In the Entertaining and Hospitality folder, Roe and I got talking about tamales. Tamales date to 5000 BCE, so when you prepare and eat them, you are eating one of the oldest prepared foods in human history. The process for preparing tamales is basically the same now as it was then, but boy have the fillings changed!
If you are interested in making tamales, there are thousands of recipes on line with pictures and step-by-step processes written by chefs from around the globe. I am not here to give you a single recipe, but would like to offer some tips to enhance your enjoyment of both the process and taste of the humble tamal.
All tamales are made with corn masa, or ground corn that has been treated with lime. The masa is mixed with liquid and fat in a 6-6-1 ratio. In other words, 6 cups of masa, 6 cups of liquid, 1 cup of fat. This amount of masa will make about 4 dozen medium-large tamales. If you want to make a smaller batch you can halve the ingredients as long as you follow the ratio.
-I use Maseca Tamal for my tamales. It is a finer grind that standard masa and isn't as gritty in the finished product
-Never use oil as your fat! I use lard for savory tamales and butter for sweet. Many people use shortening (Crisco) instead of lard. Do not use margarine, Promise, I Can't Believe it's not Butter or any "fake" spreads.
-For savory tamales, use the liquid that you cook your meat in. Strain the liquid once it cools and add water if necessary to meet the 6-6-1 ratio.
-For sweet tamales you can use water or clear juice (like apple). I mix my sugar with the water instead of with the dry ingredients.
When preparing the masa, the easiest and best way is to mix your dry ingredients (Masa, salt, baking powder) in a bowl. In a separate bowl use a hand mixer to blend your fat and incorporate air into it. Once the fat looks like thick frosting you are ready to add your dry and liquid. Add one cup of dry mix and one cup of liquid to your fat. Use the mixer to blend ingredients. Keep adding one cup dry/one cup liquid until all liquid & dry ingredients are blended into the fat. The dough will be about the consistency of drop biscuits. If it is more like cake batter-you may add a bit of masa. This should not be a problem as long as you follow the ratio.
When spreading the dough on to the corn husks I use a rubber spatula. Use can use a spoon, but I think it's easier to use the spatula. You want enough dough to contain the filling-but not enough to make the tamale too thick and dry. My dough is about 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick. Leave 2 inches on the narrow end, 1-2 inches on the wide end and at least 1/2 inch on the sides free of dough. Once I put the filling in, I fold the two sides together and roll the any excess husk around the outside of the tamal. Your tamal should look like a burrito or very fat cigar, not flat like a hot pocket. Once rolled, fold the bottom (narrow) end up and tie with a string or strip of corn husk. Do the same with the top (wide) end. If you don't have enough room to fold the top down, just use a string to tie the top like a penny candy wrapper.
-Don't spread the dough too thick. Your tamales will be dry.
-The amount of filling is about one heaping tablespoon. It needs to be contained within the dough.
-Tying the tamales is very important. This helps retain the moisture of the tamal itself during the steaming process.
Once you are done wrapping and tying-your tamales are ready for the steam bath. You can use a steamer or a stock pot with steamer racks. The tamales need to be placed on the rack wide side up with a bit of breathing room. There does not need to be inches between each tamal, but don't "pack 'em in" or the steam won't be able to circulate. Steam for one hour. When the tamales are done, remove from the pot and serve. If you have made more than you can eat at a meal-put cooled tamales in a freezer bag and pop into the freezer. They should be good for up to 3 months. Refrigerated tamales will stay good for 3-5 days depending on filling.
-Don't let the tamales touch the water
-When reheating tamales the best way is to wrap them in a wet paper towel and microwave about 45 sec per tamal.
-Never unwrap the corn husk until you are ready to eat. Don't freeze tamales if you have unwrapped them.
I believe it's one of the secrets to a great (not just good) tamal is the lowly potato. When making savory tamales you need to put a piece of potato in them. Peel and slice a couple of potatoes. Cut into large matchstick portions (like McD's french fries). Parboil the potatoes until they are almost done. You don't want them done as if you were going to mash them-but you want the cooking process to be started. When assembling the tamales; put in your filling, one of the potato matchsticks and a regular size green (or black) olive. This adds a consistency and flavor unlike any I've had in commercial or restaurant tamales.
If you or your guests are vegetarian or vegan use shortening for your fat. You can use hot water or vegetable broth instead of meat broth. Sauteed mushrooms and onions or other vegetables in chile sauce can be used for filling. People who are gluten restricted or lactose intolerant can eat tamales. Remember that there is no such thing as a bad tamal. They may look a bit awkward and not be uniform in size or shape-but they will be delicious to eat. Do NOT be afraid to try your hand at these clever packages of deliciousness! After all, they have been around for over 7000 years.