In deep winter, a taste of rich, piquant Mexican food gives you an appetite for more. And so, following our visit to Nuevo, I decided to steam up a good batch of tamales.
The tamale is a humble food, and not particularly photogenic. It’s not about looking good on a plate. It’s about flavor and texture.
If you search for tamale dough recipes online, you will hear hymns of praise for the “piggy” flavor imparted by lard. No thanks. Make mine vegetarian! I use Spectrum non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening. It works just fine in Rick Bayless’ Basic Tamal Dough. The dough is made from masa, fat, broth or hot water, and a bit of baking powder. I always expect it to be heavy like bread dough, but it’s amazingly light and fluffy. Getting your hands into this is good fun.
Corn husks are the traditional wrapper, and impart extra flavor to the tamale, but it is much easier to use parchment paper. I also use twist ties to close the ends. No doubt they are loaded with awful chemicals, and I should tie the wee bundles with string instead. But I didn’t have any string. Have you ever bought yourself a present, and gift-wrapped it just to have the fun of opening it? That’s the joy of making tamales.
Choosing the fillings is the best part, because you can use just about anything. I think an Italian “polenta tamale” with a tomato filling would be interesting. I had on hand some frijoles borrachos, so they became filling number one. Number two was a can of refried black beans mixed with diced green chilis. Number three was sharp cheddar cheese with green olives. (I had olive tamales once at a place in Ann Arbor MI, and loved them. I think it was Pilar’s.)
Rolling the tamales is a bit laborious. I was pressed for time, so I worked fast. I put the whole batch together in an hour and fifteen minutes. Once they’re ready, you steam them for an hour. I use a big stockpot with an open steamer basket at the bottom. I always lose track of which fillings are in which tamales, so when I serve them, it’s the luck of the draw!
Last but not least, the sauces. I think salsa verde is indispensable, but I also like tomato salsa. These are a lot of work, but well worth the trouble. Each bite is like a little gift to yourself.