/4 cup, about an hour. Stir in pectin and zest. Cool and chill.

Next up, a note on our savory components. Our refried beans aren't actually refried at all, but simply well done and pulsed with an immersion blender and some added oil before serving. Many a meal has been made from them. And while the grits cakes are pretty irresistible handheld munchies, our favorite way to dig into both is to top the grits with the beans, then avocado, and a drizzle of spicy salsa.

To add a fresh element to the table, we combined crispy, juicy, earthy, gently sweet jicama with brightly colored, tart grapefruit and tossed it all in a dressing of mixed citrus and mint. Totally simple and a total winner.

Grapefruit-Jicama Salad with Sweet Citrus-Mint Dressing

2-3 large jicama, cut into matchsticks

4 grapefruit, peeled and segmented

¼ cup + 2 TBSP orange marmalade (bittersweet preferred)

¼ cup + 2 TBSP lime juice

¼ cup apple syrup

finely chopped mint leaves from about 3-4 sprigs, or to taste

Whisk together marmalade, lime juice, syrup, and mint. Pour over jicama and toss well. Add grapefruit and toss gently to distribute.

Since a pal was generous enough to offer to bring the day's cocktail--a tasty ginger-tequila-lime concoction we're bummed we didn't take a shot of--we had time to whip up a couple of refreshing and festive non-alcoholic options. The lime-cucumber-mint agua fresca seen above is total heaven alongside the habanero salsa. Highly recommended for the warm months when you find yourself with a stack of grits, beans, avocado, and salsa. Which we expect we often will.

Also on the table was a ginger-mango agua fresca (which we also failed to shoot) that can certainly be had alone, but mixes well with bubbly, which another guest was kind enough to provide. For an even lighter alcoholic drink option (because seriously, some of us have things to do after brunch), it mixes beautifully with light beer when garnished with a squeeze of lime. Summer in a glass.

Do note that both of these recipes offer guidelines when diluting the mixtures. Add as much or as little water as you like to get a light, refreshing result that you feel like you could drink all day. And finally, we really prefer turbinado sugar for these. If you choose to use white sugar, you'll likely need less than called for.

Lime-Cucumber-Mint Agua Fresca

24 oz cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced

1/2 cup lime juice

6 TBSP turbinado

3 cups water

3 sprigs mint

Puree all ingredients except mint. Add mint to a pitcher, pour the agua over it, and chill. Serve over ice.

Ginger-Mango Agua Fresca

20 oz thawed frozen mango

1/4 cup lime juice

2 oz ginger

1/4 cup turbinado

20 oz club soda

Puree all except sparkling water. Strain. Chill the liquefied mango and club soda separately. Add soda just before serving and mix well. Serve over ice.

And since it was also(!) another friend's birthday, we'll leave you with a little shot of a ganache tart we made using our cornmeal-bourbon shortbread recipe for the crust. Cheers!