Why the Michigan vs. Notre Dame highlight to start? Because I very loosely connected me waiting to make tamales to Michigan beating Notre Dame at the last second (again). Really there is no logical reason, but I love this highlight and can now excitedly say that football season is just 1 month away. ANYWAYS…
Last summer, for reasons long forgotten I went with a housemate to this great Mexican food store in Ann Arbor. In addition to buying some of the most incredible tortillas I’ve ever had, I impulse bought corn husks and masa thinking I would make tamales later that week. I never got around to it and when I moved last August I took them with me to my current apartment.
Fast forward a year, and I’m getting ready to move again (this will be the 7th place I’ve lived in 5 years, all within about a 10 block radius. Hooray student housing!). In cleaning out the pantry I discovered the corn husks and masa once again and decided enough was enough, I was going to make tamales.
Going into this cooking adventure I knew three basic things about tamales.
- They are insanely delicious.
- They are labor intensive to make.
- They use lard.
Me being a person who loves delicious things and had an entire Sunday free, I had no issues with the first two. However the use of lard posed a problem. Without any pork handy (or any meat at all actually) making my own was out of the question, and no place within walking distance sold it. Crisco can/could be used as a substitute, but after taking organic chemistry and understanding just how terrifyingly unnatural trans-fats are, I was not interested. Given the bus schedules on Sunday it would be a 1.5 hour trip to the Mexican store a few miles away. So I took to the internet to find a substitute.
In my searches I learned that one of the advantages of using lard is the flavor it adds to the otherwise dull masa. Rummaging around in the pantry for ideas I found a can of chicken stock which I thought would do the trick (and it did!). While I realize to do tamales “the right way” you need lard, this was a viable (and I suppose healthier) substitute that produced great results.
First order of business in making these is to soak the corn husks otherwise they will be impossible to wrap without breaking. Submerge them in water and use a weight of some kind to make sure they stay completely covered. I did this for 2 hours, and they probably could have used another hour or so. I came across recipes that would also soak them overnight.
Toward the end of this you can start to prepare your filling. If my online tamale sleuthing taught me anything, it is that you can put just about anything in tamales. Cheese, veggies, meat, nuts (found a cashew, almond and chocolate one that turned me into Homer Simpson), whatever it is, go for it. History will prove I am addicted to peppers and onions, and without any meat or cheese in the fridge (another casualty of moving is not buying many groceries and trying to use stuff up) those seemed like the perfect filling.
I was totally clueless on how much filling to make, so I chopped up 3 small green peppers and 3 medium onions and sauteed them, figuring any extra I could toss with some homemade pasta and call it dinner the next day (which I did). To add some flavor I added cayenne pepper, ancho chile pepper (about 1 teaspoon of each), a pinch of oregano, and about 1.5 teaspoons of ground cumin seeds.
Once you’ve decided on/prepared your filling, set it aside and mix up your masa. The recipe on the back of the masa harina bag used 4 cups to make 20 tamales, so that’s what I did. I added 2 cups of chicken broth but it wasn’t enough liquid to bring it all together, so I added an additional 1/2 cup of water. To further flavor the dough I also added salt, cayenne, and ancho chile pepper.
Drain your corn husks and pat dry. To make a tamale grab a portion of the dough and spread it on the husk. As you make more you’ll get a feel for exactly how many you need, but I tried to make each into a 3×3 inch square. You’ll want to do this towards the top of the husk (as shown below) to make folding the husk easier.
Next, place a small amount of your filling in the center.
Grabbing from both ends, fold the tamale in and seal the sides to each other (this was hard to take pictures of, but this video should give you an idea if you aren’t 100% sure what to do). From there just wrap the husk around the tamale, and fold the lower, empty, portion of the husk over the full part. To make sure the tamale stays wrapped, tear off a length of an unused husk and use it to tie a knot around the tamale.
Got that process down? Ok, now do it 19 more times. By the end of it you’ll be able to make and wrap tamales in your sleep.
Steam the tamales for an hour, checking/adding water as needed to make sure the pot does not go dry. Unwrap and enjoy! You can freeze any you do not plan to eat in the immediate future and re-steam for 15 minutes to revive them when you want to. You can also refrigerate some and then reheat by microwaving with a bit of water. I was worried that they would be tough and dry upon reheating but have found that they hold their texture and moisture very well.
Pepper and Onion Tamales
- 4 cups masa harina
- 20-25 corn husks, soaked
- 3 small (or 2 medium) green peppers, diced
- 3 medium onions, diced
- 1.5 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 2 teaspoons ancho chile pepper (can be substituted with other hot pepper)
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 cup water
Completely submerge corn husks in water and soak for at least two hours. Can be soaked overnight as well. Rinse and pat dry before use.
Prepare filling by sauteing diced peppers and onions over medium heat. Add cumin, and 1 teaspoon each of cayenne and ancho chile pepper. Set aside when done.
Prepare masa by mixing 4 cups masa harina, 1 teaspoon cayenne and 1 teaspoon ancho chile with 2 cups chicken broth and 1/2 cup water. Use hands or fork to mix until completely combined.
Flatten out a work surface and spread out a small amount of masa on the top-center part of the husk. Create a small (approximately 3×3 inch) square and place a small layer of filling in the middle. Fold inwards and seal the masa, wrapping the husks over. Fold the unused part of the husk over the rest, and use a piece of an unused husk to tie together.
Steam tamales (open side up) for 1 hour. Can be refrigerated for several days or frozen and reheated/steamed.