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Basic Tamale Making

From the book "The Cuisines of Mexico" by Diana Kennedy

(This is the definitive book on authentic Mexican cooking. I highly
recommend it to anyone wanting to learn to cook Mexican food, specifically a tamal, like it
is in Mexico.)

Notes on Making Tamales:

1. The corn husks: It is usual for corn husks bought here to be trimmed and flattened, ready for use. But if by chance you have some in their rough state (just as they were when removed from the ear), cut off the cupped part at the bottom of the leaf, and trim off the pointed tip. When you get them, the husks will be dried out and papery. To soften them for use, pour plenty of very hot water over them and leave them to soak for several hours. Shake them well to get rid of excess water, and pat them dry with a towel.

2. Making the tamales: Smear a thin coating of the masa dough over the broadest part of the husk, allowing for turning down about 1 1/2 inches at the bottom broad part of the leaf and about 3 inches at the pointed top. Let us say, for a good-sized tamal, spread the dough over an area approximately 3 inches wide and 3 1/2 inches long.

Spread the filling down the middle of the dough. Fold the sides of the husk together firmly. Turn up the pointed end of the leaf and fold the broader end over it. Tear some of the husks lengthwise into narrow strips, and use one for tying each tamal across the top flap. The husks are water repellent, and since the dough is to be steamed, the idea is to form a water-tight package so that when the dough is cooked through it will be light and spongy. If moisture gets in it will be soggy.

3. Cooking the tamales: The most convenient way to cook tamales is a conventional steamer. You can, of course improvise, but improvisations are not usually as efficient -- a lot of good steam escapes and the cooking is not as even.

Fill the bottom of the steamer with water up to the level indicated, and bring to a boil. Line the top of the steamer with corn husks, covering the bottom and sides well. Stack the tamales upright, with the tied-down flaps upwards. For the best results, they should be packed firmly but not too tightly, because the husks swell out as the dough cooks. (I always find that a small batch of tamales, not firmly packed in the steamer, do not cook as well or as quickly and are more likely to absorb the condensed steam.) Cover the tamales with more corn husks. Cover the top of the steamer with a thick cloth--a piece
of old toweling is best--to absorb the condensation from the lid of the steamer. Cover the steamer with a tightly fitting lid.

As the water in the bottom part comes to a boil, put a coin into it, put the top part of the steamer on, and let the tamales cook for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours over a medium flame. Keep the water bubbling, but not boiling violently. That is the reason for the coin. You will be able to hear it dancing about, and it will tell you if the water goes off the boil or is getting dangerously low. If the water is allowed to go off the boil the tamales will be heavy. Keep a kettle of water simmering so that you can refill the steamer when necessary.

To test the tamales for doneness, remove one from the center, and one from the side of the steamer. As you open the husks, the dough should come away easily from the husks and be completely smooth. To make doubly sure, open up the tamales and see if they are spongy and
well cooked throughout.

4. Serving and storing the tamales: Once cooked, tamales are very good tempered. They are wonderful eaten right away, straight out of the husks, but after they cool off they are also extremely good heated through very gently in their husks in an ungreased heavy frying pan, or on a griddle. Just keep turning them so that they heat through evenly and the husk gets slightly browned but does not burn. They can be refrigerated, and will keep well stored that way for about a week. It is best, however, to freeze them. To reheat, they can be wrapped in foil, put into a 350 degree oven still frozen, and heated through for about 30 minutes.

Title: Tamales Nortenos [Northern Tamales]
Categories: Mexican, Main dish
Servings: 12

Northern Mexico and Texas Style Tamales

Variation for the Tamale Recipe Above
From: The Cuisines of Mexico by: Diana Kennedy

This recipe is from northern Mexico and I think it is closer to the tamales made in Texas. Tamales from central Mexico are thick and fluffy and are mostly dough. This is the original recipe as it would be prepared in Mexico, including lard. Adjust as necessary to suit your sensibilities. I substitute Crisco for the lard. I have also made this recipe using chicken in place of the pork.

The smallest tamales of all are the nortenos from Coahuila and Chihuahua. They are as thick as a very fat finger and about 2 1/2 inches long. The northerners express contempt for the large, fluffy white ones of central Mexico, which to them are all dough and very little else--which is true of the commercially made ones. The dough in these is almost overcome by the filling of pork in a sauce of chiles anchos strongly flavored with cumin.

Cut the meat into 1-inch squares--it should have a little fat on it--and put it into the saucepan with the onion, garlic, salt, and peppercorns. Barely cover the meat with water and bring to a boil. Lower the flame and simmer the meat until it is tender--about 40 minutes.

Set the meat aside to cool off in the broth. Strain the meat, reserving the broth, and chop it roughly. Heat the griddle and toast the chiles well, turning them from time to time so that they do not burn. Let them cool a little. When they are cool enough to handle, slit them open and remove the seeds and veins. When the chiles have cooled off they should be crisp. Crumble them into the blender jar or spice grinder and grind them with the cumin seeds to a fine powder. Melt the lard, add the chili powder, and cook it for a few seconds, stirring it all the time. Add the meat and, continuing to cook, let it season for a minute or so. Add the pork broth and let the mixture cook for about 5 minutes over a medium flame so that it reduces a little--there should be quite a bit of sauce left. Add salt as necessary.

Make the basic dough but do not add any baking powder. Mix the chili sauce into the dough to give it a little color.

Using the smallest husks or the large ones cut in half, spread a scant tablespoon of the dough thinly over each husk, covering an area about 2 X 2 inches. Put a little of the meat with plenty of sauce into the center of the dough and fold the husk as you would for ordinary tamales. Stack the tamales in the steamer and cook for about 2 hours. Test to see if they are done.