Tamales are one of the great treats of Mexican cuisine.
During my years as a teacher at the University in Puebla, I would freqeuently stop in the morning at the corner to pick one up (or maybe two!) with a steaming cup of atole, a hot, sweet breakfast drink.
There are different kinds of tamal: everything from shredded chicken and salsa verde to chile and tomato. There are even sweet tamales and ones filled with pastry cream.
Preparation is not difficult, but it is a project. Plan to make them over a couple of days: the first to prepare the filling, and the second to assemble and steam them.
There are a few tips, however. First, if you are lucky enough to live near a tortilleria where fresh tamale dough is available, buy it! Just make sure that you are getting the tamal dough and not the masa para tortillas.
Next, just admit that you aren't going to lose any weight with this dish and refuse to skimp on the fat! This is important for two reasons. First, the fat adds flavor. This is especially true when making savory tamales that call for manteca or lard made from rendered pork fat. Second, because the fat is whipped into a fluffy consistency before being combined with the dough, it produces a tamal that is light and flavorful.
Basic Recipe for Masa or "Dough"
- package of dried corn husks soaked in water for at least 2 hours before using
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup shortening (lard or vegetable shortening)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 2 cups store-bought, prepared masa or 2 cups masa harina (dried masa flour) plus up to one cup hot water
- 2/3 cups good chicken broth
Preparing the Dough
- If using dried masa harina, divide the flour in two equal parts. Then add the hot water to one half. Mix until combined. Then pour in the second cup of dry flour. Mix well.
- In a stand mixer, beat the lard and baking powder until light and fluffy
- Gradually add the masa and warm chicken broth, mixing until the mixture is soft and maleable.
- Add salt to taste
- Check the dough by placing a small amount in a glass of water. It should rise to the top. If not, beat a little more.
- Place the dough in the refrigerator for about an hour. When you remove it, check again for consistency and flavor.
Tamales can be filled with all kinds of things. We've discovered that it's a great way to recycle leftovers. I've even made them with pulled pork and BBQ sauce. Here are some standards.
Chicken and Salsa Verde
Take the meat from 2 large chicken breasts. Roasted is best, but boiled (in stock) will do. Shred the meat into thin stands. Fill with shredded chicken and moisten with a 2 TBS or so of salsa verde (fresh or cooked).
Rajas - Chile and Tomato
Remove the seeds and white membrane from 4-6 jalapeno peppers. Be sure to pick ones that are plump with smooth, bright green skins. Parboil 6-8 plum tomatoes to remove skins and seeds. Saute quickly together in a little cooking oil until the peppers become fork-tender. Add a little salt to taste.
Mole - Meat with Chocolate Sauce
Rather than make mole from scratch, which is a true labor of love, use a good commercial mole paste such as Dona Maria. Make plenty so you have some on hand for garnish. Prepare according to the instrcutions.
Fill with shredded meat: chicken as above, or pork or beef.
For a real treat, make with shredded turkey. This is very traditional and a great way to use up leftovers from the holidays. When finished, arrange on a plate and pour the reserved mole over the top. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
Assembling and Cooking
The assembly process is simple enough once you've got the knack for it, but it is a bit hard to explain. The following video from Merrilee Jacobs will show you exactly how it's done.
(There's a 13 second ad before the video begins, but sit tight, it's worth the wait.)
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