Tamale-making has become one of my favorite adopted holiday traditions since moving to New Mexico ten years ago. Tamales, if you aren't familiar with them, usually consist of a dough filling wrapped inside a corn husk and cooked by steaming. The fillings might contain meat, vegetables or a corn flour called masa, or some combination of these, along with spices and sometimes cheese. Tamales have origins in ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures; today they are commonly eaten in places with Mexican or Latin American cultural influence, New Mexico being one place where they are very popular. Many people make tamales around Christmas or other festive times.
Have you ever had a tamale? I'd never tried one before I came here, but now I really enjoy them. Our tamale-making day usually happens just before Christmas. The Bear and I make them together. I make up the masa filling (we like a meatless tamale, made up of butter and shortening, with masa, chopped green chile and corn kernels and spices). He does the wrapping, which I find a little tricky.
Tamales are a fair bit of work, so you definitely want to make a big batch if you're going to do them. They're great for a party. Sometimes, the Bear takes tamales to his annual work potluck holiday luncheon and they're very popular. He always makes sure to leave some at home so he can enjoy a few himself! You can buy premade and frozen tamales in the grocery stores too, which is a nice way to try different fillings. I like chicken fillings better myself, but pork is another popular kind. I've never tried one, but I've heard of tamales with sweet fillings too, almost like a rice pudding or other sweet comfort food. We stick with the masa and veggie filling and eat them as a side accompaniment to meat, but you can experiment with almost any kind of filling, I think. The Bear likes to eat his tamales with warmed red chile sauce, for an extra kick.
We're fortunate that all of the ingredients for our tamales are easy to find in local mainstream grocery stores but you can probably find them in a Latin or Hispanic specialty market. The Bear wrote up his own recipe a few years ago, based on his experiments with making tamales at home. They're a little on the spicy side, but that's easy to adjust. Here's how we make our tamales, with his notes, if you'd like to give it a try...
Fresh Corn Tamales
1 lb. prepared masa (add water to dry masa according to package directions)
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening or lard
2 cups frozen corn or kernels from 2 ears fresh sweet corn, roughly chopped
2 large green chiles or 1 cup frozen prepared green chiles, thawed and well-drained
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
Dried corn husks, about 2 oz. (before use, soak husks according to package directions)
Combine the wet ingredients and fat together in a bowl. I use a potato masher to really amalgamate things, but a food processor would do even better.
Combine the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.
Add the dry ingredients gradually to the dough to get even distribution and good mixing. Working by hand, I sprinkle over the dough about a quarter of the dry ingredients at a time.
(He writes here about different ways of wrapping tamales, but you can wrap them any way you like, generally like a little package with the ends of the husks tucked under the tamale to hold it closed. If your husk is long and pointy, you may prefer to fold the sides inward and then fold the bottom tip upward; the top will remain open, so put it in the steamer carefully. With pointy husks, you can also use two of them with the flat ends together, as shown below, to get a package that is closed on both ends).
Use about 1/4 cup dough per husk (I use a cookie scoop).
Layer tamales inside steamer basket, or stand them in basket with open end pointing up. Steam tamales for 30 minutes.
Serve warm with condiments as desired, such as chile sauce, salsa or mole.
Our recipe yields a good 15-16 tamales (we often double the recipe, as we did here). We refrigerate them in a plastic container for up to a week and heat them in the microwave as needed. They're also easy to freeze and enjoy later on. I'm really glad we brought tamales into our holiday celebrations, especially since we make them together; it's something I really look forward to every year at Christmas time.