December 1, 2000

Tamales Unwrap a Holiday Tradition

For a holiday season filled with tradition, family and friends, make tamales a part of the festivities. According to Zarela Martinez, renowned chef, author of "Food From My Heart" and host of the PBS show "La Cocina Veracruzana," "Tamales have been linked with celebrations and solemn offerings since Aztec times. Today, Christmas, Easter and saints' days are honored with tamales." In December, families often gather for tamale parties, creating a festive assembly line to share the experience of creating this holiday favorite. Well worth the time and effort, every tamale is a delicious gift waiting to be unwrapped.

The basic tamale recipe calls for minced meat in a masa dough steamed in a corn husk, though there are many varieties. In fact, culinary authorities claim more than 80 types, rolled with everything from fruit to hog's head and ranging in size from three inches to three feet. Whether sweet (Tamales Dulces), savory (Tamales de Rajas con Elote) or completely modern (Panquecitos de Camaron), tamales embrace the pure spirit of the holidays-unwrap one today!

NOTE: Corn flour can be purchased at any ethnic grocery or food store. Chef Zarela Martinez recommends "Maseca" corn flour.


Basic Tamale Dough

There are dozens of dishes called tamales with nothing in common except that they are folded before being cooked in a wrapping, usually corn husks.

4 1/2 cups Maseca corn flour
4 to 5 cups warm chicken broth, plus more as needed
1 pound lard or shortening
2 1/2 tablespoons salt

Place the Maseca corn flour in a large bowl and add 4 cups of warm broth. Beat with a wooden spoon or mix with your hands until dough is smooth. Use a little more broth if necessary, but the mixture should not be loose.

Beat the lard or shortening in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed about 3 minutes, until fluffy.

Begin adding the Maseca mixture a handful at a time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Alternatively, beat in the tamale mixture using your bare hand as a whipping and folding tool. If the mixture becomes too stiff to beat, add up to 1 cup tepid chicken or pork broth a little at a time. When done, the mixture should be very light and delicate, the texture of buttercream frosting. Beat in the salt.


Panquecitos de Camaron

(Shrimp Tamale Muffins)

6 cups Maseca corn flour for tamales
6 cups of water
2 cubes shrimp bouillon
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 ounces ground shrimp
1 cup corn oil
60 large shrimp, plus 30 shrimp for garnish (optional), cooked

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Grease three 12-cup (4-inch) muffin pans and set aside.

Dissolve the shrimp bouillon in water. With an electric mixer beat Maseca corn flour, salt, baking powder and ground shrimp with dissolved bouillon mixture and oil. Mix until thoroughly combined. Spoon mixture into muffin cups until half full. Place two shrimp into each cup and fill with the remaining mixture. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until set.

Yield: About 30 tamale muffins


Tamales Dulces (Sweet Tamales)

20 to 25 large or 30 to 40 smaller dried corn husks
3 cups water
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon aniseed, divided usage
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 pound lard (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) or shortening
1/2 cup sugar or to taste
1 1/2 pounds Maseca tamale dough
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pecans, coarsely broken, optional

Place corn husks in a large bowl, cover with boiling water, and soak for at least 1 hour.

Bring 3 cups water and 1 tablespoon aniseed to a boil over high heat. Cook until reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes.

Strain and use 1 cup of anise tea to soak the raisins until softened, about 15 minutes. Set aside the remaining cup of tea.

Beat the lard or shortening and sugar with an electric mixer at high speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed and add the tamale dough mixture a little at a time. When all is added, beat for 3 minutes. Drain raisins and add to the tamale dough mixture. Reserve the drained liquid to use for steaming. Beat for 1 minute. If the tamale dough mixture is stiff add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the reserved anise tea a little at a time while beating. Add the remaining aniseed and the salt and beat until light and fluffy. Fold in pecans.

Drain the corn husks. Place about 2 tablespoons of filling in each husk, wrap and steam the tamales (shown below center). Optional: add the extra anise tea and raisin soaking liquid to the water in the steamer.

Yield: About 20 large or 30 small tamales


Tamales de Rajas con Elote

(Tamales With Corn and Poblano Chiles)

Something a little different using the Maseca tamale mixture, fresh corn kernels and seasonings.

30 to 35 dried corn husks
2 tablespoons oil or shortening
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, tops removed, seeded and diced
2 cups fresh or drained canned corn kernels
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Salt to taste
1/2 recipe Maseca tamale dough

Place the corn husks in a large bowl, cover with boiling water, and soak for at least 1 hour.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Cook the onion and garlic until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add the poblano chiles and cook 2 minutes longer.

Stir in the corn kernels and cilantro; cook until the moisture has evaporated, about another 3 minutes. Season with salt. Cool thoroughly.

Fold or beat the corn mixture into the prepared tamale dough, until evenly distributed. Fill, fold and steam the tamales as illustrated (shown at left), using about 1/4 cupof the Maseca tamale dough mixture for each husk. Serve with salsa.

Yield: 30 to 35 tamales


Filling and Steaming Corn Husk Tamales

Filling the Tamales

Place the dried corn husks in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let soak 30 minutes to one hour. Drain and select as many as you can of the larger pieces, but be careful not to open the crinkled leaves of the core that are full of corn silk.

With a spoon, spread 1/4 to 1/3 cup of Maseca dough mixture across the lower (wide) end of the husk, covering it from side to side and extending it about halfway up toward the narrow tip. For chicken, beef or other filling, place about 1 heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of the Maseca mixture. Fold the left third over to the center and then fold the right side over it, then fold up the narrow end even with the wide end so the tamale is folded roughly in half crosswise. Place the tamales on a baking sheet until ready to steam.


Steaming the Tamales

Arrange the tamales in a steamer, open ends facing up. Place some of the unused corn husks (and/or a wrung- out wet tea towel) over the tamales to help absorb steam. Pour boiling water into the bottom of the steamer to a depth of at least 1 inch. Cover tightly and bring quickly to a full boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain gentle bubbling. Cook for about 1 hour or until husks pull away from filling. Replenish boiling water as needed. Let the tamales stand 10 minutes before serving.

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