It’s been awhile since we’ve had a bites and pieces post, so I thought I’d offer up our annual party for making tamales. The singular is tamal, but even my Costa Rica born wife calls it a tamale. I think I’ve corrupted her.
Tamales are traditionally made in Latin America over Christmas. There’s a lot of work involved, so a family will make an enormous batch, many of which are given to neighbors and friends. My wife’s parents owned a small bakery in Heredia, a suburb of San José. Tamales brought to them were often dinner at that time of year as they were swamped with seasonal work at the bakery. I’ve continued that tradition by bringing tamales to my neighborhood wine shop. They too are swamped this time of year and the tamales are gratefully received.
Making tamales is quite an undertaking. It helps to have some like minded friends and a general to take charge. I’ve done a lot more cooking over the last ten years than my wife, but I’d say she has more the makings of a chef than I. This year, she largely demonstrated how to make the tamales for our crew and kept the process going. I worked as a prep cook for most of the day.
The recipe for our tamales derives from one of Keen’s aunts, Lijia. At the heart of tamales is the masa–liquid thickened with corn flour. We use Maseca, which is corn flour with lime (calcium hydroxide, not fruit juice). The twist for Lijia’s tamales is to use boiled and mashed potatoes in the masa. You get a somewhat softer texture than using just corn flour. One cooks chicken breasts in a lot of water, add the mashed potatoes, some condimento and cilantro. Condimento is a spice blend that generally has garlic powder, cumin, and a few other spices. We make our own as it’s fresher and has less salt (or MSG) than that from the store. Plus, you can’t find Costa Rican style condimento here.
My sole contribution was to upgrade the chicken and the stock. The original version called for boiling the chicken breasts for a long time to create the broth, then add everything else. There’s two problems with that approach. First off, chicken breasts don’t have a lot of flavor to add to the broth. Second, what little flavor they have is long gone once you’re done making the broth. I poach the chicken breasts and then make a stock.
We start with a dozen skinless, boneless chicken breasts and four whole chickens. Remove the breasts from the whole chickens and add to the others. Rinse, pat dry, and set aside. Remove the dark meat from the bones and set aside. I freeze it and use it for other recipes, especially curries. Use a cleaver to break up the bones and expose that lovely marrow. Roast the bones along with the back and wings (also cut up into 3” chunks with a cleaver). Roast the bones for about an hour at 350 degrees.
While the bones are roasting, bring a stockpot with two gallons of water up to a boil. Poach whole chicken breasts in a couple of gallons of water and set aside when nearly done. They’ll be cut up and sautéed later, so you needn’t worry about undercooking. Add the roasted bones to the poaching liquid and bring up to a simmer. Add a couple of quarts of chopped onions, celery, and carrots along with spices. This stock is a bit different from normal, so you’ll be using cilantro, cumin, and coriander. Simmer for 2 – 4 hours, strain, and set aside. As the great outdoors is an extended cooler in December, I strain everything into a big bowl, put back into the stock pot, and set outside for the night.
We’re only getting started. Peel a couple pounds of carrots and slice into match sticks. Do the same for some bell peppers. These will be sautéed later and added to the tamales.
Back to the chicken. Cut the chicken into half-inch pieces. Finely chop some carrots and the tops of the bell peppers. Finely mince a few cups worth of yellow onions. Heat up some oil in a frying pan, add one third of the minced veggies and onions, a couple of tablespoons and some achiote (used to color dishes in Latin America). Add the chicken breast pieces and stir fry until colored and fully cooked. Set aside and repeat. Do the same for the bell pepper and carrot match sticks.
The banana leaves will need to be prepared. Slice them into roughly 9” squares. Two are needed for each tamal. Avoid Goya brand (they were surprisingly bad). We went through 20 packages of prepared banana leaves. You might guess from the scale that we make a lot of tamales. We wound up using about a gallon of homemade turkey stock to supplement the broth (making 3 gallons in total) and wound up with over 150 tamales by the time we were done.
Now we make the masa. Take the chicken stock back from the porch and heat to a simmer. Add the riced potatoes and mix. Gradually add the corn flour (Maseca), and stir. You’ll want folks with some muscles and it’s going to get thick. Once it’s completely thickened (you’ll need a Latina to tell you when), take out to the table as you’re ready to make tamales.
At this point, you should have a honking big stock pot full of masa. There’s a big bowl of sautéed chicken breast chunks. There’s also a couple bowls of sautéed bell pepper and carrot match sticks. You’ll also have bowls of olives, capers, and raisins (we use craisins). Think Costco sized portions.
Now we’re ready to assemble the tamales. Put one banana leaf section on top of another, the smaller on top. Plop about a half cup of masa on them. Add two chunks of chicken, one on each end. Add a few match sticks of carrot and bell pepper. Put a few capers on one end, an olive or two, and some craisins. Wrap it up (you’ll need guidance) and set aside. Each pack has two tamales, set back to back and wrapped in twine. Hemp twine is in-effing-credible. Best stuff I’ve ever used.
Once the tamales are wrapped and tied, they need to be cooked. Fill as many pots as you have room for with tamales on their ends. Pour water into the pot until about halfway up the tamales. If you have a pot that’s taller than the tamales, you can stack a few on top and cover them. Boil/steam for about 45 minutes.
When it comes to eating the tamales, we microwave them and serve them with Salsa Lizano, a Costa Rican savory sauce. It’s the same type of sauce as Heinz 51.