¡Tamales, Parte Uno!

by Megg

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A NOTE BEFORE I BEGIN: Sorry for the delay on posting.. I’ve been working on getting the tamales post ready for a while, and there’s a lot there. So I finally have decided (because I don’t want to bore you with the longest post ever, nor do I want to lose my mind writing about tamales) that I’m going to have 3 different posts. This first one will talk about tamales in general, talk about getting started, and how to prep the first filling. The 2nd post will have the other two fillings, and the 3rd will wrap it all up (literally) by explaining how to assemble and cook your tamales. Alright, back to your regularly scheduled post:


Random days off are not so good for the ol’ bank account, but can be pretty nice for cooking. A friend and I both happened to have last Wednesday off, so we decided to finally make the tamales we’d been talking about. And before I even get into this, let me say, it’s a pretty good idea to have the whole day clear if you’re lookin’ to make tamales from scratch.
I hope all of you have been fortunate enough to enjoy the comfort-food goodness of tamales.. Tasty filling inside a warm corn dough, all nestled inside a leafy wrapper and steamed to perfection. I’m willing to bet my fellow Chicagoans are very familar; in my neighborhood, tamale stands are at every major corner, and the infamous “Tamale Guy” seems almost omnipresent in Chicago, popping up at all sorts of places with warm, delicious tamales in tow. (There’s even a Twitter page for tracking him down!)

Actually, tamales have a lot more to do with Chicago than I realized, until I saw the No Reservations Chicago episode. Funny thing is, I’ve never even seen or heard of the weird paper-wrapped, tube-shaped tamales that are apparently famous (and have been for over 100 years) in Chicago, especially the south side. I guess I’ll consider myself lucky, because they don’t sound nearly as good as what I’m used to.
Tamales are by no means the most exciting food in the world, but they’re really great now-and-then, especially if you need a little comfort food (or if you’re nursing a hangover). And even though I can easily walk a block or two and pick up a bunch for about 70¢ each, it was really fun to make them from scratch.

Seeing as we were both new to makin’ tamales, we got our inspiration from Mexico One Plate at a Time by another Chicagoan, Rick Bayless.

Getting Started
The Mighty Tamal Steamer
First thing you need is a tamale steamer. Bayless mentions you can also use one of those collapsible veggie steamers inside of a stock pot, but, at least in Chicago, the tamale steamer wasn’t hard to find, nor was it expensive. Ours was a mere $20, and the steamer tray comes out, so now we have that giant stock pot we’d been meaning to buy.

Next you need corn husks. You should be able to find these at Latin markets. Soak them in a bowl of hot water with something on top of them (another bowl, a pot, a plate) to weigh them down and keep them submerged. They need to soak for a few hours so they get pliable. We put ours in water at the beginning of the day, before we’d gone shopping for all the ingredients and made everything else, so they were probably soaking for a good 7 hours at least.

You’re not limited to just corn husks, though. The recipe for pork tamales in Bayless’ book had them wrapped in banana leaves. I’d never heard of such tamales, and didn’t even think I was going to make them, but as we strolled through the mercado I saw some in the freezer section and grabbed ’em. If you can find them, I’d suggest trying them as they definitely lend a different flavor to the tamales than the corn husks.

Banana Leaves Softening Banana Leaves

Banana leaves are very large (when I took them of the package and unfolded them, I was surprised to see that if I held them up, they were taller than me!). Cut off the ridge on the sides of them, and then cut them into sections about a foot in length, making sure to avoid any rips or holes in the leaves. Then, one at a time, pass them over a flame (I just turned on one of the burners on my stove) and you’ll see them soften change to a dark, glossy green. Here’s a photo of the difference, with the raw leaf on the left and the softened one on the right.
Banana Leaf Comparison
Literally just move them across the flame a few times with smooth, constant movement… don’t hold them there or they might burn (or catch fire… eek!). Bayless says you can also steam them for 20 minutes until they get soft, but I found the flame method to be pretty easy and very effective.

One more note about the husks and leaves: if you have ones that are ripped, too small, or otherwise unusable for wrapping, still hold on to them! You can use them to line the steamer tray when you are cooking the tamales.

Next up: masa. That’s the cornmeal dough used for making tamales (as well as various other Latin staples such as tortillas, arepas, etc). I couldn’t find fresh masa so I got the dried masa harina. All you have to do is reconstitute it with some hot water and it’s ready to go. You’re also going to need a lot of pork lard for the dough (I found some at the meat counter at the mercado) or veggie shortening, if you prefer.

Tamal Fillings

You can fill tamales with whatever you want. We wanted to do some chicken, some pork, and some cheese. The book has a recipe for a red chile pork filling and a green chile chicken filling, so we went with those, as well as a cheese and poblano filling.

Basic Tamal Dough
Mixing the Tamal Dough
Alright, let’s get to an actual recipe. Once you’ve prepped your husks/leaves, it’s time to make the dough! Here’s a link to Rick Bayless’ website with his recipe for Basic Tamal Dough.
The batter recipe on that link is really straightforward, and I don’t think I deviated from it in the slightest, which is why I’m not going to rewrite it. He also tells you how to set up your steamer and how to assemble your tamales, but I’ll go over that in more detail in part 3. You may notice there are links on that recipe for the fillings I mentioned, but they are actually simplified versions of what’s in his book, and I’m not known for doing the simplified version of anything (sigh..). However, for people who don’t have the weird compulsion to make everything from scratch like me, feel free to use pre-made salsa! Tamales take a while to make so it’s a great way to save some time and have a few less ingredients cluttering your kitchen counter.
The batter recipe mentions that you can refrigerate the dough for about an hour and then rebeat it to achieve a lighter texture. I did this and it worked nicely… plus I needed to make the fillings, so I just put it in the fridge in the meantime.

Cheese and Poblano Tamal Filling

Tamal Fillings - Poblano and Cheese
This one is really straightforward, but it’s a start for today (I’ll get to the chicken and pork in the next installment). This recipe should make enough filling for about 20-25 tamales.

2 1/2 to 3 cups of shredded queso quesadilla (or other soft melting cheese)
3 poblano peppers, cut into strips (about 2″ x 1/4″)

…And that’s basically it. You don’t even need to mix them together… it’s easier to assemble the tamales when they’re separate. You could add a little salsa to the mix, but I’m a fan of just the cheese and the peppers, plain and simple.
This is the only vegetarian filling that I used, but remember, if you’re looking to make actual vegetarian tamales, you need to use vegetable shortening in the batter instead of pork lard.

One last note: You may have noticed that sometimes I’m saying tamal and sometimes tamale. If you want to be accurate, tamal is the correct singular form, but everyone I know (the gringos at least) say tamale to mean just one. I’m making it extra fun by going back and forth between the two… but just know I mean the same thing.

Alright, that’s it for parte uno. The 2nd installment will tell you how to make the pork and chicken fillings. I’m sure your anticipation is intense… ^_^

Continue to part two!

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