Saturday, January 5, 2008


If you're familiar with Mexican cuisine, you know that one of the traditional foods to make on Christmas is tamales. When done well, those little pockets of goodness inside a cornhusk jacket are wonderful. Most people are intimidated by the whole process because it is time consuming, but not hard. The fastest and most fun way to make tamales is to get a group together and do it assemly line style.

My younger daughter and boyfriend were flying in Christmas morning, and I had my Christmas dinner menu ready to go. Everything was going smoothly when The Don decided the tamales had to be done on Christmas day to keep with tradition.

Breathe deeply.
1-drive to the airport at the crack of dawn in the middle of a horrible windstorm to get the kids.
2-rush home and open presents, fast.
3-put all the dinner makings aside to make room for the assembly line.
4-make massive amounts of tamales, steam them for hours, vacuum seal them for travel back to Washington in 2 days.
5-begin dinner preparation of crown pork roast with the trimmings while drinking copious amounts of wine.
We had a wonderful day.

We accomplished the tamale marathon but ran out of masa (dough) before running out of meat. A week later using the leftover meat I made tamales again with some girlfriends. This time of course we ran out of meat before running out of masa. Are you sensing a pattern here? So back at home I finally used up the masa with fillings I had in my refrigerator. By this time I had made hundreds of tamales and wanted nothing more than to use them as target practice.
Instead I hit the homemade Kahlua as a reward!

Our fillings of choice were pork, chicken and a vegetarian take of chiles rellenos. We used Ortega style canned green chiles, frozen corn and grated cheddar cheese. All three taste great but my favorite is the vegetarian one.


Prepared masa dough
1 or 2 bags of dried corn husks

Meat filling, pork roast or chicken (you can use cheaper cuts since you will basically be making stew with the meat)
1 whole seeded black olive for each pork or beef tamal, 1 whole green olive for each chicken tamal. I don't know why, that's just the way it is.

Vegetarian filling, cheese, corn and green chile
any cheese you like, except soft ones
frozen corn
Ortega green chiles

Sweet filling, pineapple and raisins
1 can each of Pineapple chunks and Pineapple tidbits

This recipe has no set amounts given, the amount of filling needed is in direct correlation to how much masa you have and vice versa. All you need are guidelines and a short tutorial of smearing, filling and tying.
The purists will treat this whole process with military precision and no flexibility...pretend to listen to his instructions, then give him a beer and kick him out of the kitchen.

Tamal fillings--Fillings are either savory or sweet and contain anything you want. I put an inexpensive bone-in pork roast in the pressure cooker with a bit of water and seasonings. Half an hour later the meat was falling off the bone, the stock was used to help flavor the dough. I also made a thin chicken stew for another batch. We flavored all the savory masa with the same ingredients. It's important to be a bit hot spice aggressive with the seasonings while cooking the meats, lots of cumin/chili powder/garlic/pepper/etc. The more flavorful the meat filling the tastier the tamal.
We made different flavors, you can chose just one favorite filling. I have a friend who whips them up the night before, the next morning she pops them in the crock pot before going to work and they are ready for dinner.

Tamale dough--In a perfect world you would have access to a tortilleria or an authentic Mexican market where they sell prepared masa. That means that the dough is already mixed and fluffy, which translates to saved arm muscles on your part. If you must buy your dough in a regular store, it will be quite solid and firm and up to you to aerate it.
If you have a stand mixer, add the room temperature dough along with a bit of shortening, lard or oil and seasoning, begin mixing until light and fluffy. (as fluffy as corn dough can get I guess) If you don't have a mixer, you will use good old arm muscle and mix until both arms give out then turn it over to the next person.

Once the dough feels lighter, add some stock from your meat and test for seasonings. Cumin, salt, pepper, red chili powder, paprika, etc. The dough should be flavored so that you like the taste of it raw, some of the saltiness will be steamed out in the cooking process. For the sweet tamales, once the dough is soft, add pineapple bits, pineapple juice, raisins and sugar. I like to use one can of pineapple bits to add to the dough, and a can of pineapple chunks to add to the middle as the filling.
Add your liquid flavoring slowly, you want the dough pliable, not runny.

At this point, your masa is divided into 2 bowls, one savory, one sweet. You will also have your fillings in bowls ready to use.

The corn husks will come bagged and neatly folded onto each other in bunches. Carefully peel apart and soak in a sink full of very hot water until pliable. By now you should also of broken out the wine, for self consumption. Take a few minutes to pick thru the leaves and separate the wider ones, so when you start filling you already have some nice leaves ready to go.

This is where the assembly line comes in handy. Holding the corn husk in one hand, use the back of a spoon to scoop out some dough and smear it onto the husk. Don't use too much, remember the husk has to closed. Pass it to the next person, who will take some of the filling, savory or sweet, and put it in the middle of the tamal along with an olive. Don't be stingy with the filling.

Working with the width of the husk, fold one side over to meet the opposite side of where the dough ends. Like a burrito. If your husk is not wide enough to close over the filling, get another leaf and overlap them so you can cover the dough. You should now have a fat little cornhusk roll resembling a burrito.

Again you pass it on to the next person, (usually the least coordinated or cooking impaired member of the group), depending on how many fillings you will use, will depend on how you close them. You need to be able to tell the different types apart later.
The easiest and fastest method is to hold the packet in one hand, fold the smaller thinner end up, and stack them standing up as you go. You can also tie one or both ends with torn husk strips. A much easier way is to use up different color curling ribbon to tie so you can tell the flavors apart.

After you have a couple dozen made up, get the steamer going. Use a large canning or turkey frying size pot. It needs to have a steamer insert at the bottom, or fasten one of your own with a cup and plate. Add water and bring to a boil. I like to stand the tamales in the pan as best I can, you can put them in a couple layers deep if you want.

Find an old clean hand towel, wet it and lay it over the tamales, then cover the pot. (the wet towel helps to keep the steam down low over the tamales) Keep at a steady boil, you should be able to hear it, but make sure it doesn't dry out. Trust me, if it dries out you will smell it! Steam them about 2 hours (that's why you want to put lots of them in), to see if done, pull one out with some long tongs and open it up. If it's not mushy and holds its shape, it's done and time for the next batch.

When you're done with all the steaming, throw the towel out, it's not worth washing.

Since tamales can be a chore to do, you want to do as many as possible and freeze them to enjoy later. Steam them before freezing, you will be more likely to pull them out for a quick bite if you know they are already cooked.

I will share with you the best way to eat tamales. Unless you're an intimate part of the culture, nobody thinks to tell you. Even if you buy some tamales, try this method. The following day, for any meal including breakfast, peel the husk off the cold tamal, heat up a bit of oil in a frying pan and fry it until golden and crusty. Enjoy.

1 comment:

Mary said...

I didn't get any???