I’m delighted trend spotters such as GrubHub think tamales will be a hot food in 2017. The first year we lived in Texas, the woman who cleaned my house unexpectedly showed up fairly late on Christmas Eve with a dozen warm spicy pork tamales wrapped in foil. I thought it was a sweet gesture, but a bit strange. When I told my Texas friends about this incident I learned I was actually lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a generous Mexican Christmas tradition.
Tamales were first documented as an Aztec food and the word means wrapped food. Tamale making parties called a tamalda are a tradition associated with las posada, a 9-day Mexican Christmas celebration of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter.
During the years we lived in Houston, I ate tamales pretty much every week. I often sent my sweet husband to a popular restaurant called Taco Milagro for their freshly handmade soft and fluffy white corn chicken tamales with green poblano chile sauce and pepitas. (As I write this I’m having a delicious sensory flashback)
When we left Houston for Atlanta over a decade ago I spent a great deal energy learning to make tamales similar to the ones at my beloved Taco Milagro. Although I no longer eat tamales weekly, for or our annual New Year’s Day brunch I channel fond memories of Houston by making a double batch of tamales to share with family and friends.
My masa dough recipe is loosely adapted from a South American cooked version in the Tamales 101 cookbook by Mexican chef Alice Guadalupe Tapp. Her book gets a big shout-out from Southwestern cooking legends Mark Miller and Stephen Pyles, who also wrote a dazzlingly creative cookbook called Tamales.
Traditional masa dough uses lard…which is an ingredient too outside my cultural reference for comfort. Instead I add a combination of butter and canola oil with corn thrown in for extra flavor to make a rich and satisfying vegetarian masa.
In the fall I make and freeze a chile verde sauce for my tamales using roast seasonal New Mexican hatch chiles, Georgia grown tomatillos, onions and other seasoning. I’m partial to hatch chiles because I first fell in love with their unique flavor when we lived in Colorado, but other green chiles can be used as well.
There’s no way around the time and effort it takes to make tamales – but then again homemade tamales are so much better than commercially prepared tamales there’s really no comparison! This recipe makes plenty of tamales to share or freeze for another day and can be easily doubled for a crowd.
Vegetarian Green Chile, Tomatillo and Cheese Tamales
Makes about 30 smallish tamales
Step #1 Make Green Chile Tomatillo Sauce
4 hatch, poblano, or Anaheim chile peppers – halved lengthwise with seeds removed
1 red onion cut into 2” slices
1 lb tomatillos – (about 10), husk and stems removed and well washed to remove sticky residue
2 garlic cloves
1 Tbs olive oil
½ cup cilantro leaves
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
2 tsp light brown sugar
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
- Preheat broiler to high. In large bowl rub peppers, onions, tomatillos and garlic cloves with oil. Place on sheet tray and broil until peppers and tomatillos blacken in spots; about 10 minutes depending on broiler. Cool, slip skin off chiles and puree in food processor with cilantro until smooth.
- Add to saucepan with salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, sugar, vinegar and water. Bring to a boil then reduce and simmer until sauce is thicker and coats the back of a spoon, about 20-30 minutes. Add more water if necessary to achieve desired consistency.
- Green Chile Tomatillo Sauce can be made and refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 4 months. If you can’t make the chile sauce, the best jarred Chile Verde you can find is recommended as a substitute.
Step #2 Prepare Corn Husks
Separate 40-45 dried corn husks. In a large bowl, pour hot water over separated husks and soak for at least one hour, turning occasionally until softened. Rinse each husk thoroughly under running water. There is often bits of corn silk attached to the husks. Tear torn, odd shaped or disfigured husks into ½“ strips to tie ends of tamales. Cover both husks and strips with damp paper towels.
If you can’t find dried corn husks where you live, parchment paper can be cut into 4” by 6” pieces to wrap the tamale dough in. Twist the ends tightly before steaming.
Step #3 Make Tamale Masa Dough
2 cups hot water
3 cups masa harina
¾ cup butter, melted
¼ cup canola oil
½ cup corn kernels
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
- Combine water and masa in large mixing bowl.
- Add butter, shortening, corn and salt and mix well.
- Place dough in large, heavy saucepan over medium heat and stir until mixture becomes dries and pulls from pan.
Step #4 Grate Cheese
Coarsely grate 8 oz. monteray jack or Colby-Jack cheese. Try to avoid pre-grated cheese because the same additives that make it not stick together in the package also prevent it from melting as much when cooked.
Step #5 Make Tamales
- Spread the center of each husk with about 1 ½ to 2 tablespoons of masa (depending on the size of the corn husks). Spread 2 tsp each of chile sauce and cheese over masa. Fold both sides of husks overlapping over the masa. Twist each end a bit and tie with corn husk strips.
- Stack tamales in steamer basket. I use a bamboo steamer but a vegetable steamer will also work. Set steamer over simmering water in a large, heavy pot. Steam until filling is tender, about 1 hour. During the hour, check water to make sure it doesn’t boil away.
Eat immediately! (Tamales also freeze well. Steam briefly until hot throughout and serve.)