Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Cinco de mayo: a tale of tamales and chiles poblanos

I stole this presentation from Rick Bayless. If it's good enough for #Obama, it's good enough for mi familia.

Last week was cinco de mayo. I meant to post this earlier, but I got a bit distracted by the election. And I'm not exactly swimming in free time either. But better late than never.

The first thing you need to know about cinco de mayo is it's NOT Mexican Independence Day. That's the 16th of September.

Cinco de mayo is the anniversary of the battle of Puebla, when Napoleon III of France tried to take over Mexico shortly after Benito Juarez took office as president.

The French lost.

The second thing you need to know is it's not a national holiday in Mexico. It is a regional holiday in Puebla.

When cinco de mayo is celebrated outside Mexico, any Mexican cuisine is appropriate, but I wanted to give a nod to good old Puebla, so although I made quite "generic" tamales, I used poblano chiles from the Cool Chile Company.

But because Puebla is Oaxaca's rival for culinary capital of Mexico, I've balanced it by using queso de Oaxaca from Gringa Dairy.

I've written about sweet tamales and "tamale pie", but I haven't written about savoury tamales, which is a glaring omission, as they are a classic of Mexican cuisine. In fact, they are older than the mighty tortilla.

A quick lesson in corn (apologies for the squeamish): if you've ever changed a nappy after chili con carne day at your child's nursery, you'll know that kernels of corn are practically indigestible. They go right through.

This is because they have a tough outer hull which resists digestion, meaning you can't absorb most of its nutrients. It also gets stuck in your teeth.

What the Meso-Americans found out, several thousand years ago, is that if you soak corn kernels in slaked lime (the same caustic substance used for rendering the stucco that covered their pyramids), the outer hull would loosen and could then be rinsed off.

Then the soft, inner flesh of the corn kernels could then be ground into a nutritious dough. This process is called nixtamalizacion (nixtamilization), from Nauhatl nextli "ashes" (referring to the slaked lime) and tamalli "dough".

So tamales, which are basically corn dumplings, would have been one of the first things they made with their discovery. Tortillas probably came later.

So, the thing about tamales is, they take a hell of a long time to make. In fact, you have to start the night before.

There's actually no one right recipe for tamales, and there are countless regional variation as well. And as they're quite fiddly, people tend to stick with the recipe that works for them.

The one I use comes from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. 

To make these tamales you need:
  • 200g masa harina
  • 100g melted butter or lard
  • 250 ml chicken stock
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • salt
You will also need a lot of corn husks.

A note on the lard: in this age of health-consciousness we are all a bit frightened of lard, and rightly so. And I certainly wouldn't suggest you get one of those cloudy-white blocks of lard they sell in supermarkets.

On the other hand, pork lard (manteca de cerdo) is a big part of traditional Mexican cooking. To get manteca I usually skim off and sieve any rendered fat from pork dishes, especially bacon, though it takes a long time to collect a decent amount.

Or Gringa Dairy has provided this recipe for homemade manteca.

If you're still not comfortable using lard or butter, you can try olive oil, though I never have.

First you have to soak your corn husks in water overnight. The recipe will probably make 12 tamales, but you'll need to many more corn husks because some will be ripped or too small or otherwise unsuitable, and you'll need extras to cut into strips so you can tie the tamales.

The day you intend to serve, you have to make the tamal dough.

Sift the masa harina and baking powder into a bowl.

Add the melted butter.

Then gradually stir in the stock until the liquid is fully incorporated. It will be kind of pasty and spreadable.

Then you need to assemble the tamales.

Spread out a good sized and undamaged corn husk.

Spread a heaped dessert spoon of the tamal dough over the widest part of the husk, leaving about a centimetre of space at the top and sides. 

Shit. I forgot to leave space at the side. 
Now put a dessert spoon of filling into the middle. Fold the tamal from left to right and then fold the bottom up to create a little parcel. 

Tie the parcel up with kitchen string or with strips of smaller corn husks (the traditional way). 

As you can see above, I've folded the top down too. That's optional, and a lot of people leave the top open. I do it myself about half the time. 

When you've assembled the tamales, stand them upright in a steamer and steam on high for a good hour. 

In Mexico they have special tamal steamers (with extra-tall steaming chambers). You can get them by mail order from MexGrocer.com, but I just use a standard steamer (even though my tamales stick out the top. 

However, you cannot make tamales without a steamer, so if you don't have one, make tamale pie

So what fillings did I use. 

Well, I had some leftover carnitas, so I filled four of my twelve with that, omitting the spicy red chile sauce you would normally have so my kids could eat them. (My 5yo daughter loved them but my 2yo son just ate the corn dumpling and left the carnitas.)

I haven't written about carnitas yet, but I donated this recipe to Gringa Dairy. It works every time. 

Carnitas, or Mexican pulled pork.
I also poached and shredded some chicken breasts and fried it up with rajas con crema (strips of chile poblano fried with sour cream) and salsa verde. I used this for four more tamales. 

These are rajas, ready to be fried.
The last four I stuffed with rajas and queso de Oaxaca, inspired by Tamal.co.uk

I actually had one left over, so the last tamal had no filling. This is called a tamal sordo (literally a "deaf tamal"). 

I served the tamales on a bed of frijoles de olla (stewed black beans) and topped them with a string or two of queso de Oaxaca and some more salsa verde.

Here's the money shot again, just because I like it: