Hot Tamales

Hi all,
It is a tradition throughout Latin America to make tamales around Christmas. Make them, share them, compare them (yours are best, of course). Having married a Tica, we carry the tradition forwards. We use her Tia Lijia’s recipe with a few modifications.
A tamal is essentially a way to convert scraps into a meal. I want to call it a tamale too, but the singular is tamal and the plural is tamales (note, tamalays, not tamalis). We don’t have any truck with those Philistines in Mexico who use corn husks to wrap them. Costa Rican tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, which are great for steaming. The quality of the banana leaf is important. My beloved Keen does the selection and slicing of the leaves.
Here’s how you make Fallas-Baldi tamales. Take two prepared banana leaves and place them cross-wise. That’ll form a good seal for the steaming. Next, put on a generous dollop of masa. That’s the critical component and I’ll explain its preparation in a bit. Now, add the presents to your package. A couple pieces of chicken. A couple of olives. A few capers. Some sautéed, julienned carrots and bell pepper. Raisins are traditional, but we use dried, sweetened cranberries. Wrap up your tamal, put it against another one and tie up into a package. Your tamales will be steamed with others in batches. I think we make about 100 tamales each year, most of which are to be given away.
The masa is the crucial component. The first step is to make the broth. The standard approach is to boil chicken breasts in water then add spices (condimento—a Latino spice). One then removes the chicken breasts for later preparation. Spices are added to the broth and then masa harina (corn flour with lime, Maseca is a popular brand that we use). Mashed potatoes are the secret ingredient in the FB masa. It’s also important to add plenty of fat. We use Crisco, but I suspect that lard is traditional.
Here was my one and only innovation. It struck me that (a) the chicken would be over-cooked and (b) wouldn’t add enough flavor to the broth. I’m big into stock and poached chicken is lovely. It struck me that the basic method overcooked the chicken and didn’t add enough flavor to the broth. This is my one and only innovation (approved of by the tamal nazi).
I purchased 8 chickens at Costco this year. The thighs and legs were removed, skinned, and set aside for later use. The breasts were removed off the bone and set aside. The backs and wings were chopped into pieces, roasted, and used to make stock. It’s a standard stock, with the substitution for parsley with plenty of cilantro and culantro. The latter is a flat-leafed herb with a flavor similar to cilantro. Cilantro is actually called culantro in Costa Rica; culantro is called culantro coyote. It was considered something of a wild herb there and we can finally get it in the U.S. (exported from Costa Rica). We’re going to wind up with about 3 gallons of stock out of all of this.
OK. We just poached the chicken breasts in the stock. In the past, I’ve poached the chicken breasts in water and then added the bones, mirepoix, and herbs to make stock. I think I like this way better as the stock flavors the breasts and vice versa. The chicken is then cut into ~1/2 pieces. It’ll be sautéed in onions with condimento (spice blend) and achiote (which colors the chicken). The julienned bell peppers and carrots will be similarly sautéed.
For a vegetarian friend, I make a few tamales without chicken. She’s not bothered about broth, so I  like making a few tamales con camarones. One year, we made masa with a shrimp stock. Keen indulged me. We also have some pork loin in the freezer, so I’ve defrosted it and we’ll make a few pork tamales.
We’ll be busy tomorrow. Friends are coming over, drinks will be drunk and many tamales will be made.
¡Felix Navidad!

8 Responses

  1. Any significant difference between culantro and cilantro as a season?Thanx, bb.


  2. Thanks BladeI've seen similar tamales made on the food network shows with the banana leaves but haven't tried them yet. I learned to make the Mexican version about 35 years ago from a neighbor and good friend. Of course we always used the corn husk and also, as you might imagine, my favorites are the green chile and cheese variety. I don't make them very often any more as so many of our friends and family do a better job than I ever did, especially with the meat ones. Our oldest daughter's best friend makes the best ones I've ever had and we trade cookies and candy (which we make) for tamales every Christmas.I may have to try your version though.


  3. As I mentioned yesterday, we have been very busy, a common occurrence this time of year, but we caught a break on two fronts. Our tenant will be returning thanks to a miraculous recovery, so we don't have to deal with that right now, and I convinced my sister to come this way for Christmas, rather than me having to travel to NM.One thing still on our plate is helping our son move today and tomorrow…………..he does this about every two years or so……..yikes.This time they sold the 2 acre horse ranch and bought a 5 acre vineyard. He's decided to branch out from the micro-brewery to wine. The grapes are already sold to a local winery so he's starting at the grape level to get that right first then will move on to wine making. He's hard to keep up with but we try.Have a great weekend all.


  4. Mark – Culantro and cilantro have a similar flavor profile. I'd put them akin the jalapeño and serrano peppers. Cousins, but with a distinct flavor. The leaves look a bit like dandelion leaves. I was surprised to see it for sale in the U.S. as it adds a nice touch of authenticity to some of our recipes.BB


  5. These sound yummy, FB!


  6. Apparently, it is only the Philistines in western Mexico that use corn husk wrappers. In Veracruz and the Yucatan, they also use banana leaf wrappers for their tamales.Culantro is now available in most Asian markets. SE Asians use it a lot in their cooking.


  7. FB- thoughts on bacon fat in the masa? I sometimes save mine, since reading a bittman article where he mentioned saving the bacon pan from breakfast & roasting fish in it that evening.


  8. I think bacon fat would work. The original recipe would use lard. If I were to use bacon fat, I'd probably reduce the amount of salt in the condimento (spice mix).My parents use to save bacon fat and use it for eggs or potatoes. I still remember the crust on potatoes cooked in bacon fat. Incredible!BB


Be kind, show respect, and all will be right with the world.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: