Even though I’m an Italian girl from the Northeast, I have an unrivaled love of Mexican food. It all started when I moved to Tucson, Arizona nearly 20 years ago. Sure I had eaten tacos or burritos before, but nothing prepared me for the amazing food I would experience in the Southwest.
Food is intimately linked to tradition in Mexican culture and Christmas wouldn’t be complete without tamales. I never made tamales – I never had to! Friends would bring loads of them to work, ladies would sell them from grocery carts in front of stores, they were on every Mexican restaurant menu. And not only were the tamales plentiful – they were, invariably, delicious.
Fast forward to 2011. Life is good. I’m living in San Diego, the holiday season is upon us and…omg….wait a minute! Tamales! What am I going to do about tamales?! The tamales in local restaurants, ones made by friends, almost invariably contain meat or cheese. Often times the tamale dough is made with beef broth and/or lard. I knew what I had to do. Make my own.
I will readily admit that no other dish has intimidated me to this extent. I have enjoyed tamales for so long – how could I not have a clue about how they’re made? So I just dove in. To my surprise, they were easier than I ever imagined. Easy, but a bit time-consuming. I now have a new holiday tradition of my own!
Tamales freeze really well, so make as many as you would like. I made a dozen with the following recipe, which is easily doubled or even tripled. While I think my filling rocks, you certainly don’t have to use what I did. Adjust the spice level however you like, adding more or hotter chiles. Try different vegetables. Whatever suits your fancy. Just make sure it’s really flavorful, to balance the dough.
Black Bean and Corn Tamales
I purchased a large bag of dried corn husks at the local grocery store. They’re plentiful where I live, but can be ordered online if you can’t find them.
Soak corn husks for at least 30 minutes prior to assembling your tamales. Put them in a large pot of water and place something heavy on top, to keep them submerged. Take 2-3 husks and tear into long strips to use as ties.
- 2 cups instant corn masa/tamale mix (I used Maseca brand)
- 1/4 cup corn oil
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 4 cups vegan broth (I used Imagine “no-chicken” broth)
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 large California chile, seeded and chopped fine
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tomatillos, chopped fine
- 1 small can chopped, mild chiles
- 1 can black beans, drained
- 4 oz frozen white corn
- 3 cooked potatoes (I microwaved, then peeled 3 yukon gold potatoes), chopped
- dried cumin
- dried thyme
- olive or corn oil for sautéing
On medium-high heat, sauté onion and California chile in oil until softened. Turn heat down to medium and add tomatillos and garlic, careful not to burn the garlic. After a couple of minutes, add the black beans and frozen corn. Cook, stirring frequently until corn is heated through, about 4-5 minutes. Add cooked potato and canned chiles, incorporate into mixture, then add spices to taste. I used approximately 1/4 tsp of cumin, 1/2 tsp of thyme and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook mixture for an additional 4-5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
It may seem intimidating, but watch this video first and you’ll see how easy it really is. The only difference is that I tie off one end.
Remove corn husks from water and dry well with a towel. Get together your dough, filling, husks and ties, a large piece of plastic wrap and a soup spoon.
Lay a husk down on a flat surface. Husks are cone-shaped (one wide end, one narrow end). Take a heaping scoop of dough and lay it on one corner of the wide end. Lay plastic wrap over it and “mush” it down, creating a thin layer that takes up about 2/3 of the husk, leaving about 2 inches bare at the narrow end and 2 inches on the side opposite the dough. (see photos). Make it a thin layer, you don’t want all dough and no filling.
Place a spoonful of the filing in the middle of the dough. Fold the dough side of the corn husk around to meet the other edge of the dough. Wrap the husks around itself to form a cone. Fold the narrow end of the tamale towards the wide end and tie that end down. Squeeze the open end to seal the dough together. Voila! Repeat! 🙂
To steam my tamales, I used a cast iron enamel dutch oven with a colander inside of it and the dutch oven cover over that. Place the water in the pan, the colander in the pan, the tamales in the colander and the cover on top. Make sure the water isn’t touching the tamales, but is under them. Bring the water to a boil, then turn it down to medium and steam the tamales for 45 – 60 minutes. Check the water frequently, adding more if necessary – you don’t want to scorch your pan.
Once done steaming, remove the colander from the pot and let them sit for about 10 minutes prior to eating). Serve with the sauce of your choice – red chile, verde, salsa, etc.