Kids love working with their hands, which makes tamales--mixing the dough, wrapping it in corn husks--the perfect assignment for our "food appreciation" classes.
This week on our virtual world culinary tour we are in Puebla, a city south of Mexico City known for its colorful ceramics and its clever chefs. But really, tamales are almost ubiquitous in Mexico, an emblematic part of a corn culture that stretches back thousands of years and is central to the country's cuisine.
An ancient technique for treating corn is to soak the dried kernels in a solution of lye or lime to remove the tough hull or pericarp. Although the original cooks surely did not know it at the time, this process--called nixtimalization--has the added benefit of making the essential niacin in the corn available for human digestion. The soft part of the corn can then be ground into a meal--or masa--that is the staple for so many uses, such as making tortillas and tamales.
Masa is readily available in Latin groceries or even in convenience stores catering to immigrants from south of the border. We look for a masa specifically designed for tamales. It is a rougher grind with a pleasing texture. You will also need corn husks, which are sold dried, usually in a stack of several dozen. Soak these 24 hours in advance in plenty of water to soften them. Remove and stray corn silk.
Tamales can be stuffed with almost anything: roast chicken or pork, beans or other cooked vegetables, even chocolate or other sweets to make dessert tamales. We stuffed ours with black beans cooked with onion, garlic and red and green bell pepper. But you could use any other savory bean.
Making tamale dough is usually a two step process, first beating a fat such as lard or vegetable shortening into a fluffy mass, then mixing the corn meal with other ingredients before combining with the fat. Some people like to do the mixing parts with an electric blender to work air into the dough. But it can also be done by hand.
The easiest way to procede may be to just follow the directions on your package of masa. We made ours as follows.
In a large bowl, beat 2/3 cup chilled lard or vegetable shortening until light and almost fluffy.
In a separate bowl, mix 2 cups masa with 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add 2 cups warm broth (such as chicken stock or vegetable stock) or water and stir well. Empty the dough into the fat and combine. Use a wooden spoon to beat the dough until it is soft and fluffy. Add more liquid if it is too stiff.
Lay a softened corn husk on a flat work surface and spoon a small fistful of dough into the center (it helps to use wider rather than narrower husks). Use a knife or a stiff spatula to spread the dough out, leaving several inches of husk uncovered at the top and bottom and an inch or so on the sides. Into the middle of the dough spoon some prepared beans. Now fold the tamale over, rolling the dough into a sausage shape. Wrap the husk closed, like a big cigar, and fold over the narrow bottom part to seal the tamale on one end. The fold should be two or three inches long. Wrap the end with a length of string and tie snuggly with a firm knot to hold the tamale together.
The finished tamales are cooked in a steamer. Lightweight aluminum tamale steamers are sold fairly inexpensively in Latin groceries. We used a pasta pot with a strainer insert. Or you could improvise a steamer using a wire rack at the bottom of a large pot. Stand the tamales in the steamer with the open ends pointing up. Pour about 1 inch water into the bottom and bring to a boil. Cover the pot snugly and steam at reduced heat for about one hour, or until the tamales are cooked through and firm.
This recipe makes a dozen or more tamales, depending on how big your corn husks are. To eat them, cut the string and unwrap the corn husk. Serve the tamales with your favorite sauce or salsa. We dressed ours with crema, a kind of liquid sour cream, and a dusting of fresh white cheese, or queso fresco. The kids begged for seconds.