HOLIDAY HOT TOMALES II
By Dennis Linden
The ancient Aztec culture is credited with coming up with the first packet of masa meal, which has evolved over the centuries into the modern-day tamale. It began as the Aztec version of a military K-ration, invented by necessity to replace their traditional, but cumbersome, battlefield kitchen. It seems that Aztec armies were in the habit of bringing some of their womenfolk along on battle campaigns to cook up that culture’s staple foodstuff, masa (corn) meal. [Aztec warriors felt cooking was women’s work] However, making masa meal was and still is a real pain that includes a time-consuming treatment with limestone powder--a process that proved impractical to pull off under battlefield conditions. So they [the women, I would guess] came up with the idea of preparing the masa at home and wrapping it in a corn husk to be heated up later or eaten cold on the run. Another guess is that those savvy women got tired of being included in the spoils of war when their guys lost the battle, so they came up with this handy TO GO meal for self-preservation reasons!
That early army-issued ration of masa and a little dried meat has evolved into many delectable variations that can be found in both Mexican and South American cuisines today. This is most apparent during the holidays in these cultures when tamale-making is a traditional group effort at many family gatherings. Beyond the practicality of an assembly line approach to the construction of this tasty packet of goodness, the process is a fun and delicious way to celebrate the season with others that live on as fond memories for years. Last December, Denise Ramirez shared her family’s Shredded Chicken & Hatch Salsa Tamales. This year’s Second Annual Tamale Recipe submission, from Chef Ida Rodriquez of Melissa’s Corporate Chefs Team, also evokes memories of Ida’s own childhood.
“I remember my mother and grandmother would make tamales when I was growing up but only at Christmas time as it was such a big ordeal that took so much time and work to make,” Ida recalled. “As an adult I became the family’s designated tamale coordinator, which meant a lot of prep work in order for everyone to gather and make tamales together. Still, it is always well worth all the work since tamales are so delicious and special around holiday time. While tamales can be filled with a vast variety of fillings, the most traditional and my favorite is this recipe for shredded pork with a Hatch red chile sauce.”
If you have never made tamales, do not let Ida’s description of a “big ordeal” scare you away from trying – just use Melissa’s convenient Tamale Kit! This package contains the most basic components of the tamale -- ready to use corn meal masa and uniform wrapper sheets that completely eliminate the inconsistency, hassle and messy prep associated with this dish. While there is still plenty of room for creativity in coming up with delicious fillings that can either be cooked for hours as in Ida’s recipe or just a quick mix of leftovers from the fridge, being able to just add water to masa mix and count on there being twelve uniform wrapper sheets in each pack, makes this heretofore seasonal delicacy into a dish that can be made any night of the week!
The most convenient and also non-traditional part of Melissa’s Tamale Kits are the parchment sheets that replace the traditional dried corn husk wrappers. I am sure the Aztecs would have been as skeptical as I was the first time I opened a package. Though of Irish-Jewish heritage, this writer’s own batch of tamales has become my expected and mandatory potluck contribution during the holiday season by friends for years now. And every year, as I prepare to prepare, I resolve to be an organized, efficient, honed, one-man tamale-making machine. And every year, in spite of all good intentions, the kitchen ends up looking like an explosion in a hay stack, or more accurately, in a corn stack! The concept of wrapping each tamale in a corn husk for the final steam cooking sounds so cool! However, the devil is in the proverbial details, which in this case involves soaking a very large number of stuck-together dried and brittle corn husks until they can be separated and sorted for size and quality. Invariably, this process generates a lot of collateral damage in torn, split and ragged pieces of husks that must be tossed. By the time I have gleaned enough useable husks to make a large batch of tamales, my kitchen is always awash with strands of corn husks for weeks after. And all this for a wrapper that is going to be thrown away once the cooked tamale has been plated? Some claim that the husk adds a corn flavor to the tamale itself…hello, the masa IS corn – so how does one flavor corn by adding corn?? Use these parchment sheets once and your corn soaking days will dissolve in the time is takes to spread the masa on the first, no-fuss sheet, i.e. quickly.
The key to making a tamale that turns heads in the flavor department requires paying as much attention to the flavor enhancement of the masa as the filling itself. While the package’s direction say to just add water, Ida uses the liquid from her slow-cooked pork instead and I wholeheartedly agree. I have also used a vegetable, chicken or beef broth depending on the filling if there is no crock pot liquid involved. One can also add herbs and/or spices to the masa that pairs well with whatever filling is chosen. Like BBQ chicken, everyone has an opinion as to what makes for THE BEST tamale recipe and the good news is that no one is wrong…try them all, starting with three Melissa’s Tamale kits and Chef Ida’s recipe – ‘tis the season!
Chef Ida Rodriguez has been an integral member of Melissa’s Corporate Chefs Team for twenty years. She creates recipes to gauge the potential of new items and films product demos in the company’s 1900 square foot state-of-the-art studio-test kitchen. She also travels the country to demonstrate Melissa’s products at food shows, industry conventions and tasting events. For Ida’s complete profile go to the MEET OUR CORPORATE CHEFS section on this site.
Pork and Red Chile Sauce Tamales
Makes 36 tamales
8 ounces Melissa’s Dried Hatch Chile pods
6 cups water
5 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup yellow onion, diced
3 fresh garlic cloves
2 TBS ground cumin
2 TBS fresh oregano
2 tsp salt
8 pounds pork shoulder
6-7 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
3 Packages Melissa’s Tamale kits
Sauce: Remove stems and seeds from the dried chile pods. Rinse with cool water. Place the pods in a large sauce pan, filled with enough water to completely cover them. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer, cover and cook until pods are soft and pliable, about 20 minutes. Drain pods and let cool.
Fill a blender with the softened pods, then add flour, onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, salt and water. Blend until smooth and strain sauce through a fine sieve to remove skins and seeds. Transfer sieved sauce to large sauce pan, bring to boil, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes, set aside until ready to mix with filling.
Filling: In a slow-cooker, place pork, water and salt. Cook 4 hours on high or 7-8 hours on low, until pork is very tender. Remove meat from pot, let cool to room temperature, then shred using two forks. Strain and reserve the liquid from crock pot. In large pan combine shredded pork and half the red sauce, heat mixture to bubbling. Lower heat and simmer 10 minutes. Let mixture cool before constructing tamales.
Tamales: You will need 6 cups of the reserved liquid from the pork, if you don’t have enough you can add water to complete the 6 cups. Combine the 6 cups of liquid with 3 packages of Corn Masa mix from the tamale kits. Let batter stand until thickened to a paste consistency. Spread batter onto a wrapper, add 2-3 tablespoons of pork filling. Fold and tie tamales closed, then steam for 60 minutes. (Note diagrams and more detailed instructions for assembling tamales are on the back of each Melissa’s Tamale Kit).
Plating: Serve hot, unwrapped, topped with warm red Hatch Chile sauce.