recipeNotes: Tamales are made with masa (corn dough) bought at tortillerfas. They are also prepared the modern way: with masa made with masa barina (treated corn flour purchased at supermarkets) and reconstituted with water. Masa is beaten with shortening until fluffy, then spread on aromatic leaves and topped with a filling. The leaves are folded and the packages steamed. Tamales made with coarse masa and wrapped in dried corn husks are the tamales of choice in northern Mexico.
The difference between corn dough for tortillas and corn dough for tamales is texture. Tortillas are made from finely ground corn dough so the delicate pancakes can be thinly pressed. Tamales are made with two masa grinds: Tamales wrapped in banana leaves (southern-style) are made with the same finely ground corn dough as tortillas. After they are steamed, the dough texture is smooth and delicate, similar to that of thick pasta. Tamales wrapped in corn husks (northern-style) are made with coarsely ground corn dough, so after the tamales steam, they have the fluffy, coarse texture of muffins. Traditional tamales have freshly rendered lard beaten into the dough for taste and fluffiness. Substitute butter. Vegetable shortening works fine, but add salsa or herbs to the shortening for great flavor. Also, a long mixing time ensures fluffy tamales. Tamales are just as heavenly refrigerated and reheated as they are fresh. They also freeze successfully. Reheat frozen tamales for about 20 minutes in a steamer. Leftovers, with wrappings removed, sliced and pan sauteed until crispy brown, are nothing’short of one of life’s small miracles.
Make tamales as spicy as you wish by the type of chile you add to the filling. Serve tamales with a hot table salsa and Crema (page 49).
Yield.- about 25 medium tamales
Tamales made with Coarsely Ground Masa and Wrapped in Husks (Tamales Norteños)
Yields 25 medium tamales
For the corn husks:
1 8-ounce package dried corn husks (found in many supermarkets, Latino markets, or by mail order)
1. Remove the largest dried leaves and rinse. Don’t open the centers of the husks or your sink will be full of corn silk. Cover the leaves with boiling water in a large pot and soak for 1 hour, or until they are pliable. Weight the leaves down with a water-filled bowl to keep them submerged
2. Use only the largest leaves for wrapping tamales-there are more than enough in a package. Tear smaller leaves into strips to use as ribbons to tie tamales closed, if desired.
For the dough:
1 1/3 cups butter or vegetable shortening
2 pounds (about 4 cups) coarsely ground masa from a tortilleria (not masa preparada because it has fat incorporated), or masa made from 4 cups coarse mesa harina and 4 cups Vegetable Broth (page 90) or warm water (2 pounds masa makes about 25 medium sized tamales)
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 Tablespoons dried Mexican oregano
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
For the filling:
Prepare a filling before beginning the dough. The list is almost limitless-let your imagination run wild after you’ve tried a few basics such as a simple smear of Adobo (page 43). Fresh corn kernels are sensational with glazed onions for an easy, nonspicy filling; tomatillo salsa and cheese is classic;
nopales or green beans and roasted garlic is extraordinary, with Mexican oregano mixed into the masa. Chopped grilled vegetables make a fabulous stuffing; a piece of Monterey Jack cheese and a strip of toasted fresh chile is another; chopped olives, capers, raisins, and chipotle chile salsa; black beans seasoned with hoja Santa or epazote; toasted chile strips and garlic slices caramelized in olive oil; or saut6ed wild mushrooms with Basic Cooked Tomatillo Salsa (page 34) are a few suggestions.
1. Whip the butter or vegetable shortening until it is fluffy and aerated, 5 minutes with a mixer, three times as long by hand with fast folding motions.
2. Add the masa, a handful at a time, with the baking powder, oregano, and salt. Mix well and continue to mix. If the mixture becomes too thick, add up to 1/2 cup tepid broth or water. This step takes at least io minutes; you will feel the masa become light and fluffy with a spongy texture. The prepared masa is now ready to be spread onto leaves and topped with a filling.
1. Place a large, soaked husk on the table (sides curling inward) and, with a spatula, smear 1/4 to X cup masa over the wide end from side to side and about halfway to the pointed end. Many people “”glue”” 2 husks together with a smear of masa to increase the tamale size. (Hey, it’s okay to be messy-they’ll still be delicious.)
2. Place a generous tablespoon of filling in the center of the masa toward the wide end. Fold the right edge over to the center, then roll toward the left third. Flap the narrow end over to the wide end, leaving the end open (this is the easiest tamale-making system). For other tamale shapes, you may tie the middle, end (or ends, depending on the shape you choose) with ribbons of husk from the smaller soaked leaves cut into 1/4-inch strips. For an envelope shape: Place masa and filling on the center of a husk, leaving the edges clean; fold the right side to the center, then the left side to the center; fold each end to the center, overlapping, and tie with a husk ribbon around the middle. Rolled tamales look good: Spread the masa and filling in the center of a husk, then roll up the long way. Tie both ends. Place finished tamales in a bowl, open ends up, until ready to steam.
To set up a steamer:
Almost every tamale in Mexico is cooked by steaming.
Tamalerias are large metal steamers made especially for cooking tamales. They look like tall stockpots. A shelf with holes for stacking tamales is placed on the bottom over an inch or two of boiling water. An opening under the shelf, on the outside of the pot, is for adding additional boiling water so the lid doesn’t have to be removed during the cooking process. Some alternatives, if you have no tamaleria: an Asian bamboo steamer; stainless steel vegetable steamer, opened flat, in a wide pot; or three water-filled tunafish cans or custard cups at the bottom of a wide pot with a nonfragile plate on top, with enough room for steam to escape along the sides. In any metal steamer, drop a few coins in the wateryou know there’s water in a metal steamer as long as you can hear the coins rattling.
1. Pour water into the steamer. Be sure the water does not touch the rack. Lay any remaining husks on the rack to keep the tamales from sticking to it. If the tamale ends are open, arrange them vertically in the steamer so the masa doesn’t fall out. Arrange other tamales horizontally and overlapping so steam can pass around each.
2. Cover the steamer tightly and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and steam for about 1 hour. Check the water level after 45 minutes, but do not remove the cover before then. Add boiling water if necessary.
3. Remove a tamale from the center of the steamer to see if it is done-the masa should pull away from the husk easily and be firm. Let the tamales rest for io minutes before serving. As with all tamales, peel away and discard the husks, then eat.