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Tantalizing Tamales PDF Print E-mail

Getting back to basics with the original snack food of the Americas

By Gwyneth Doland

Today, more than 500 years after European explorers first reached the New World, it is almost impossible to imagine that until the 16th century, the Swiss had no chocolate or vanilla in their pantries, the Italians had no tomatoes, the Irish no potatoes, the Chinese no chile peppers—and none had corn. All of these ingredients are native to the Americas and, though new to European explorers, they had been staples of the Mesoamerican kitchen for thousands of years. Corn, which now grows in nearly everywhere in the world, had been domesticated in the Americas 5,000 years before Columbus’ first visit.

Although we don’t know for sure the exact origin of tamales we can see from pots and carvings that, for the ancient Mayans, tamales were their daily bread. (The word comes from the Nahuatl tamalii and tamal is the correct singular form, but tamale is more common.) Researchers believe it is likely that tamales originated in Mesomerica, and eventually spread throughout Latin America and beyond. As an ancient precursor to fast food, the supremely portable tamale provided satisfying and nutritious meal for people on the go—and it still does. Tamales are a popular menu item in Latin American restaurants and market stalls, but for most home cooks, the effort required to prepare tamales (as opposed to tacos or burritos) means they are mostly made on celebration days. Christmas, New Year’s, the Day of the Dead, weddings, birthdays and baptisms are often celebrated with a feast of tamales.

In its most simple form, the tamale is made from ground corn that has been slaked with lime or lye and mixed with fat to make a sticky dough called masa. Portions of the dough are wrapped in corn husks or leaves and baked or steamed; they can be eaten plain or served with salsa, chile sauce or mole. Sometimes the dough is filled with bits of cheese, chicken, fried pork skins or more exotic local ingredients like iguana. Dessert tamales can be sweetened with honey or sugar and flavored with things like raisins, cinnamon and coconut.

For every country, every village and every family that makes tamales, there is a different tradition, but for creative cooks, the mild flavor of tamale dough presents an empty canvas inviting inspiration and experimentation. Expensive restaurants may fill their tamales with foie gras and garnish them with truffles, while a child making tamales with grandma slips some chocolate chips into his dough. The possibilities are nearly endless. Here are just a few examples from Tantalizing Tamales.

MASA

Masa is the dough used to make tamales. Traditionally, it is made from lard, broth, salt and dried corn that has been soaked with lime or lye, then hulled (you may know this as hominy). The slaked corn is ground while still moist and the best tamales are made from freshly ground masa. Unfortunately, unless you live near a tortillería that will sell you masa para tamales (just ask nicely!), you’ll have to make your own with masa harina, or dried masa flour. Look for masa harina (literally, “dough flour”) in the Mexican foods section of your supermarket, or at online retailers that specialize in Latin American foods). You may also come across refrigerated masa in some stores; try it if you want, but I haven’t found a brand I like as well as homemade.

LARD

Lard has been the traditional fat used to make tamales since the Spaniards brought domesticated pigs to the New World. Over the past century, some cooks switched to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil for health reasons, but now that we know about the dangers of trans fats, lard is once again the ingredient of choice. Unfortunately, the lard found in most grocery stores is hydrogenated to make it shelf stable; it also tastes terribly bland. If you can find locally-made lard at your farmers market or specialty foods store, buy it. For a real treat, make your own lard. Ask your butcher for several pounds of fresh pork fat (not bacon, nothing smoked, salted or flavored), and if he’ll dice it for you, great. You’ll need about a pound of fat for a cup of lard. Put the cubes into a big Dutch oven and cook over medium-low heat, for about 45 minutes. The fat will melt, leaving you with crispy little snacks for you and/or your dog. When the pan is cool enough for you to handle, pour the liquid through a fine sieve or several layers of cheesecloth. Store the lard for several weeks in a resealable plastic container in the refrigerator.


Pork and Red Chile Tamales

These are some of the most common tamales in the Southwest. They can be found in restaurants, cafes and in the coolers toted by strolling vendors. Everybody loves them, so make a bunch and freeze any leftovers. This recipe makes enough pork filling to make another batch of tamales, but you can always just use the extra pork for burritos.

1 recipe Basic Masa (recipe follows)

2 1/2 pounds boneless pork butt, trimmed of excess fat

6 cloves garlic, peeled

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon salt

1 recipe New Mexico Red Chile Sauce (recipe follows)

At least 36 softened corn husks, plus 36 strips for tying

Arrange the pork butt in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stockpot. Add the garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves and salt. Pour over it enough cold water to cover by several inches. Turn the heat to high and bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, about 2 hours.

Transfer the pork to a cutting board and allow it to rest 20 minutes. Using 2 forks, shred the meat. In a bowl, combine 2 cups of the shredded pork with enough red chile sauce to thoroughly moisten the meat.

To assemble the tamales, spread about 1/3 cup dough onto the center of each corn husk. Spoon several tablespoons of the shredded pork filling down the center of the dough. Fold and tie the tamale; repeat with the remaining ingredients and husks.

Steam the tamales for 1 hour and serve with the remaining New Mexico Red Chile Sauce.

Yield: About 24 tamales

Heat Scale: Medium


Basic Masa Dough

2 cups freshly ground masa for tamales or 3 cups masa harina

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup fresh lard, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups homemade or low-sodium chicken stock

If you’re using masa harina, pour it into a bowl and add 2 cups warm water. Work the mixture into a dough with your hands and then set it aside to rest for about 15 minutes.

Add the lard to the workbowl of a standing mixer fixed with the whisk attachment (or use a regular hand mixer in a large bowl) and beat it together with the salt and baking powder until light and fluffy.

If you’re using a standing mixer, switch to the paddle attachment. While beating, add the reconstituted (or freshly ground) masa by handfuls into the workbowl. Add the stock and beat until combined. Taste the mixture and add salt if necessary.

Continue beating until the masa is light and fluffy, 15 or 20 minutes. The masa is ready when a grape-sized ball of dough floats in a glass of cold water. If the dough sinks continue beating 5 minutes longer, then test it again.

Yield: Enough for about 24 medium tamales


New Mexico Red Chile Sauce

This is my version of New Mexico’s famous red chile sauce. Mixed with shredded pork, it is used as a tamale filling, but it is also ladled over the tamales as well as enchiladas, huevos rancheros, breakfast burritos, stuffed sopaipillas, chiles rellenos and almost anything else you can think of. You may not need four cups of the sauce for your recipe, but you might as well make the whole batch; freeze extra portions in small resealable plastic containers.

24 dried red New Mexico chile pods

5 cups beef stock, chicken stock or water

2 tablespoons bacon grease, lard or vegetable oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

Salt, to taste

1 teaspoon honey, or to taste (optional)

In a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, toast the chiles on both sides (you’ll have to do this in batches) until they soften slightly and become aromatic. When the chiles are cool enough to handle, remove the stems and seeds.

Transfer the chiles to a deep saucepan and pour over them about 4 cups water (or enough to just barely cover. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the chiles to rest, about 15 minutes.

Working in batches, puree the chiles with their soaking liquid.

In the cast-iron skillet, over medium heat, melt the bacon grease. Add the garlic and flour and cook, stirring, until the mixture becomes golden. Add the pureed chiles and stir quickly while the sauce bubbles and spatters. Reduce the heat, add the oregano and simmer 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt. If the sauce is a little bitter, mellow it with the honey.

Yield: About 4 cups

Heat Scale: Medium


Baby Banana Tamales with Coconut and Brown Sugar

I just happened to have a bunch of baby bananas sitting on the counter one day when inspiration struck and now these are my absolute favorite tamales. The fun part is watching your guests' faces when they dig into the tamale and find a whole banana inside. Wrapping the tamales in banana leaves gives more flavor, but use corn husks if that’s all you have.

1/2 recipe Coconut Masa (recipe follows)

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup brown sugar

12 baby bananas, peeled

Vanilla ice cream (optional)

Dulce de leche (recipe follows)

At least 12 (6-inch by 8-inch) pieces of banana leaf, plus more for tying

Add the masa to a large bowl and work the raisins, chestnut puree and nutmeg into the masa.

To assemble the tamales, spread about 1/3 cup filling in the middle of a softened piece of banana leaf, press a baby banana into the masa then fold and tie it. Repeat for the remaining tamales. Steam the tamales for 1 hour and serve hot with vanilla ice cream and Dulce de leche.

Yield: About 12 tamales


Coconut Masa

Don’t use sweetened coconut flakes or the masa will become too sweet. Look for unsweetened shredded coconut in the bulk aisle at your natural foods store or in any Asian or Latin American market.

1 1/3 pounds freshly ground masa for tamales or 2 cups masa harina

2/3 cup lard or unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 (13-ounce) can coconut milk, plus enough water to make 2 cups

If you’re using masa harina, pour it into a bowl and add 1 1/2 cups warm water. Work the mixture into a dough with your hands and then set it aside to rest for about 15 minutes.

Add the lard or butter to the workbowl of a standing mixer fixed with the whisk attachment (or use a regular hand mixer in a large bowl) and beat it together with the salt until light and fluffy.

If you’re using a standing mixer, switch to the paddle attachment. While beating, add the reconstituted (or freshly ground) masa by handfuls into the workbowl. Add the brown sugar, vanilla, coconut milk and water and beat until combined. Taste the mixture and add salt if necessary.

Continue beating until the masa is light and fluffy, 15 or 20 minutes. The masa is ready when a grape-sized ball of dough floats in a glass of cold water. If the dough sinks continue beating 5 minutes longer, then test it again.

Yield: Enough for about 24 small tamales

Dulce de Leche

This is an unbelievably easy way to make dulce de leche, a rich, intensely sweet sauce that can be drizzled over tamales, ice cream, poached pears, grilled bananas or almost anything you can think of. The sauce will need to simmer for about 3 hours, but make sure you check it every half-hour or so and add boiling water, if necessary. The can must be kept fully submerged or it might explode—and that would really ruin your dessert.

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

Put a rack or collapsible vegetable steamer in the bottom of a large sauce pan. Rip the label from the can and put it on the rack. (If you want to make a large quantity of dulce de leche, you can boil several cans at once in your tamalera.) Pour enough water into the pot to cover the can by at least 2 inches.

Bring the water to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for at least 2 hours for a thinner sauce, up to 4 hours for a thicker sauce. Turn the can every 30 minutes or so and add water, as needed, to keep the can submerged.

Let the can cool completely before opening. The sauce will keep for a week, refrigerated in a resealable plastic container.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups

 

Look for Tantalizing Tamales and Gwyneth’s other books, Mole!, Seductive Salsa, and Cilantro Secrets at your local bookstore, or at www.amazon.com.

Editor's Note: If you simply can't find the time to make tamales at home, you can order fantastic gourmet tamales from Arizona Tamale Factory. Chef Linda and her team have come up with a line of truly unique and interesting tamales, ranging from traditional green or red chile flavor to Puerto Rican pulled pork and pineapple flavor, salmon and ginger habanero, and The Reuben. That's right, a Reuben sandwich translated into a tamale. And their tamales use non-GMO corn, are gluten free, organic and sustainable.

They're still working on a shopping cart, but you can call to order at 928.567.0702, or send an email to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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