T is for Tamale

{ Monday, September 01, 2008 }
I've always loved tamales and I've wanted to learn how to make them for a long time. Since its pretty difficult to find a vegan tamale at a restaurant, I figured I'd try my hand at a homemade version over the long weekend. As with most things, this journey started with google. I found several recipes that looked good, but ultimately decided to use the masa recipe here along with the fillings here and here.

Note: I had a hard time finding chipotles in adobo sauce, dried corn husks, and dried ancho chiles at my regular supermarket, but I was able to find them all at a spanish grocery near my house. (The checker asked if I was making tamales and then I'm pretty sure she laughed a little bit after I said yes. Mockery only makes me more determined people!)

The first steps were to soak the corn husks in warm water and to prepare the masa dough. I set those both aside while I whipped up the ancho chile sauce. This stuff was quite a bit of work and made a huge mess. Word to the wise--be very careful when pouring this stuff to strain it. It looked like a murder scene in my kitchen with all the red spatters everywhere. (And my pan did eventually come clean, although I had my doubts at one point). This sauce was then added to the filling from the banana leaf tamale recipe. I slightly modified this recipe by using zucchini instead of calabacitas and, of course, leaving out the cheese.

After I added the chile sauce to the veggie mixture, I felt like it still needed a little kick, so I added one chopped chipotle pepper with some extra adobo. Problem solved--this stuff was screaming hot. It had this gringa crying. I should have started with a 1/2 pepper. Lesson learned and maybe the supermarket checker had reason to giggle.

On to the sweet potato filling. I modified this recipe as well. I wanted to make a half batch and didn't want a 1/2 can of tomatoes left over, so I used a couple fresh tomatoes along with the red chile sauce I had already made. I didn't learn my lesson and added a full chipotle pepper; however, the recipe calls for 2-3, so at least I was starting to catch on. I mashed up the baked sweet potato and all the ingredients were ready.

The boy helped with this next step and it took a little bit of trial and error to figure out the best method. I had read somewhere online that you should flatten a piece of dough with your hands, place it on the husk, top with filling, and then form another piece of dough for the top. We didn't have much luck with this, as it was impossible to keep the filling from seeping out between the two layers.

Don't do it this way!

I have also seen people making tamales by spreading the dough onto the husk with a spatula. This was the method we ended up using--we spread the dough onto about 2/3 of the husk and then put filling on one side of it so that one side would fold over with dough for the top and then the opposite side would fold over the first with no dough. There are good folding instructions here. We also had better luck with the sweet potato filling because it would smoosh down and allow for better folding--the squash filling tended to come out and make a big mess.

After what seemed like hours of folding, we were ready to start steaming these bad boys! I crammed as many as would fit into the top of a steamer pan and left them to their own devices for about 30 minutes.

Having a steam bath.

To round out the meal, I made salsa with homemade tortilla chips and salad. I'm no salsa expert, but I like to chop the tomatoes, add salt, and let them sit and juice for a few minutes.

Leave us alone, we're juicing!

Then, I added red onion, garlic and cilantro. Lime juice and some jalepeno would have also been good but 1) my limes were bad and 2) my mouth was still on fire from tasting the chipotle sauce, so I left well enough alone. The chips were easy peasy--cut up some flour tortillas and bake in a single layer at 350 until crisp, turning once.

I had originally planned to make a more spanish-inspired salad but, again, I couldn't bear the thought of putting anything else spicy in my mouth so it ended up being a pear, fig, and baby spinach salad with balsamic vinaigrette. The cool pears were the perfect counterpoint to all the spiciness of the tamales. Wanna know my secret for vinaigrette? Good quality balsamic, a dash of olive oil, and two pinches of sugar. So simple and so incredibly delicious!

We especially loved the sweet potato tamales. The sweet offset the insane heat of the sauce, making the whole thing extra yummy. I'm not sure how soon I'll be setting aside an entire day for this process, but at least now I can say I've done it. Plus, I have a freezer full of tamales for the next craving.


Jess said...

I'm so glad we're friends! This looks awesome!!!

Timaree said...

Just saw your post on my blog and thought I'd stop by. Your tamales sound incredible! I'm a California girl, so we're sort of required to know how to make Mexican food. Alas, I've never made tamales. You've got me thinking I should try.

Yes, chipotle peppers are deceptively hot and I always have to reign myself in when using them. It sounds like you've learned a lesson I've had to learn many times over.

FYI: Sometimes when I make Mexican food, I make a cilantro-lime vinnaigrette that isn't spicy at all. Here's a good recipe for it from epicurious (altered slightly to make it mild):

1 1/4 cups (packed) coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup olive oil
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon minced seeded mild green chile (the original uses a serrano chile--too hot!)

Sorry to leave a novel for my first post on your blog!