Cookin' With Carol: Hot Tamales!
by Carol Ritchie
The holiday season is a time for sharing. And what better way is there to share good times with family and friends than memorable moments in the kitchen and around the dinner table? Food is always a good excuse for a gathering of loved ones.
While holiday treats like pies and cookies keep countertops full and ovens hot, you’ll need to schedule a special time for a holiday tradition that is sure to entice every curious cook and eager eater in your home. Many Mexican households enjoy the tradition of tamale-making during the holiday season. Because of the quantity prepared, everyone is encouraged to participate, not only to make the workload lighter and expedite the process, but mostly so that everyone enjoys a fun, family-time experience. And now, this tradition is quickly becoming a holiday favorite in many Texas households—and certainly, in many more homes across the nation, as well.
Making tamales at home is time-consuming and involves several steps of preparation, but it is not difficult. And in the end, the enjoyable moments spent with family and friends—and the tasty results—are more than worth the time and effort to prepare these delectable morsels. Depending on your ambitiousness and well-planned preparations, you’ll end up with a freezer full of tamales to enjoy for months to come. Or you’ll have a lot of happy friends that will enjoy your culinary efforts when you offer the best gift of food from your kitchen. So let’s get started!
There are several steps to making tamales. There are important ingredients to use. And there are a few key pieces of equipment to have on hand. We’ll go through the details, but first, for the process, here are the steps:
1) Cook the meat and prepare the filling.
2) Soak the corn husks and prepare the masa.
3) Prepare the tamales.
4) Steam the tamales.
5) Prepare the chile sauce.
Ingredients include a choice of meat for the filling, spices (including chili powder and cumin), lard, garlic, masa harina and dried corn husks. Important equipment includes a Dutch oven or Crockpot to slowly braise the meat, a large skillet to cook the filling and a large stockpot (with a steamer rack) to steam the tamales. A large bowl to mix the masa, and flat, plastic spatulas to spread the masa on corn husks are recommended, as well.
Pork is traditionally used for the tamale filling. Braising is a slow, moist method of cooking that helps to keep the meat moist, and offers a very tender cooked product for the tamale filling. Cooked chicken is a popular substitute, if preferred. The preparation is very similar, except that the chicken does not need to cook as long.
Choose a seven- to eight-pound pork butt roast (or a three- to four-pound chicken) for the tamale filling. Using a large Dutch oven on the stove, or a large Crockpot, add the meat and water to cover. Also add 3 cloves minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt, chili powder, and ground cumin and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Bring the water to a boil (or set to low on Crockpot), reduce the heat to low, and cook, covered, for five to six hours (or if using chicken, for 1 hour), until the meat is tender.
Remove the meat from the bones and shred the meat using two forks. Reserve the meat for the Tamale Filling. Strain the remaining broth from cooking and reserve it for the Masa. Keep in mind that the eight-pound pork roast will make enough filling for about eight dozen tamales. A four-pound chicken will make enough filling for about four dozen tamales. So it’s basically a dozen tamales per pound of uncooked meat.
Once the meat is cooked, it is an easy matter to prepare the tamale filling. For easy recipe scaling, here is what you’ll need for two dozen tamales: 1 1/2 cups shredded cooked meat, 1 tablespoon lard, 1 clove minced garlic, 3 teaspoons chili powder, 1/2 teaspoon sugar and salt and pepper to taste. (If you start with an eight-pound roast, you’ll need to multiply these ingredients by four.) Although the meat is prepared with a moist-cooking method, a tiny bit of additional fat is needed to keep the filling moist. Lard is preferred—and it is just a small amount—but vegetable oil can substitute.
Heat a large skillet on medium temperature. Add lard (or oil), shredded cooked meat and minced garlic. Cook on medium for 15 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and cook for an additional 15 minutes. If needed, add a small amount of extra water, broth or lard to keep the filling moist. Taste the filling and correct the seasonings to your taste, as desired. Reserve the tamale filling for Tamales.
Masa is the corn flour dough that surrounds the tamale filling. It is a simple preparation, but the ingredients are important, starting with masa harina—a corn tortilla mix—the “dough flour” that, when reconstituted, is masa. Masa harina is available in Latin and specialty markets, but it is generally available in most groceries now, as well. You’ll also need a few other ingredients and a large bowl. To keep with the two-dozen-tamales scaling noted above (for the filling), measure 1 1/2 cups masa harina, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon chili powder into the mixing bowl. Mix well and blend in 6 tablespoons lard (or vegetable shortening), using a fork or pastry blender gadget, until the mixture is crumbly. Gradually add 1 cup of the reserved lukewarm broth (from cooking the meat), stirring with a fork until the mixture resembles buttercream frosting. Reserve the masa for the tamales prep.
So far, the prep has been a matter of mixing together the components for the tamales. Now is the time to gather family and friends, pass out aprons and get to the tamale assembly line! Make sure everyone has a work station at a table or at the kitchen counter. Use cutting boards, trays, or simply newspaper to cover each work space on the countertop for easy clean up. Give each participant a spoon and a flat, plastic spatula. If there aren’t enough flat spatulas to go around, spoons, butter knives or offset spatulas also work well. You’ll need to start soaking dried corn husks in water, as well. (Find packaged corn husks in produce sections of most groceries. A one-pound package should provide enough husks for several-dozen tamales.)
You’ll also need a stockpot and a steamer rack to cook the tamales. There is no need for heavy, expensive cookware for this procedure. Any large, inexpensive stockpot and a folding vegetable steamer gadget will do. A specialty tamale steamer pot is inexpensive and designed like a stockpot with a steamer tray included inside. With the reserved tamale filling, a batch of masa, and submerged corn husks at hand—and your ready-and-willing kitchen prep guests raring to go—let’s make Tamales! (see recipe for details and cooking directions)
While the tamales are steaming, prepare a simple Chile Sauce to serve. In a saucepan, combine 4 cups beef broth (or strained broth from the braised pork or chicken), 5 tablespoons chili powder, 1 clove minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. In a small bowl, mix together 3 tablespoons cornstarch with 4 tablespoons water. Add cornstarch mixture to the broth and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened. Keep this warm to serve as a dipping sauce with hot tamales!
A Filling Fiesta!
While pork filling may be traditional, and chicken filling is a delicious alternative, don’t feel limited by those choices. You can fill tamales with whatever you desire! Choose your favorite meats or seafood, or for vegetarian options, use beans or vegetables. A delicious black bean filling combines chopped onion, bell pepper, and garlic in a skillet over medium heat (with 1 tablespoon vegetable oil) for 2 to 3 minutes. Add a can (15 ounces) of black beans (drained and rinsed), 2 tablespoons canned chopped green chilies, 1/2 teaspoon each of chili powder and ground cumin and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Allow mixture to cool and stir in 1/2 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese (optional). Use about 1 to 2 tablespoons of the black bean filling per tamale. This makes about two dozen tamales.
A mixed vegetable filling is equally easy to prepare in a similar method. In addition to onion, bell pepper and garlic, use a combination of fresh vegetables (zucchini, mushrooms, carrots and broccoli) for a delightful veggie tamale. And don’t forget dessert! Use a favorite pie filling—with seasonal ingredients, such as pumpkin, apples or cranberries—to fill tamales for a special holiday dessert treat. Simply adjust the masa to include 1/2 cup brown sugar (and perhaps a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg) for a sweet tamale dough. Depending on the chosen filling, serve dessert tamales with a fruit, caramel or chocolate sauce on the side.
The Tamales Tradition
Tamales aren’t just a matter of good eats. Tamales are tradition. Whether it will be a new one, or it has been a long-cherished tradition in your family, this is one delicious tradition to share. The holiday season is the perfect time for making tamales, when everyone gathers for fun family activities. The more the merrier! Making tamales at home satisfies far beyond the meal. It creates many fun and fond memories for families and friends to enjoy and remember far beyond the holiday season.
Makes about 2 dozen tamales
30 to 35 dried corn husks, soaked in water for
1 batch masa *
1 1/2 cups tamale filling *
chile sauce to serve with tamales *
* see above for component preparation directions
Remove a corn husk from the water and shake off excess water. With the wide end of the husk facing you, place the husk flat on your work space (or in the palm of your hand). Using a flat, plastic spatula or the back of a spoon, spread about 2 tablespoons of the masa thinly and evenly from the center of the husk all the way to the edge facing you, leaving a one-inch border (of husk) on the sides (and no masa toward the pointed end of the husk). Place a tablespoon of the tamale filling in the center of the masa. Fold the left side of the husk over to the right, then wrap the right edge over the left, closing the tamale. Fold the (empty) pointed end toward the (filled) open end, essentially folding the corn husk in half. Set the tamale aside and repeat with remaining ingredients. For a delightful presentation, tear a [soaked] corn husk into thin strips and use husk strips to tie around the center of the wrapped tamales.
Place a folding vegetable steamer rack in the bottom of a large stockpot (or use a tamale pot with rack), add water so that it fills to just below the rack, and line the steamer rack with 5 to 10 flat corn husks. Stand the tamales on end, with the open end up, on the steamer rack inside the stockpot. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. Cover the tamales loosely with a damp, clean, white kitchen towel and cover the stockpot with the lid. Let the tamales steam over medium heat for 1 hour. Carefully remove the stockpot lid and using tongs, remove a tamale. Replace the lid and let the “test tamale” cool for 3 minutes to check the consistency. The tamales are done when the masa does not stick to the husks. If the “test tamale” is done, carefully remove the stockpot lid and the kitchen towel. (If it is not done, return it to the pot and allow the tamales to cook for a few minutes longer and test once again.) Let the tamales cool slightly before serving. Serve tamales in the husks, but make sure to instruct guests to peel off the husks before eating! Serve with chile sauce on the side. Enjoy!
(Notes: Freeze cooked tamales for up to 6 months. Use the microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes to reheat frozen tamales in the husks.)
Cookin' With Carol introduces hot tamales in the November-December edition of Mansfield Magazine. Check out these fine compliments and local Mansfield/South Arlington offerings. Read More »