Monday, January 17, 2011

Mexico Month - Tamales

One of the many wonderful things about the Authentic Mexican cookbook is the extensive background on Mexican cuisine.  The tamal section begins with 2.5 pages of the history and tradition of tamales followed by 4 pages of general information on tamal making.  Only after this introduction are the actual recipes presented.   I love that.

For me, tamales remind me of family.  I don't order them very often at restaurants because I am very picky about only eating good ones, and the good ones are the ones that my mom gets from one particular lady.  So, for me, tamales are best eaten at the kitchen counter at my parents house chatting with my family and shielding my tamales from my dad who swore he didn't want one, but once I have one it looks really good to him, and he wants to eat it all.

I have only made tamales myself one other time, and it enough time has passed since that I forgot how long it takes.  My mexican cookbook declares that tamal making is a festive event where part of the party is the getting together to produce the tamales.  I think next time I make them I will be more Mexican about it and make it a party.  It sounds much for fun that way.

I also want to note that I am fortunate to have an international market very close to my house that sells all sorts of Mexican and Central and South American foods.  Where else would I buy masa harina, dried cornhusks, and lard?  Unfortunately for me, the smallest quantity of lard they sell is a 2.5 pound tub.  What I am going to do with the approximately 2.45 pounds that remain is beyond me.

First step:  The first step in tamal making is preparing the cornhusks (or banana leaves, but I will only talk about the cornhusk covered type here).  The husks should be simmered in water to cover for 10 minutes, weighted with a plate to keep them submerged.  Then, let stand off the fire in the water for a couple hours until the husks are pliable (Erin's note:  I never have "a couple hours" to let the husks stand.  I have found that an hour is plenty.)

Second step:  While the husks are soaking, you can begin to make the tamal dough.  Masa is the main ingredient of the dough.  You can make the masa starting with corn, or if, like me, you don't have that kind of time or patience, you can make a substitute recipe.

Masa Fingida para Tamales

2/3 cup (4 oz) quick-cooking (not instant) grits
3/4 cup (3.5 oz) masa harina

1.  Pulverize the grits in a spice grinder or blender as thoroughly as possible.  Transfer to a medium size bowl.
2.  Stir in 1 1/4 cups boiling water and let stand for 10 minutes.  Measure the masa harina and stir until thoroughly homogeneous.  Cover and cool to room temperature.

Third Step:  Prepare the dough.  

4 oz. (1/2 cup) good-quality, fresh lard
1 recipe Masa Fingida para Tamales (above)
About 2/3 cup broth (preferably light flavored poultry) at room temperature
1 tsp baking powder
Salt, about 1/2 tsp

1.  If the lard is very soft, refrigerate it to firm a little.  Then, with an electric mixer, beat it until very light, about 1 minute.
2.  Add half the masa to the lard and beat it until well blended.  As you continue beating, alternate additions of the remaining masa with douses of broth, adding enough liquid to give the mixture the consistency of a medium-thick cake batter.
3.  Sprinkle in the baking powder and enough salt to generously season the mixture, then beat for a minute more, until about 1/2 tsp of it will float when placed in a cup of cold water.

Fourth Step:  Set up the steamer for the tamales.  If you are steaming less than 20 tamales, you can steam them in a collapsible vegetable steamer in a large, deep saucepan.  (Erin's note: My large stockpot came with a steamer, and I use this.  It's a little small, but it works.)  Line the steamer with extra husks to protect the tamales from direct steam contact and to add more flavor.  Make sure that there are small openings for drainage, so condensing steam will not pool.

Fifth Step:  When ready to form the tamales, separate out the 16 largest and most pliable husks - ones that are at least 6 inches across on the wider end and 6 or 7 inches long.  You can overlap smaller ones if necessary.  Pat the chosen leaves dry with a towel.

Tear extra and extra husk or two into 1/4 inch wide, 7 inch long strips - one for each tamal.  

Sixth Step:  The filling.  I think this step should have occurred earlier in the process, but I already had the filling from the tinga poblana I made earlier in the week.  Tamales can be filled with pretty much anything you want, in my opinion.  Some of my favorites are chicken with green sauce, poblano chile and cheese, and pork in red sauce.  So, you should have some sort of filling ready by this point.

Seventh Step:  To form the tamales in the cornhusks, lay out a large, lightly dried cornhusk with the tapering end toward you.  Spread about 3 Tbsp dough into an about 4 inch square, leaving at least a 1 1/2 inch border on the side toward you and a 3/4 inch border along the other sides (with large husks, the borders will be much bigger).  

Spoon the filling, about 1 1/2 Tbsp, down the center of the dough.

Pick up the two long sides of the cornhusk and bring them together (this will cause the dough to surround the filling).  If the uncovered borders of the two long sides you're holding are narrow, then tuck one side under the other; if wide, then roll both sides in the same direction around the tamal.  If the husk is small, wrap the tamal in a second husk.  Finally, fold up the empty 1 1/2 inch section of the husk (to form a tightly closed "bottom" leaving the top open), then secure it in place by loosely tying one of the strips of husk around the tamal.

As they are made, stand the tamales on the folder bottom in the prepared steamer.  Don't tie the tamales too tightly or pack them too closely in the steamer; they need room to expand.

Eighth Step:  When all the tamales are in the steamer, cover them with a layer of leftover husks; if your husk-wrapped tamales don't take up the entire steamer, fill in the open spaces with loosely wadded aluminum foil to keep them from falling down.  Set the lid in place and steam over a constant medium heat for about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.  Watch carefully that all the water doesn't boil away and, the keep the steam steady, pour boiling water into the pot when more is necessary.

Tamales are done when the husk peels away easily; tamales made with the substitute masa may seem a little sticky when they are done.  Let tamales stand in the steamer off the fire for a few minutes, to firm up.

Once the tamales are done, I like to put a little salsa or hot sauce on them then eat them.

I have so much more to say about tamales, but this post is already ridiculously long, so I will stop here.

Bon appetit.


  1. It will not surprise you to learn that I have never eaten tamales. Ever. But! They look so pretty in their cute little packages!

    And I find it disproportionately hilarious that lard does indeed come in a tub.

  2. Oh, you would LOVE them! And you can get really simple ones, like cheese and chile ones. I would even make them for you with just green bell peppers :)

    I agree completely about the tub of lard.

  3. Awww thanks! :-)

    Speaking of green bell peppers, I found a way to replicate almost identically the Mongolian Grill I ate pretty much every day during sophomore year. So now I eat that pretty much every day.