Friday, 4 November 2011

The Truth about Tamales

By special request from my friend Megan, I'm going to follow up on the teasing hint about tamales in my last post with the full story (so far).

As I said before, when I first started cooking Mexican food in the UK, I limited myself to burritos with homemade tortillas from Lupe Pintos in Tollcross. But there were so lot of beloved dishes I was missing, things I took for granted in California and even Colorado, because they were on the menu of every Mexican restaurant worth its salted tortilla chips. But these things were NOT on the menu of ANY Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh. I did occasionally find a burrito, but only one place served enchiladas (The Tijuana Yacht Club in the New Town, now closed), and no place served tamales. I don't even know if Thomasina Miers' Wahaca in London serves tamales. (For American readers, she has to spell the restaurant's name that way or the Brits won't be able to say it. And it works: there are now heaps of Londoners who can pronounce Oaxaca!)

So when I found a recipe for tamal dough in Two Cooks and a Suitcase, I had to try out out.

The first step was explaining to Alison what they were in order to get her to ready them. For those who don't know, tamales are like steamed corn dumplings, with a savoury filling inside. There are apparently sweet tamales as well, but I've never had them.

The tamale dough is made from the same finely ground corn as tortilla dough, but with additional fat (fresh lard is traditional, but I use full fat butter), and stock instead of water. This flavours the dough and gives it a looser consistency. Tamales are steamed either in corn husks or banana leaves, neither of which are common in the UK, which might be why most restaurants don't serve them here. The other reason is that they take fucking forever! First you have to make the filling (actually, first you have to decide the filling, which is pretty hard, as almost anything can go in there). For my first time, I chose carnitas de pollo, which means shredded chicken. First poach two chicken breasts in water seasoned with peppercorns, allspice berries, and Mexican oregano for about 20 minutes or until tender. Remove the breasts to a plate and cool. You don't need the liquid now, but it is in effect a weak chicken stock, so you could keep it back for your tamale dough rather than pouring it down the drain. Make sure your strain it first. When the chicken is cool, shred it. Heat some butter in a pan. Sweat some finely chopped onion. When the onion is translucent (but not brown) add the chicken and fry until it gets a bit of texture and colour. Then add some pickled or roasted jalapeño (or any chile of your choice) finely chopped and seeded. After a couple minutes, stir in some crema mexicana. You cannot get this outside of Mexico, but you can make your own or use sour cream or creme fraiche. Now, you can make the filling days in advance, but if you're using it on the day, turn the heat down to minimum and keep it warm while you make the tamales. You may need to add some more liquid to loosen it if it gets too dry. So, tamal dough. Well, first you have to have soaked your corn husks in water overnight. Then for the dough mix melted fat (butter or lard) into masa harina (flour made of finely ground white corn). You'll need about half as much fat as masa. Then add stock until the consistency is loose and spreadable. You'll need about as much stock as masa. The masa needs a bit of baking powder as well, or the tamales will be too heavy. Spread some of the dough on a corn husk, add about a tablespoon of the filling, and fold up the husk. Tie it off with thin strips made of spare corn husk. Once all the tamales are made, put them in a steamer for about an hour or until cooked. You will probably want a sauce to pour over them when you serve, and something green on the side. The first time I made tamales, I used husks from sweet corn on the cob we bought at Craigie Farm. Of didn't have proper masa harina, so I used polenta, which is much coarser. This gave the dough a consistency like cake batter, so it was impossible to spread, plus the husks were very small, making the whole thing quite a difficult and messy enterprise. And yet, it ended up working brilliantly, and Alison thought the tamales were delicious. I made them again for my parents, again with the polenta. My mother read doubtful of the consistency, but even she had to admit they turned out well. So you can make tamales out of polenta, but they will be messy and hard to work with. Persevere, though, because they will still be delicious. I've only used proper masa harina for tamales once. I might some at Lupe Pintos, along with canned tomatillos which I needed for the pumpkinseed sauce I used for the filling. The relevance of all this to my novel, however, seems to be that tamales cannot be on the menu at the posh restaurant, because they need an hour to steam even after the filling and dough are made, and no one waits that long for food at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The only way to do out would be to make them in advance and keep them warm, which is not really Michelin-star cooking. It's unfortunate, because tamales really are wonderful. Finally, in reference to my note about English people pronouncing foreign words, the English CAN say: fajita, tortilla, guacamole, Menzies. They CANNOT say: José, Joaquin, machismo, loch.