While I was working on a family cookbook for Slow Food USA, one of my favorite recipes we developed was for homemade tamales. Tamales—perfect little packages of deliciousness—are an easy food to love and an easy food to share.
Tamales aren't difficult to make, but they do require a little time and effort, and a whole lot of love. The key is to rope family or friends into the process and get a little assembly line going; one person spreading the dough, one adding the filling, one doing the folding, and one tying them up. And, while you're at it, why not pour some margaritas and make it a party?
Making tamales (sans margaritas) is a great project to do with kids, since you're essentially playing with dough. Everyone can get their hands dirty, and everyone has a job to do.
The masa de maíz, or corn dough, is made from hominy--dried corn kernels that have been soaked and cooked in limewater to loosen the hulls and soften the corn. The process, called nixtamalization, causes a series of chemical reactions that allow the dough to hold together, and allows nutrients to be released from the corn. The method, along with tamales, originated in Mesoamerica, where maíz was first cultivated. Tamales were created for travel, made possible by their clever wrapping.
For these tamales, I use the traditional and the most flavorful source of fat: lard. You could use vegetable shortening, although lard, perhaps surprisingly, is the healthier option. I chose to fill these tamales with a savory blend of green chiles and cheese, but you could fill them with whatever you fancy. Pork in red chile or chicken in tomatillo salsa come to mind.
Now go grab a helper or two and roll up your sleeves!
Tamales with Green Chiles and Cheese
14 dried corn husks*
For the dough:
2 cups masa harina*
2 teaspoons salt, divided
3/4 cup lard (can substitute vegetable shortening)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2-1 cup chicken stock
For the filling:
8 ounces shredded cheese (such as Monterey Jack, Mexican Chihuahua)
Two 4-ounce cans mild green chiles, drained
*Available in Latin American grocery stores or online.
1. Soak the corn husks. Place the husks in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Place a plate on the top of the husks to hold them down below the surface. Let soak for two hours.
2. Make the masa. Place the masa harina and one teaspoon of salt into a bowl. Stir 1½ cups hot water into the masa harina until the dough just comes together. Knead the dough briefly until the flour and water are thoroughly mixed. The dough should be springy and moist but not sticky.
3. Make the dough. Place the shortening, remaining teaspoon of salt and baking powder into the bowl of a stationary mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 30 seconds. Add the masa in four additions, beating well after each addition, until thoroughly combined. Reduce the speed to medium-low and add the stock. Whip the masa on medium-high until it is fluffy, about a minute. The dough should have the consistency of humus or thick cake batter. The dough is ready when a small piece floats in a glass of cold water. If it doesn’t float, add a little more shortening and stock and continue beating for another minute.
4. Make the filling. Stir together the cheese and chiles in a bowl. Set aside.
5. Make the tamales. Tear one or two cornhusks into long, 1/4-inch wide strips to make ties for the tamales. Set aside. Place a husk, smooth side up, with the tapered end toward you on a work surface. Blot extra water with a clean dish towel. Spread 1/4 cup of the dough into a 4-inch square in the middle of the husk, leaving a 1/2-inch border on the top. Spread a heaping tablespoon of the filling in a line down the middle of the dough. Bring together the two long sides of the cornhusk so that the dough surrounds the filling. Roll up the sides of the cornhusk. Fold up the bottom (the tapered end) of the cornhusk and secure it in place by tying it with a prepared strip of husk. The top should remain open.
6. Cook the tamales. Put a steamer basket in a pot with water filled to the bottom of the basket. Place each tamale inside the pot with the bottom (folded) side down and the top (open) side up. (If the tamales don’t take up the entire steamer, make a loose ball of aluminum foil or insert an inverted heatproof glass jar to fill the open space and keep the tamales from falling over.) Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and bring the water to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the tamales are firm and cooked through, about 45 minutes. Check periodically to see if more water is needed for the steamer.