How It All Started

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the e...

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tamale Tradition

NOTE: This is an all-day recipe! (Also, see vegetarian option below.)

As we mentioned in the Texas entry on our Celebrating the States blog a couple of years ago, tamales were an integral part of the South Texas experience that we somehow missed when we lived there. We did enjoy much of the culinary bounty there, but somehow missed this New Year's tradition until we had moved far, far away.

Once we realized the error of our ways, we made tamales a New Year's Eve tradition with friends, so that it is now a vieja receta (old recipe) for our household. This year we had our feast about a month late, and also realized that we had not yet posted it on this blog, those we have posted several other items related to tamales. These include sensual tamale tortillas (last Valentine's dinner), a radio report on the Tuscon Tamale Company (which we have not visited yet), and Central American nacatamales. This week, however, the focus is on our version of the classic tamale

The recipe we use won a contest in Texas Co-op Power magazine a number of years ago. The recipe itself is not on the magazine web site, though a special tamale-based cornbread dressing is, and these tamales could be an ingredient in that ambitious dish.


Not exactly an ingredient, but essential to this process is some kind of vessel in which the tamales can be suspended above boiling water for steam. We are fortunate to have a very serious pasta pot. The insert is designed to work as a colander, but works beautifully as a steamer. 

The most critical ingredient is a few dozen corn husks, which might be the most difficult item to find. Identify a source before you invite people over. In Brockton, Price Rite is a reliable source; other markets sometimes have them as well. Soak them overnight in warm water, to start the tamales the next morning. Because they float, I put them in a big bowl with a small bowl on top.

For the filling
2-3 pounds chicken thighs (or 2 pounds ground pork or beef)
3 tablespoons cooking oil (I used Lebherz chipotle olive oil this time)
1/4 cup flour
2 beef bullion cubes (I have done this in the past, but since I used chicken and had no beef bullion on hand, I improvised with broth from boiling the thighs)
1/2 cup canned green chilies, chopped (this year I chopped one fresh Anaheim pepper; a poblano would also be good)
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons salt (I skip this, as I do salt in most recipes)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2-3 tablespoons ground chili pepper (never quite sure what to do with this, I just use a bit of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon chili powder (I use more)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 cup tomato sauce (I use a bit more)
1/4 teaspoon Cayenne pepper

For the masa dough
1.5 cups Crisco (Recipe calls for lard, which is authentic but not necessary. Do not melt the lard or Crisco, but if it is very cold, it will be difficult to mix.)
4-1/2 cups masa harina (corn meal)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt (I do use this, since it is dough and salt is often a critical ingredient)
2-2/3 cups warm water

To prepare filling, boil the chicken until very tender. I keep the skin on to help form the broth. Then drain and use two forks to shred, discarding the bones and skin. (For ground pork or beef, just proceed to the next step.)

Brown in oil in a large, indispensable cast-iron skillet and add minced garlic. Sprinkle flour over the meat and  then add 2 cups water with bullion or 2 cups of broth. Heat mixture while stirring in remaining ingredients in listed order; cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Uncover and continue simmering if necessary to ensure it is not too soupy. During that time, prepare the masa.

Vegetarian option: Because our daughter is a vegetarian, I always modify the recipe above to make some soy-crumble tamales for her. In a separate, smaller skillet, I brown some Morningstar soy crumble while I'm browning the chicken. I then divide all of the other ingredients (except for the chicken broth -- I use veggie broth) proportionally, adding about 1/4 of each ingredient to the vegetarian pan. I then assemble them and position them in the top of the steamer. Of course, the whole recipe could be made vegetarian in this way.

To prepare masa, beat the Crisco (or lard) with salt until fluffy. Mix in the masa harina and warm water, beating until very thoroughly mixed. It will be a somewhat crumbly dough.

To assemble, (next year I'll take some photos and a video at this stage) move the dishes around to create a logical lineup, like you are Henry Ford. I start by moving the skillet to the counter, putting the steamer (with water in the bottom) on the stove top, and putting the bowl of masa nearby. Closest to the stove, I put a plate I have stacked the softened, drained corn husks.

Then, I spread out each husk and coat it with a thin (maybe 1/8-inch) layer of masa, using a spoon and or my thoroughly-washed hands. I then spoon a thin strip of filling down the center of the husk. I roll one side of the husk over this carefully, so that the masa mostly covers the filling, then I fold up the narrow end of the husk, then I keep rolling to make a little package that is closed at one end. Some of the filling may be visible, but it should mostly be inside the masa and definitely inside the husk.

I then arrange the assembled tamales in the steamer. The recipe says I should be able to make 6 dozen, but I am always closer to 25 or 30, about 5 layers of 5-6 each.

Once assembled, I heat the pot until the water in the bottom boils. I used my water-proof camera to document the steaming process, which should last at least 1-1/2 hours. Perhaps because my tamales are a bit thick, I recommend 2-1/2 hours.

I had not softened enough corn husks for all of the filling and masa I had prepared, so I made tamale pies with the remainder. I simply put all the "extra" filling in the bottom of loaf pans and covered with masa. I baked these at 350 for about an hour. They were splendid leftovers!

This year I started a new tradition, which was to prepare manioc, also known as in the Caribbean as yucca and elsewhere as cassava or mandioca or tapioca -- as one of the side dishes. (Black beans were another, and home-brewed ale was another). Manioc is a root vegetable similar to potatoes, but grown in lowland tropics. It is among the most common foods in the world, but not well known in the United States. In our area, it is increasingly available in some of the larger supermarkets, even in West Bridgewater!

To prepare this, I cut the root into 3-4 inch lengths, and cut a slit in the bark-like skin along one side. This allowed me to peel the root; I then then quartered each piece. We are very fortunate that our large pasta pot includes a small steaming basket in addition to the main basket, so I was able to cook these at the same time. The result is the bland, stringy food that is a staple worldwide; it benefits from hot sauce, and from its pairing with the spicier tamales.

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