Saturday, April 7, 2007

Tamales Finale: A Eureka! Moment

Midway into my tamales project I decided to follow my wife's advice and bone up a little more on how to make tamales.

Up to this point, I had made two critical errors. The first was assuming I could buy a book about tamales and rely on it exclusively. The recipe I chose turned out to be a disaster (see earlier post). The second mistake was assuming the Maseca corn mix that is ubiquitous in these parts was my only choice as main ingredient for my tamale dough.

I cruised through several volumes by Mexican cookbook diva Diana Kennedy and maestro Rick Bayless, along with my other Mexican cookbooks, and found no guidance on using Maseca, other than Kennedy's absolute abhorrence of the stuff.

The preferred dough for tamales is made from fresh masa. We have seen fresh masa on our travels through Mexico, usually in a refrigerator case at the local grocery or market stall.

Corn is the basis of Mexican cuisine going back thousands of years. The natives developed a method of soaking dried corn with lye or lime--gathered from the ashes of wood fires in the case of lye, or from crushed seashells or rocks in the case of lime. The alkali chemicals in lye and lime help soften and remove the outer skin or pericarp of the corn kernel. This process, called nixtamalization, has the added benefit of making niacin--or vitamin B3, a vital nutrient--available for human digestion. Europeans who later developed corn cultures but skipped the nixtamalization process risked pellagra, a deadly wasting disease.

After the corn is nixtamalized, it is ground into fresh masa. When dried, it can be further processed into products such as Maseca, which is sort of the Hispanic equivalent of Bisquick. It can be used in almost anything, from tortillas to tamales, papusas, etc. There being no source of fresh masa that I know of here in the District of Columbia, I had assumed my only option was to use Maseca. But following Diana Kennedy's tip, I went on-line and, Bingo! I found a cousin to Maseca made specifically for tamales.

This product is ground somewhat coarser than ordinary Maseca, giving it a more traditional texture and mouth feel. I was hoping there also would be a viable recipe for tamale dough on the package.

A couple of phone calls later I had my 4.4-pound bag of Maseca para Tamales from a local Latino grocery. Sure enough, there was a recipe for tamale dough on the package. It was radically different from the one I had tried earlier with such horrible results. Where the previous recipe had called for almost twice as much dry ingredient as wet, the new recipe specified equal amounts of dry to wet. I knew this would solve the problem of a dough that was more like modeling clay and give me the creamy dough my wife had been looking for.

So we made the dough with the new corn mix and it turned out exactly the way we had hoped. It smeared easily onto the corn husks and was only slightly more difficult to wrap, being somewhat squishy. We steamed some tamales for dinner that night, accompanying them with pork carnitas and a huitlacoche enchilada from one of our neighborhood takeouts.

The tamales were light and delicious, the slightly moist savoriness of the chicken filling pairing nicely with the sweetness of the raisins and piquancy of the salsa verde. I'm especially fond of the rustic texture of these tamales and the faintly acrid flavor of the nixtamalized masa that it so Mexican and so unlike any other corn product.

Sometimes cooking takes perseverance and friendly advice. I also credit the Ceres & Bacchus blog, which last month carried a detailed and inspiring account of making Columbian-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Do try making tamales sometime. You need to do a little planning and have your ingredients ready. But once you get the hang of it, tamales aren't difficult at all, even for a gringo like me.