Tamales (the singular in Spanish is “tamal,” not “tamale”) are a link with Mexico’s ancient past. Tamales were made (and eaten!) in Mesoamerica long before Columbus found what he wasn’t looking for.
You take the corn dough (masa), add some kind of filling, wrap it in corn husks, and steam it. Every region in Mexico has its special tamales – there are beef tamales, chicken tamales, fish and shrimp tamales, and tamales made of blue corn meal. There are huge tamales and bite-sized tamales.
In southern Mexico the tamales are wrapped in banana leaves. I’ve always wanted to take a tamal tour of our sister republic to the south. It would be a truly broadening experience!
Here in our region, there are two major kinds of tamal – red ones, which are stuffed with meat and made especially at Christmas time, and green corn tamales, tamales de elote, which are traditionally summer fare. However, many restaurants, like Lerua’s on Broadway, for example, serve them in vast quantities all year round.
Unlike red tamales, which I’ll write about later in the year, green corn tamales are made from fresh white corn. One place to find the appropriate corn would be in one of the fruit and vegetable stands on the southwest side of town, like El Rey del Elote on South 12th.
You remove the husks from the cobs, and save them for later use, then slice off the kernels. Grind the kernels in a food processor or a manual grinder. (WARNING: This job has been known to burn out regular kitchen blenders.)
Take the resulting doughy mixture, and beat in some shortening and perhaps a little cottage cheese if the mixture is too dry. You can add some grated yellow cheese for flavor if you wish. Then take the fresh corn husks, smear the mixture on one side, and add a strip of cheese and a strip of roasted, peeled green chile. Wrap it up with the goo on the inside, fold over the ends, and steam it.
The results are light, sweet, fluffy, and delicious, and don’t really need any sauce other than a healthy appetite.
Any tamales left over from the initial pig-out may be frozen. There! I’ve made myself hungry again!