Who doesn’t love tamales? Masa dough with a sweet or savory filling wrapped in a corn husk, steamed to fluffy perfection is the way I like to sum up this delicious Mexican dish. But this is something you can only get in a restaurant, right? Not true! You can make tamales at home, and I promise you it’s much easier than you might think. Since a lot of us have more time on our hands, and are looking for family activities, now is the time to tackle this fun culinary project.
Let’s talk about the filling first. I’m on a mission these days to use as many items from my freezer as possible, and while rooting around in the cold, I came across a bag of shredded turkey in mole sauce. I couldn’t tell you when it was from, because I’m terrible at labeling things that go into my freezer. I’m convinced I’ll remember what it is, but then a few months go by and I can’t even remember what happened two days ago. Anyway, the found turkey mole was the inspiration for making tamales in the first place. If you don’t have a bag of turkey mole hiding in your freezer, don’t worry! You have options.
You can toss cooked and shredded chicken, beef or pork with your favorite salsa, or mix together drained and rinsed black or pinto beans, sautéed peppers and onions for a great veggie filling. Either way you chose to go, top your filling with some crumbled cheese such as queso fresco or melty cheese such as Chihuahua… or both! Just keep the filling simple and easy.
To make the masa batter that gets shmeared onto the corn husk, you’ll need to get ahold of something called dried masa harina, which translates to corn flour. This is made from dried corn that’s been cooked with an alkali (slaked lime), and gives it a very distinct flavor. It is then ground and dried again. When mixed with water, it creates a dough that’s used to make corn tortillas, or when mixed with lard, baking powder and chicken stock, you have the makings for tamales. Masa harina can easily be found in the Hispanic aisle of your grocery store.
Besides procuring the masa harina, you’ll need to get your hands on dried corn husks, which can usually be found in the same aisle. Because they are dried and brittle when you purchase them, you’ll need to soak them in hot water to make them pliable. This takes about an hour.
The recipe calls for chilled lard or shortening, so you can use whatever is convenient for you. We happened to have a pound of pork lard in our freezer, courtesy of our friends that own a farm in Ohio, so we busted that out and used it in our batter. Using lard will give the finished product a richer taste, but it will still be delicious (and have less cholesterol) with shortening.
Because tamales are such a main event, we’re keeping the sides very simple. We served ours with an iceberg and radish salad, a scoop of guacamole, sour cream and salsa.
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how approachable this recipe really is. Get your family involved filling and folding the tamales, make some margaritas, and have fun preparing this Mexican specialty.
Keep in mind they take about 1 1/2 hours to fully steam, so be sure to build time in for that. Pace yourself with those margaritas!
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Yield: 24 tamales
Active time: 45 minutes
Start to finish: 3 hours
6 ounces dried corn husks
2 2/3 cups dried masa harina
1 1/2 cups hot water
9 ounces chilled lard or shortening
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
Salt to taste
Your choice of filling (approximately 3 cups)
1. Place the corn husks in a large bowl and pour in with enough hot water to cover. Weigh them down with a plate to keep them submerged. Let stand to soften for about an hour.
2. Mix together the dried masa and 1 cup hot water to form a stiff dough. Cool to room temperature.
3. With an electric mixer, beat the chilled lard with the baking powder until light in texture, about 1 minute. While continuously beating, add the masa in three additions.
4. Slowly pour in 1/2 cup of the stock while beating.
5. Beat in enough additional stock to give the mixture the consistency of cake batter. Season with salt.
6. To assemble the tamales, pick out 24 nice husks, and use the remainder to line a steamer.
7. Fill the bottom of the steamer with 1-to 2-inches of water.
8. Lay a husk down, lightly pat it dry, and then spread 1/4 cup batter into about a 4-inch square, covering the wider end of the husk. Leave a 1-inch border on one of the sides. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the filling into the center of the square.
9. Roll the tamal longwise, folding the side with the border around the outside.
10. Fold up the empty portion on the bottom, and stand the tamal in the steamer (the top will remain open). Continue assembling the tamales and place them in the steamer.
11. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, and steam for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Add more hot water to the steamer if needed.
12. The tamales are done when the wrappers peel away easily and the masa filling is set.
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