One of our favorite days ever occurred several years ago when we gathered with a group at the home of our dear friend Gina–the most accomplished home cook and crafter we know–to learn how to make tamales, the delicious steamed bundles of corn flour dough that are traditional Mexican holiday treats. Wrapped individually in banana leaves or corn husks like little gifts, they are the perfect food to make with a group, and at the end everyone has several pounds of amazing, hand-crafted tamales to take home and freeze for the winter months ahead. We were thrilled to get a second chance at tamale making with Gina just in time for Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Kings’ arrival at the manger to witness the miracle of Jesus’s birth. Traditionally, the person who finds the baby Jesus in the King Cake (try this recipe from our very first post) has to host a party on Dia de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, which falls on February 2, and tamales are the traditional food for that gathering as well. In fact, tamales are consumed throughout the winter holiday season.
All the work of making tamales, and there’s plenty, comes at the front end: ordering and preparing the masa dough, prepping your fillings, and then the careful handiwork of filling and wrapping them. But done with friends, perhaps with some wine and good music in the background, the time passes pleasantly, and the rewards are fantastic. We’ve shared some our favorite fillings and a couple of salsa recipes, but the options are endless.
Masa for Tamales
Adapted from Tamales 101, Rick Bayless, and Tamales by Daniel Hoyer
2½ pounds fresh masa for tamales from a tortilleria: when you order fresh masa be sure to specify “masa for tamales” rather than for tortillas. We ordered ours from Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens http://tortillerianixtamal.com/. They deliver but lunch at their Taqueria is worth the trip. Also, you may want to check that the masa is “unprepared.”“Prepared” masa will already have lard, salt and stock mixed in.
9½ ounces lard, butter, margarine at room temperature (other fats such as olive oil or coconut oil work too)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
Place lard in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat for 2 to 3 minutes.
Gradually add the fresh masa in small increments, mixing thoroughly with each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Once all the masa has been added, very slowly pour in the chicken stock with the mixer on a low setting (it may splatter if you go too fast). Add the salt.
Beat the mixture at a medium speed for three minutes until well whipped. The consistency should be similar to hummus. Keep refrigerated until you are ready to assemble tamales.
Makes approx. 28 tamales: scale up for more–you will want more
Spicy Mushroom Tamales
1 lb. sliced wild mushrooms such as shitake, oyster and cremini
2 poblano peppers
2 ripe tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 small onion, diced
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
½ tsp oregano
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
Roast the tomatoes under the broiler until blackened, about 5 minutes. Flip and roast on other side. Peel and roughly chop. Set aside.
Roast the poblanos over a gas flame or under the broiler until blackened on all sides. Cover with a towel or seal in a paper bag and let sit for 5 minutes. Rub off blackened peel and remove seeds and stem. Roughly chop.
In a large pan heat butter and oil over medium high heat. Add onions and garlic and saute until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms, tomatoes, poblanos and oregano. Cook for about 10 minutes then add broth. Reduce for another 5 minutes, stirring often. Season with salt.
Chicken with Green Mole Pipian
Make a full recipe of our green pumpkin seed mole (Dia de los Muertos, 2016), then mix with meat shredded from one rotisserie chicken.
Panamanian Chicken Filling
2 tbsp olive oil
½ medium yellow onion
1 cup red pepper, diced
1 cup green pepper, diced
1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or canned)
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp dried oregano
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
⅓ cup currants
⅓ cup capers
24-30 spanish olives with pimento
24-30 dried prunes
Sauté the onion and peppers in the olive oil until the onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes and the spices and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces and add them to the pot. Cook, covered, for 20 minutes over medium low heat, turning the chicken pieces after 10 minutes to make sure they cook evenly.
Remove the chicken from the pot and allow to cool slightly. Shred the chicken and remove any cartilage. Return the shredded chicken to the pot. Over medium low heat, add the currants and capers and cook until the currants hydrate slightly and any excess liquid is reduced. When filling tamales, place one olive and one prune at opposite ends.
Red Chile-Braised Pork Filling
10 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
10 garlic cloves
2 canned chipotles in adobo sauce
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon dried oregano
3 lbs boneless pork shoulder
Using tongs, briefly toast the guajillo chiles over an open flame or in a cast-iron skillet until fragrant, 5 seconds per side. Transfer the guajillos to a blender. Add 2 cups of hot water and let stand for 15 minutes.
Add the garlic, chipotles, black pepper, cinnamon and oregano to the blender and puree. Strain the sauce into a large enameled cast-iron casserole, pressing on the solids. Add the pork and 6 cups of hot water to the casserole; bring to a boil. Cover partially and simmer over low heat until the pork is tender, 2 hours.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a bowl and let cool slightly. Boil the sauce until it is reduced to 4 cups, about 20 minutes.
Shred the pork with 2 forks and return it to the sauce. Simmer uncovered until the sauce is reduced and just coats the pork, about 20 minutes. Season the pork with salt and let cool slightly.
- Corn Husks, soaked for at least 30 min in a large bowl of warm water: you can use a pot lid to hold them under water.
- Banana leaves (we prefer the Thai brands to Goya, but use what you can find), thawed. Then cut the long spine that runs lengthwise along one side from the leaf, reserve for tying and trim each leaf to approximately 10 inch square (keep the trimmings). Either steam the banana leaves or pass each leaf over the gas flame on your stove until they soften enough to fold. Don’t let them char.
You’ll want to set up several work stations with ample space for bowls of masa and filling, and room to lay out several tamales at once. Baking sheets are good places to place finished tamales. We also like to have some small bowls of water on hand, and some paper towels.
To fill tamales, take ¼ cup prepared masa and place in center of leaf or husk. With wet fingers, pat down into a rectangle, about 2 by 3 inches. Take a tablespoon or so of filling and place down the center of the filling. For corn husks, use the sides of husk to gather masa up on either side of the filling, bringing sides together above tamale. Then fold the two-sided part over and down, creating a fold. Bring the two ends of the roll in towards each other and place tamale face down on a baking sheet (if they won’t stay folded, use a large pot lid to hold them down).
For banana leaves, fold each side in like a package. If the leaf splits, use a smaller piece to fold around the outside of the tamale. Just make sure no masa is spilling out.
Once you’ve made as many as you want, use kitchen string to tie each tamale closed. If you like, you can use different colors to tie different fillings. Freeze tamales in large ziploc bags, and steam for 1½ hours before eating (check occasionally to make sure there’s still water in bottom of steamer). Serve with salsas and sour cream, thinned with some milk if too thick to pour.
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa
8-10 tomatillos, husked and rinsed, halved or quartered if large
1 jalapeño, halved and seeded for a milder salsa
1 shallot, chopped and soaked for five minutes in cold water, drained and rinsed
¼ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
Salt to taste
About ¼ cup water, as needed
Preheat broiler. Line a baking sheet with foil and lay tomatillos and jalapeño in one layer, skin side up. Broil for several minutes until well charred, then cool slightly. Pour tomatillos and chile, along with any liquid on foil, into a blender. Add cilantro and ½ tsp salt, several tbsp of water, and blend until puréed. Set aside for at least ½ hour until flavors are blended. The sooner you serve, the fresher the flavors will be.
1 lb ripe tomatoes, halved
1 jalapeño, halved (and seeded for a milder salsa)
1 small white onion, peeled and thickly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled
⅓ cup orange juice
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tsp salt
In a heavy cast-iron skillet over medium high heat, char tomatoes, onion, garlic and and jalapeño, in batches if necessary, turning until all sides have some char. Pour into a blender or food processor and pulse until roughly puréed.