07 February 2010

Good Things Come in Small Packages

In ode to a favored episode of Seinfeld, tonight I took my first ever attempt at making tamales.

The humble, corn-husk-wrapped pillows seems so simple. You can buy one at virtually any Mexican restaurant or taco truck -- even at a cockfight, as George Costanza shows us.

Yet the little buggers aren't the quickest things to make. Tamales require soaking and steaming and settling.

The affair began long before Superbowl 44 when I stopped at the grocery store this morning. Post-workout and epically hungry, I found myself in the Mexican-food aisle, surrounded by beans and rice and loads of spice. As I scanned the shelves, tiny tins of salsas -- brands not found on the "domestic" salsa aisle -- and Flan mixes beckoned to me, as did teensy plasticine pouches of herbs (just enough for a dish or two).

My eyes locked in on the larger plastic-wrapped bags of corn husks laying askew on the shelf -- a few paltry packets hanging, but most left unattended to. Stringy, crackly, and awkward.

I'd never taken the time to consider where one buys corn husks. In the summertime when the sun is high and the days long, my compost bin swims in them -- remnants tossed carelessly aside as I shuck fresh corn to grill, boil, or scrape into salads.

These husks -- perhaps from last summer -- invited me to take a closer look. So I stood and read the package's instructed recipe for tamales about 3 times to make sure I understood the procedure and needs, then heaved a 4.4-lb bag of masa (which I can also use for home-made tortillas) into the cart. Quickly followed by a tin of salsa verde, some frijoles refritos, a package of frozen faux-chicken (Quorn) nuggets, and a large mesh bag of organic onions.

First up once home, I soaked the corn husks under cover of boiling water and various pots and pans (to weight them down) for 2 hours, then drained them and set aside for use. I ripped a few of the husks into strips of "twine" to bind the tamales once assembled. (Note #1 to self: Next time, don't even consider soaking the entire 8-oz package of husks unless you plan to feed an army + their families. I could've presoaked maybe 4 total and had plenty to spare.)

I sliced the onions thin, saute-steaming them in a covered skillet while the Quorn nuggets defrosted in the microwave, steeping in chili powder and garlic. Adding the "chicken" to the onions, I let their flavors meld, their textures slump. Meanwhile, I wracked my brain and racks of cooking utensils trying to decide how I could best steam some 12-plus tamales. (I settled on my large pasta pot with a steamer basket fanned out and inserted at the base, hovering over an inch of water.)

Mixing the corn-mush base wasn't too tough: 2 C. of the masa + some baking soda and salt stirred together, added to lard (in my case, vegan shortening) "whipped" with a T. of veggie broth. Add more broth to blend the mixture into a "spongy" consistency. (Note to self #2: add a smidge more broth next time.)

Assembly came next. I opened each corn husk and wondered how many layers I was to use (in some cases there were at least 5-6 thick layers per). Then I scooped a handful of masa with my fingers, formed it into ball, and pressed it to the center of the husk with a nudge from the heel of my hand. Add a spoonful of the chicken-onion mixture and it was time to seal the deal. I found it best to roll the narrow width around the filling, then close each end with the longer sides of the husk. I knotted each parcel with the husk twine, then nestled each packet into the steamer basket, taking care to gently stack the layers. With slightly less than a pound of Quorn + one onion and the masa amounts listed above, I came out with 12 tamales total.

From here -- about an hour in to the process thus far, not counting the 2-hour steep time for the husks -- I closed the lid on the pot and let the bundles steam for about 1.5 hours total. (Note #3: Check the amount of water at the bottom of the pan every 20 minutes or so to make sure it hasn't run dry.)

The big unveiling was a smash success: As we cut open each pouch, warm dabs of moist cornmeal-like mush layered with perfectly seasoned "meat" and silky, plump threads of onions. Add a dollop of salsa and a splash of hot sauce -- along with a side dish of refried beans and corn -- and I was transported to days of Mexican sun.

As the saying goes, good things do indeed come in small packages.

(Kudos to my dear husband for the assembly photo!)


  1. Love it! I've been wanting to try making homemade tamales, and now you've inspired me! Wish I could come over for leftovers. :-)

  2. Thanks, Heidi! I wish you could come for leftovers too - we have an entire Tupperware container filled with them!