I remember growing up and my parents would speak Spanish when they did not want us know what they were saying. Well, you know what … it worked. There was a joke I remember from that time, where I would be asked, “how do you say taco or tamale in Spanish?” I have looked up both words in a few Spanish/English dictionaries and you know what, these words have no translation. That is because they are the same in both English and Spanish, but when you’re 5 or 7 years old, it can be quite confusing. I now ask my two nephews (who are both learning Spanish) the same question and they are equally perplexed.
Food-wise, I have never fully embraced my Hispanic heritage, I am sorry to say. So, I now find myself in my 50’s thinking maybe it is time to learn how to cook all the great Hispanic dishes. Tamales are something I really never tackled, because let’s face it, it’s easier and cheaper to go buy the 1 or 2 dozen we need for our holiday celebration. Plus, you can get 1 or 2 flavors, not to mention the delicious sweet ones. The one time I really worked on tamales, I was about 10 or 12, working in my mother’s best friend Darlene’s kitchen, and we assembled the tamales. There were 5 of us—2 adults, my younger sister, and our best friend Michelle helping. It was work, basically an assembly line, and it took us pretty much all day to finish. I love cooking and baking, I do it for a living now, but do I want to spend all day doing it? That would be, NO, but spending all day with friends and family—those are memories that will make it worth it. I remember that day very clearly and it was a fun day with little masa here and a little masa there and a little mess everywhere, but good times.
Tamales date back to pre-Columbian times. No matter what you are filling them with, you first start with ‘masa para tamales,” (corn dough for tamales). The masa harina, which is a corn flour made from dried masa, can be found in most Mexican groceries. The second ingredient is fresh lard (I know, trans fat), but it is soft enough to trap air when beaten, which causes the dough to expand when it’s steamed. Vegetable shorting or butter can be used in substitution. In my research for this article, I am finding “air” is the 3rd most important ingredient for keeping the tamales light. Airy dough produces fluffy tamales; so beat the dough for at least 20 minutes using a paddle, not a whisk. This traps the air in the dough, which forces the tamales to expand as they steam, making them light and tender. You could add a little complexity to your dough by adding fresh herbs, (oregano, cilantro or basil). Puréed pumpkin or sweet potato could be added for flavor.
The majority of us have had tamales using cornhusks, but there are some regions in Mexico (the Gulf Coast) that use banana leaves. The nacatamale is a tamale found in both Nicaragua and Guatemala and made of masa and flavorings that are wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. The hallaca is found in Venezuela and Colombia and made using a similar technique. The humita is a tamale from South America made from fresh corn. The native Indians of Mexico regarded corn as a gift from the gods. The belief was: how else could they have come by such a versatile food if not from the gods? It is so hardy, adaptable and able to flourish in all the different climates and soils of the country. Every part of an ear of corn is used in the Mexican culture, the husks for wrapping tamales, the silk in medicines, the kernels for food and the stalks for animal feed.
When you buy the cornhusks, make sure they have an even coloring and no holes. They should be 5-6” across and 7-8” long. You can use smaller ones to cut strips to tie your tamales. If you just have small ones you can overlap them to make wider ones. It’s going to take about 20 to 30 minutes to rehydrate the cornhusks, pat dry and then you are ready to fill (the fun begins).
Filling possibilities are endless, you can use chicken, black beans, pinto beans, cheese, pork, red meats (smoked, grilled, braised), vegetables, and dried or candied fruit. The experts agree that your tamales should be able to stand on their own with flavor, but adding sauces and salsas are good to have for adding complexity to the flavor, or for increasing the spiciness.
There are different methods to assembling tamales. I think the easiest way is to have a flat workspace, a measuring scoop (about 1/4 cup) and either a soupspoon or flat spatula (the kind you use for cake decoration with no handle). It will take a few attempts to figure out the perfect amount for yours, but once you have that:
Spread the dough over the broadest portion for the husk, leaving about 1 ½ inches of space between the dough and the long sides of the husk.
Fold the long side of the husk firmly, over the dough, up to enclose the filling. Overlap the sides of the husk a little, so the dough is completely enclosed in the husk.
Fold the narrow tapered end of the husk over the lengthwise fold, and then fold the broader end up to overlap the tapered end.
With a piece of string or strip of the cornhusk, firmly tie the tamale closed around the overlapping end.
So now you’re ready to steam and eat or freeze them if making ahead for your big day. When you do steam, stack the tamales upright, making sure no steam escapes. This will ensure tender tamales. Don’t pack them too tightly, allow them space to expand and with about 6 to 10 tamales, you will need about half an hour.
Sounds like a lot of work, but fun if you do it with a group. Remember, good homemade food is love and this is the season we all look forward to, so we can spend time with our friends and family.
¡Feliz Ano Nuevo!
By Chef K. Marie Paulk