Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Zen and the Art of Tamale Making

First a word about tamale culture and philosophy…

There is nothing better than homemade tamales. Tamales are a special dish in many areas of the Americas and Caribbean. Because they are so labor-intensive, they are usually prepared only in large batches for special occasions, such as Christmas or weddings. While I can hardly claim to have the tamale-making skill of a Mexican grandmother, these tamales are certainly better than anything from a store or restaurant. Tamales take a long time—2 to 4 hours—to prepare, but the reward is a cache of crowd-pleasing food that will keep almost indefinitely in the freezer. And that way, any time you need a quick meal, simply toss a few tamales straight into the stovetop steamer or microwave. In a couple minutes, you’ve got a fantastic meal.

You can fill a tamale with anything from fried plantains to king crab. The most simple, traditional tamale is usually just stuffed with green chilies and cheese. Shredded chicken, pork and beef are also very common. I like about any semi-traditional filling ingredients including corn, roasted chilies, sautéed spinach, Mexican fried potatoes (click here for recipe), Muy Tasty Burrito Beans (click here for recipe), roasted hot or bell peppers, chopped zucchini, sautéed onion, seasoned tempeh, roasted pumpkin, etc. Typically, you’ll want to avoid overly-soggy vegetables like tomatoes. And when you use a moderately soggy vegetable like sautéed spinach or zucchini, you’ll want to take any drying measure possible, such as patting the spinach dry or salting and straining the grated zuchs.

Tamales need to be served with a good sauce. While many sauces or salsas are good, I most highly recommend salsa rojo (click here for recipe).

My favorite filling follows. But be creative and use whatever Mexican style ingredients you like best.

Also, keep it simple. A tamale doesn’t need more than a couple dominant ingredients. Like so many traditional dishes, it isn’t fussy—its beauty comes from balance, elegance and simplicity.

This will make about 35-40 tamales.

Prep time: A six-pack

3 cups Muy Tasty Burrito Beans (click here for recipe)
1 batch Mexican fried potatoes (click here for recipe)
1 pound jack or cheddar cheese, grated (about 4 cups)
6 Anaheim peppers (optional)
1 cup corn, frozen or fresh (optional)

Roast the peppers in the oven on the broil setting on a rack until they blacken well, turning occasionally. This should take roughly 10 minutes. Make sure you do this in a ventilated area; it creates a lot of smoke. Remove from oven, then put them in a dry paper bag, closed nice and tight until they cool, about 20 minutes. When cool, remove skins, stems and seed pods under cold running water. Then chop the pepper “meat” fairly finely.

Combine chopped peppers and all other filling ingredients together in large mixing bowl when everything is cooled enough not to melt the cheese. Stir well and set the filling aside.

Now you’re ready to make the masa dough. You’ll want to use masa harina, a type of flour made from hominy. It’s available at virtually any grocery store in the Mexican foods aisle. The dried corn husks that you need are also found there.

1 package of dried corn husks
9 cups masa harina
7 cups water
1.5 TBSP salt
2 ¼ cups oil, preferably corn or canola
1 cup fresh or frozen corn (optional)
String or twine (optional, but makes the process easier and faster)

Start by soaking the corn husks in a big bowl. Submerge them in hot water and let them soak for at least a half hour. You’ll want at least 50 husks. You’ll also need something heavy to set on top of the husks so they remain submerged. I use a brick.

Now you’re ready to make the masa. Combine masa harina, water, salt, oil, and corn in a large mixing bowl and mix well with a mixer or by hand.

It’s now time to assemble the tamales. This is the most time-consuming part of the operation and is a lot smoother if you can recruit a couple assistants and make an assembly line.

Take a fully-soaked corn husk and figure out which is the smoothest side. Set on the counter with smooth side facing up. The stuffing amount will vary depending on the size of the corn husks. Spread a thin layer of the masa dough on the husk, leaving about ½-inch space to the edges. Make sure there are no gaps or holes in the coating. Now spoon a bit of filling on top, stopping a bit short of the dough’s edge.

Roll the tamale cigarette-style. When you roll it up, make sure you the dough’s edges meet to enclose all the filling. Tie the two ends securely with the string. If you don’t have string, you can tear strips off soaked corn husks to do the job, but this takes a bit longer and the husk strips are easy to tear when tightly pulled.

At this point, you can freeze any tamales you don’t plan on cooking right away. Just stack in a large Tupperware or zip lock bag and place in freezer. You can later prepare frozen tamales by following the steaming directions (but add a couple extra minutes). Frozen tamales can also be steamed inside their husks right in the microwave (though most purists would pooh-pooh the practice). Microwave cooking times vary on size and number cooked, but typically ranges from 3-10 minutes.

To steam right away, use a bamboo or metal steamer. Stack the tamales so there’s lots of circulation space. Cover and cook for about an hour or until the masa gets nice and firm and doesn’t want to stick to the wrapper when you open it up. Don’t forget to check the water level occasionally! Steaming time varies from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on tamale thickness and how tightly they’re packed in the steamer.

Remove from husks before you eat (duh!). Smother with the aforementioned Salsa Rojo or other sauce.

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