<%option explicit%> Tamales Nortenos - Tamales Northern Style


Tamales Nortenos - Tamales Northern Style

There are several different styles of tamales. Tamales from central Mexico are thick and fluffy and are mostly dough. Many commercially made tamales in the United States are similar. I have found tamales in Colorado restaurants fit this description. This recipe is for homemade tamales as prepared in Northern Mexico and is typical of the tamales made in Texas. They are thin, about the thickness of a very fat finger, and about 2 1/2 inches long. There is a high ratio of the strongly chile and cumin flavored filling to the dough.

These are the kind of tamales I grew up on. I fondly remember living in San Antonio where every small Mexican grocery had a steamer full of homemade tamales on the counter. My parents would stop and pick up a dozen and pass a couple of the steaming hot tamales to my brother and me in the backseat. A few years ago while living in Denver I was frustrated with the tasteless, doughy mass that passes for a tamale there and became determined to learn to make my own.

The subject of making tamales comes up frequently on food-related mailing lists and newsgroups. The process is difficult to explain verbally. Now, with the magic of the internet I can share the secret of homemade tamales pictorially. Making tamales is a time-consuming, labor-intensive effort but don't be discouraged. With a little practice you can turn out professional looking homemade tamales and you won't regret it. Just pick an afternoon to devote to tamale making and give it a try. Tamales freeze well and can either be reheated in the microwave or by steaming.

The Corn Husks

Tamales are a tube of dough with a meat filling that is cooked by steaming. They are held together while steaming by rolling in a dried corn husk. Dried corn husks are packaged specifically for making tamales and can be purchased in Latin American markets or supermarkets that carry Latin American products. They are also available by mail order.
The dried husks are brittle and must be soaked in water to soften them before they can be rolled into tamales. In the package, the husks for a whole ear of corn are usually pressed together. Separate the individual husks being careful not to break them, since they are fragile when dry.

Place the separated husks in a large pot and cover with hot water. Leave them to soak for about one hour. You can put a plate with a heavy object on it on top of the tamales to keep them submerged. When soft, rinse the husks well and put back into a pot of clean water.

Tip: If you have trouble finding corn husks in your area you can use other materials to roll them in. Here's a tip from Dan Keiser of Mardi Gras Catering Inc. in Slidell, LA:

"When we first started making tamales we discovered we were not talented enough to roll them in corn husk. We tried standard size coffee filters, and found them quick and easy to use. They lose a lot in presentation but we still use them when we need to make hundreds of tamales at once."

Another tip received from Edward Conroy:

"In a recent issue of "Fine Cooking" -- Oct-Nov '96 - pp 53-56), aluminum foil, kitchen parchment, and saran wrap were listed as substitutes for corn husks. (In Chicago, tamales prepared by a local Mexican tamale maker are always wrapped in a kind of parchment.)

One Puerto Rican friend of mine in Miami suggested using coffee filters of all things. She makes a PR dish known as 'Pastellitos', which are similar to Mexican tamales. She uses the coffee filters all the time. I have had her pastellitos and they are very good. The shape and texture is similar to a Mexican tamale -- a masa dough filled with meat and plantains which is wrapped and steamed like a tamale."

The Filling

While the husks are soaking, prepare the meat filling. The chile used to season tamales is the ancho. The ancho is the ripened, dried form of the poblano. It has a rich, smoky flavor. While other dried chiles can be used for seasoning, the ancho provides an authentic flavor. Traditionally, ancho alone is used but I like to use a combination of chiles for seasoning tamales.

Chile Seasoning

2 ounces ancho chiles
2 ounces pasilla chiles
2 ounces guajilla chiles
2 ounces New Mexican chiles

Toast the dried chiles on a hot cast-iron griddle for a few minutes on each side. Be careful not to burn the chiles or they will have a bitter taste. As the chiles toast, they will become soft and pliable and may puff up. Put aside to cool. The chiles will become very crisp and brittle when cooled.

When cool, remove the seeds and stems and crumble into small pieces. Put the pieces into a coffee mill or spice grinder and grind into a fine powder. Store the ground chile mix in a jar to use for seasoning other Mexican dishes.

Meat Filling

1 1/2 pounds pork shoulder or beef shoulder roast or boneless chicken
1/2 large onion -- sliced
5 cloves garlic -- peeled and smashed
2 teaspoons salt
10 peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 tablespoons ground chile seasoning
4 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening

You can use a variety of meats for making tamales. I use either beef or chicken, but pork is traditional. I also use vegetable shortening, although again, lard is traditionally used in Mexico. Cut the meat into 1" to 2" chunks. Heat the lard or shortening in a heavy bottomed pot and brown the meat. When brown, add enough water to cover the meat and add the onions and garlic. Simmer until the meat is fork tender and flakes apart. For beef shoulder roast this will take about 2 - 3 hours.
While the meat is cooking, toast the cumin seeds on a cast iron griddle and then grind into a fine powder using a coffee mill or spice grinder and set aside.

When the meat is cooked tender, set aside to cool. Separate the meat chunks from the broth, reserving the broth. Shred the meat into small strands.

Heat 2 tablespoons of lard or shortening in a heavy pan, preferably cast iron. Add the chile seasoning and cumin and stir for a few seconds. Add the meat and fry for two or three minutes. Add the reserved broth and simmer until the liquid level is reduced. The mixture should be soupy. Set aside to cool while you make the masa.

The Masa

The tamale dough, or masa, is made from masa harina, a corn flour that is also used for making tortillas. Masa mix can be purchased in Latin American markets or supermarkets that carry Latin American products. It can also be purchased by mail order if not available locally. It is NOT the same as corn meal.

I recently found a new version of Maseca brand masa that is specifically formulated for tamales. It is a little coarser than the tortilla masa and gives the tamales a better texture. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with a large Hispanic population, you can buy prepared masa and save yourself the trouble of having to mix it from scratch.

Tamale Masa

4 cups masa mix
4 cups lukewarm water
4 teaspoons Wyler's granulated chicken boullion
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/3 cups lard or vegetable shortening

Combine masa, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Dissolve the boullion in the lukewarm water to make a broth. Mix the broth into the masa a little at a time, working with your fingers to make a moist dough.

Makes about 3 1/2 to 4 dozen tamales.

In a small bowl, beat lard or shortening until fluffy, add to masa and beat until masa has a spongy texture.

The Tamales

Remove a soaked corn husk from the water and shake to remove excess water. Start with the largest husks because they will be easier to roll. If you end up with a lot of small husks, you can lay two together, overlapping about 1/2" but this is a little trickier and may take some practice. Lay the husk flat on a plate and spread about 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons (depending on the size of the husk) of masa in the center. Don't use too much! The easiest way to spread the masa is to spoon it onto the husk and spread it with your fingers. If the masa is sticky, wet your hands.

Add about 1 tablespoon of meat filling on top of the masa. Again, don't use too much.

Now comes the tricky part. Roll the corn husk so that the filling is enclosed in the masa. Don't worry if the filling is not completely surrounded with masa. When the masa cooks it will become firm and the tamale will be fine. Fold over each end. If the husks are very thick, you may find it difficult to fold the large end and get it to stay. If this is the case, don't worry about folding the large end and put that end up when you put the tamales into the steamer.
Load the tamales into a steamer standing them up vertically. I use a large pot with a steamer basket in the bottom. When all the tamales are rolled, and the steamer is full, cover with a damp cloth and steam until the tamales are done, about 2 to 3 hours. During steaming it is very important to keep the water at a low boil. Also, DO NOT let the steamer boil out of water.

TIP: Place a coin, a penny works good, in the bottom of the steamer with the water. You can tell when the water is boiling because you can hear the coin rattling around. If the coin stops rattling, the water has boiled away and you should add more.

After about 2 hours, you may want to pull out a tamale and sample it. Let it cool for a few minutes and then unroll the husk. The tamale should be soft and firm and not mushy.

The Finished Product

Now you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Bite into one of these delicacies and you will know the answer to the question "Why am I doing this?" that you kept asking yourself while you were making them.

As I said in the beginning, tamales can be a lot of work, but they are worth it and I strongly encourage you to give it a try. If you have further questions, please send me mail and I will try to help.



This page and all contents Copyright 1996 - 2004 Garry Howard - Cambridge, MA

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