Variety of fillings used in tamales

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Tamales: What an interesting food. In Mexico they can be filled with a sweet filling and used as a dessert or as a snack, but most commonly are filled with meat -- mainly pork -- and wrapped in corn husks or when necessary, lightweight aluminum foil.

New Mexico tamales, like the recipe I am sharing with you today from Karl and Amber Larson of Cape Girardeau, who are native New Mexicans, historically consisted of a savory pork and chili filling coated with a cornmeal-like dough, wrapped in softened corn husks, and steamed.

Originally from Mexico, tamales came to New Mexico as a Christmas treat. It has been speculated that this came about, perhaps, because their labor-intensive preparation is simplified when you have enough people together for an assembly-line process. If possible, round up a few friends or family members to help. The work goes quickly with extra hands.

Tamales can be either plump or thin and shaped as long cylinders or as rounded pouches. Corn husks can be tied with strips of extra husk at both ends, or at the top of a pouch, or folded over at one end. Their appearance is limited only by your imagination. To assure that they cook fully, tamales should not be made any larger in weight than described in the recipe that follows. But they can be made smaller for appetizers.

Keep the dough loosely covered when working. The dough should be spread thin, on the smoother side of the corn husks, but not to the edges of the husks. Top with filling spread more thickly through the dough's center, stopping short of the dough's edges. Begin rolling the tamales into the desired shape, making sure that the dough's edges meet to enclose all of the filling. Secure the tamales by folding over an end of the husk or by tying with strips of additional husks.

Depending on the size of the corn husks, you may have to overlap two husks to form one tamale. Spread the dough over the husks together, just as if they were one.

To cook the tamales, a Dutch oven, a large saucepan or a small stock pot works best. Use a metal vegetable steamer or improvise with a baking rack or metal colander over a couple of inches of water. If you own a Chinese bamboo steamer, it's workable too, used as you would regularly. Place the tamales into the steamer, packing loosely in a criss-cross direction, or stand then on end. Allow enough space between them for the steam to rise effectively.

Cover the pot and cook over simmering water. Two steamers may be necessary, or two batches required.

Two corn products are used to make these tamales: Dried corn husks and masa harina. The masa harina is a cornmeal mix also used in tortillas. Both of these items are widely available in larger food stores and specialty food stores. There is no substitute for the masa harina. So you will need to be sure you have the right ingredients before starting. In place of the corn husks, it is possible to use lightweight aluminum foil, cut into 5- or 6-inch squares. Some of the good corn flavor will be lost, but a satisfactory product can still be produced. Be sure to remove the foil before serving.

Pork Tamales

Makes about 24 tamales, approximately 4 ounces each, or about 12 main-dish servings.

For the pork filling:

1 1/2 pounds pork loin

1 medium white onion, chopped

2 cups water

2 tablespoons oil, preferably corn or canola

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 cup fried ground red chili, preferably Chimayo, Ancho or other New Mexico red chili

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/8 teaspoon dried, ground oregano

For the tamales:

1 (6 ounce) package dried corn husks

6 cups masa harina

2 cups oil, canola or corn

4 1/2 cups water, or more as needed

2 teaspoons salt

To prepare the filling: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the pork and the onion in a medium-sized baking dish and cover with the water. Bake for approximately 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is cooked through and pulls apart easily. Remove the pork from the broth. Set the meat aside to cool a few minutes, and refrigerate the broth. When the pork has cooled enough to handle, shred it finely, either with two forks, or with the dough blade in a food processor. Strain the broth after it has solidified on its surface. If the broth doesn't measure 2 cups, add water to make 2 cups of liquid. Reserve the pork and the broth.

In a large, heavy skillet, warm the oil over medium heat and add the minced garlic and the pork. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir constantly for about a minute as the flour begins to brown. Add the ground chili, the reserved broth, and the salt, cumin and oregano. Continue cooking over medium heat for about 30 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and is almost dry. Watch carefully toward the end of the cooking time, stirring frequently so as not to burn. The filling will be meltingly tender. Reserve the mixture.

To prepare the corn husks: In a deep bowl or baking pan, soak the corn husks in hot water to cover. After 30 minutes the husks should be softened and pliable. Separate the husks and rinse them under warm running water to wash away any grit or brown silks. Soak them in more warm water until they are ready to use.

To prepare the masa: Masa is the dough made from the masa harina cornmeal. Measure the masa harina into a large mixing bowl. Add the oil, water, and salt. Mix with a sturdy spoon, powerful electric mixer, or with your hands until smooth. When well-blended, the masa should have the consistency of a moist cookie dough.

Add more water if needed for your preferred consistency.

Assembling the tamales: Review the general tamale instructions preceding this tamales recipe. The amount of masa and filling used for each tamale should be approximately equal, but will vary depending on the size and shape of the tamale. To make 2 dozen 4-ounce tamales, use 2 tablespoons of masa and filling for each tamale.

Hold a corn husk flat on one hand. With a rubber spatula, spread a thin layer of masa across the husk and top with the filling. Roll the husk into the desired shape, using your imagination. Repeat the procedure until all the filling and masa are used.

Cook the tamales over simmering water for about 1 to 1 1/4 hours until the masa is firm and no longer sticks to the corn husk. Unwrap one tamale to check its consistency.

Tamales should be eaten warm. The corn husks are usually left on when tamales are served unadorned, to be removed by each guest before eating.

These tamales are good topped with red chili sauce too, but the husks should be removed before adding the sauce.

John Simmons of Cape Girardeau has studied in Mexico and cooked in many Mexican food establishments. He had several comments to make about the tamale. "Some are as we know them with beef inside and wrapped in corn shucks. In the southern parts of Mexico they are often found wrapped in banana leaves. The fillings also vary greatly. Some contain only the corn dough. Often they are filled with pineapple and eaten as a desert. Sometimes they use a very sweet mixture of the corn dough and stuff the center of the tamale with that. Pork and chicken are also popular fillings. I think the best ones I ever sampled where filled with a stew like mixture of pork, potatoes and carrots. Cheese and green chilies are also one of my favorite fillings."

John told me "I normally make a huge batch of 50 or more. Since there are many steps and the cooking time is so long I like to make the large batches and freeze them. There are actually three steps in making them: The filling, the dough and the sauce. Making tamales will take about all day from start to finish."

John's Tamale Recipe

2 onions

6 cloves garlic

Tamale flour

Corn shucks

3-4 pound beef roast

2 bay leaves

8-10 dried poblanos peppers (Ancho, Mulato, New Mexico, California, Joto, Pasilla, Colorado or Mulato)

This recipe is for around 25 tamales.

Start by soaking the corn shucks overnight in warm water. You have to separate them so the water will get in to soften them.

Cover a 3-4 pound beef roast with water and cook until very tender. Add several garlic cloves, an onion and a couple of bay leaves to the roast.

Save the liquid as you need it to add to the dough mixture. After the roast is done allow to cool and then chop or shred it to small pieces.

John says the dough is available in Mexican food stores. Corn tortilla flour works also but the regular tamale dough rises more around the filling. Mix the dough according to the package directions. The only changes he makes is to use vegetable shortening instead of lard and the stock from the beef instead of water. Use 4 cups of corn flour to start. You may have to mix more.

The chilies normally used for the sauce are dried poblanos, known as Ancho or Mulato once dried. The Mulato has a sweeter almost chocolate flavor whereas the Ancho has a dusty taste. Both are dark purple colored and about 5 inches long. They are very mild, only slightly hotter than our green peppers. You may have trouble finding them labeled as Ancho or Mulato in the United States. Look for California, Pasilla, New Mexico or Joto peppers.

Soak 8-10 dried chilies in hot water until soft, about 2 hours. Saute 3 or 4 cloves of garlic and 1/2 onion until tender. Stem and seed the softened peppers. Combine onion, garlic and peppers in a blender. Add beef stock to make a smooth sauce and blend till very smooth. Push the sauce through a fine sieve to remove any peels or seeds still in the sauce.

Mix sauce with the beef. Lay out corn shuck. You may have to use two or three shucks if they are small. Place 2 or 3 tablespoons of dough onto corn shuck.

Flatten the shucks and place filling into center of dough. Roll up dough and filling in corn shuck. Fold ends under or tie using kitchen string or pieces of corn shuck. Place into steamer and steam about 90 minutes or until dough is no longer sticky.

I hope this helps Betty Emerson of Morley, Mo. She had originally requested recipes for homemade tamales. Good luck, Betty.

Have terrific week and until next time, happy cooking.

Susan McClanahan is administrator at the Cape Girardeau Senior Center. Send recipes to her at or by mail at P.O. Box 699; Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63701. Recipes published have not been kitchen-tested by the Southeast Missourian staff.

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