This last Saturday, a bunch of us gathered for our first annual Christmas tamale making party. With a long assembly line of ingredients, two large stock pots, huge piles of banana leaves and corn husks, and a sufficient amount of beer and wine to keep us going, we managed to stuff and wrap an impressive amount of tamales. Whether it's baking, canning or tamale making, being in the kitchen and preparing food with good friends is a great way to celebrate the season (any season!) We decided to make a couple different varieties: green chili and cheese and pork carnitas. Some were wrapped in corn husks and some in banana leaves. We even made two varieties of masa: a vegan version (using olive oil as the "fat") and a holy-cow-this-is-so-good-it's-evil smoked Mangalitsa lard that our friend Heath Putnam gave us.
What an amazing flavor that smoked lard imparted in the masa. Now, many people grimace when they hear the word "lard" but the lard from a heritage breed of pig, like the Mangalitsa (or Wooly Pig) is actually lower in saturated fat than butter and that of the "main stream" Berkshire variety of pig. It is also higher in omega-3 fatty acids - that good-for-you stuff found in fish. So, as far as lard goes this is the really, really good stuff!
You can fill your tamales with just about anything - sweet or savory - but pork, chicken, beef or a combination of two or three, as well as green chili, tend to be the most traditional. For an easier approach to tamale making, you can use instant masa in lieu of working the fat and stock into the flour.
The Masa mixture: We basically followed the procedure in Step 3 laid out in this Homemade Pork Tamales recipe, but used organic vegetable stock in place of the pork drippings. To get the right consistency, little by little we added more stock until it was like thick pancake batter. If the masa is too thick it will be too difficult to spread in your husks or leaves.
The Filling: We bought pre-cooked pork carnitas from a local Mexican "carniceria" or meat market. Then, we simply mixed in some medium-hot salsa and sauce to give it some punch. For the chili and cheese ones, we roasted fresh Anaheim chilies over a gas flame, allowed them to cool, then scraped off the outer burnt portion. Then, we sliced them into strips. We were making a vegan version (with the olive oil-based masa mixture), so we used a nacho-flavored vegan cheese with the chilies. For the full-fat ones we simply used a Pepper Jack (a good Mexican cheese was just too expensive for the quantities we were making).
Wrapping them up: If you are using the corn husks make sure you soaked them overnight or in hot water for at least 30 minutes so they are more pliable. Then, lay one flat in front of you with the widest part at the top. Spread the masa mixture (1/4-inch thick) widely over the top half of the husk, leaving a 1-inch border on either side. Fold the husk in half lengthwise, fold the outer edge inward, then bring up the bottom point. Tie with strips of corn husk to secure. If you are using banana leaves, you will first need to cut the leaves in half into rectangles. Then, spread the masa mixture in the center a leaf, fold the top and bottom in, then the sides and secure with a strip of leaf as above.
Steaming the tamales: Place a steamer insert into a large stock pot with water just to the base of the steamer. Place tamales right side up in the steamer and cook on medium-high for 1.5 - 2 hours (steam for 2 - 2.5 hours if you are using raw meat). Serve with mole, chili verde sauce or simply a bit of salsa. Feliz Navidad!
Here are some other great tamale recipes:
Tamales for Christmas from Eat Me Daily
Tamale Party with Cranberry Margaritas from A Spoonful of Thyme
Banana Dessert Tamales from MexGrocer.com