Saskia Marijke Niehorster-Cook has global gastronomical tastes.
Born in Mexico City to parents of European descent, Niehorster-Cook speaks five languages: French, German, Dutch, Spanish and English. She moved to Leawood in 2002 and has worked as an interpreter and translator for the past seven years.
Saskia Marijke and Malcolm Cook have been married for 20 years and have three sons: Sasha, 21; Leo, 19; and Berend, 17. Niehorster-Cook grew up as the second youngest in a family of eight siblings in Mexico, and her younger sister, Irene Niehorster of Prairie Village, now helps make tamales before Christmas.
“We ate tamales at Christmastime when growing up in Mexico,” Irene says. “We wanted to learn how to make them to carry on the holiday tamales tradition and bring a taste of our childhood and an important piece of our food roots here.”
Q: What exactly are tamales, and why are they typically enjoyed during Christmas?
A: Tamales are made of masa dough — made from finely ground corn flour — with fillings that can include pork, beef, chicken, cheeses, chilies and/or vegetables. The masa dough and filling are wrapped and steamed in a cornhusk, which is discarded before eating.
After moving here, I would host tamales parties. People would bring their favorite filling, and I would provide the masa dough and cornhusks for wrapping. It was like a Christmas cookie exchange, except people would help make tamales and then take a sampling of the different kinds home to enjoy. My son Leo came up with a sweet option that involved Reese’s Pieces as the filling — and they were quite good.
I’m not quite sure why tamales are so strongly associated with Christmas, but I think it has to do with large families gathering and cooking together. Tamales are also like a gift you must first unwrap in order to enjoy them.
Q: What were the holidays like in Mexico City for you?
A: My father, Leo Niehorster, was born in the Netherlands, and part of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. He was eventually caught and placed in a prison camp. After the war ended, he wanted to get away and decided to take a trip to Mexico, where he met my mother, Edith Schmitz-Paul Von Eichstedt, who was born in Mexico to German parents.
For us, Christmas was a blending of European customs with the colorful traditions of Mexico. My mother would decorate a live green tree with white spheres and tinsel — like the snow — and light it with candles. Her decorating was elegant and different from the colorful trees of our neighbors.
One of the merriest Mexican traditions is the piñata, which would be filled with candy, fruit and sometimes money. The traditional shape for a piñata during Christmas is a seven-pointed star, and to us the piñata represented Mary’s womb. The contents inside represented the sweetness of life and the baby Jesus who brought goodness into the world.
From Dec. 16 through Christmas Eve, we would take part in the Las Posadas, which is a Christmas novena that recounts the holy family’s journey to Bethlehem, and how there was no room at the inn.
“Posada” means inn or lodging in Spanish, and we would process through the neighborhood from house to house singing a plea to let us into their posada, and each time neighbors would sing back, refusing us entry, but then joining us as we went to the next house to sing a new plea. This would continue until we would come to the house that was hosting the party that evening.
Q: After living in all parts of the world with such a rich personal heritage, do you sometimes feel like the fates intervened in order to have “Cook” be part of your last name?
A: I’ve never really thought about it in that respect, but I’ve always been aware that food — both in the preparation and sharing of it — strengthens the bond between families and, also, friends.
Malcolm is a wonderful cook, and our sons each bring their point of view into the kitchen. Berend often acts as an extension of my own hands when cooking. Leo is a vegetarian, so he will make meatless meals. Sasha is a great help and even does dishes for me.
What I’ve come to learn as a cook is that good food knows no boundaries. French beef Bourguignon can make a wonderful filling for tamales. Masa can be combined with a chicken chilie filling and be dropped into a soup, much like Jewish matzo balls. We are all humans and the sharing of food is like sharing in the life force itself. When people eat together, we are reminded that that which unites us is far greater than that which divides.
Q: I would venture to say that you have a sixth language in which you are fluent, and that is food …
A: That is why I started hosting these tamales parties, to invite neighbors and friends into my home to share a taste of the Mexico I remember from childhood. These tamales are based on the ones featured in the book “Secrets of the Tsil Café: A Novel With Recipes” by Thomas Fox Averill.
I like using nopalitos, or tender cactus, for the filling, because it is not only good for you, it is a wonderful vegetarian option. I’ve found the best place to buy these ingredients is at the “Mexican” Price Chopper on 49th Street and Roe Boulevard.
I do love to cook, but even more than that, I love how food immediately creates a sense of community. This is what I miss from my childhood; people didn’t need an excuse to get together. There was a sense of conviviality, with family and friends living together. When I say, “Mi casa es su casa” — my house is your house — I really mean it.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Tamales de Nopal (Vegetarian Tamales With Cactus Filling)
Makes about 30 tamales
1 (6-ounce) package dried cornhusks
For tamale dough:
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups masa
Scant 4 cups warm water or vegetable broth
2/3 cup corn oil
For tamale filling:
2 tablespoons corn oil
1 (30-ounce) jar nopalitos (tender cactus), drained and lightly rinsed in colander
3 ears fresh corn, kernels cut off cobs
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
2 chipotle peppers, chopped, from 1 (12-ounce) can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
2 tablespoons mezcal
1 lemon, juiced
Place cornhusks in a large Dutch oven and cover with water. Bring to a boil on the stovetop over high heat, then allow to cool completely, submerged in water. Place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours before preparation.
To prepare dough: Using an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, combine baking powder, salt and masa together. Pour water or broth into dry ingredients and whisk until mixture resembles paste. Slowly pour oil into mixture and whisk until well incorporated and a spongy dough forms. Cover dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before preparation.
To prepare tamale filling: Warm a large sauté pan over high heat. Pour oil into hot pan and immediately add nopalitos, corn, tomato paste, chipotle, mezcal and lemon juice. Stir to combine ingredients until heated through and a thick filling is created. Take off heat and allow mixture to cool.
To assemble tamales: Drain water off cornhusks. Tear 30 strips for securing and tying tamales from cornhusks and set aside.
Place a single cornhusk on a flat surface. Spread 2 tablespoons tamale dough in the middle third of the husk, leaving a 1-inch border on the right and left sides. Spoon a generous teaspoonful of the filling over the center of the masa layer.
Carefully fold the right, then left side of the husk over the center and roll it up, so that the masa layer completely surrounds the filling. Draw up and fold the bottom 1/3 of the husk into the center and secure tightly with a prepared strip tied into a knot. Place onto a sheet pan and continue process until all dough and filling are used.
To steam tamales: Fill a large pot fitted with a steamer basket with water to the level just below the basket. (You do not want tamales standing in water.) Bring water to boil over high heat on stovetop. Simultaneously, fill a kettle with water and bring to a boil, to replace water as needed through the steaming process.
Stand at least 12 tamales (or more, as space allows) upright in the steamer basket, making sure not to crowd the pan. Cover tightly with a lid and steam for at least 1 hour, or up to 90 minutes. When finished steaming, cornhusks will look golden and the masa dough will be firm. Carefully remove tamales using tongs and repeat steaming process for remaining uncooked tamales.
To serve tamales: While tamales are still warm, remove the cornhusk and garnish with sour cream and salsa.
Storage note: After steaming, tamales can be frozen for up to 6 month. Place in freezer-safe bags after allowing them to cool completely. Tamales can be reheated in cornhusks in the microwave until warmed through.
Per tamale: 126 calories (45 percent from fat), 6 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), trace cholesterol, 16 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 686 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.