Thursday, June 4, 2009
I love tamales. I've been making them for years relying on my now defunct local tortilla factory for fresh masa. Sure, I've made them with Maseca, and you can make a passable version with that stuff but the result will likely be a passable corn batter with (hopefully) a great filling. The problem is, a great tamal is about corn. The masa should be exquisite with the filling being more of a garnish or a bonus. To have an awesome masa batter you need great fresh masa and even if you have access to a tortilla factory, you can do much better by making it yourself. As it turns out this is pretty easy and wont add to much time to what is usually a pretty involved tamale making day.
Aside from the normal tamal batter ingredients (fat, stock and salt), you will need need only two things, Cal or calcium hydroxide which you can find at most Latin grocery stores (or from me) and some sort of dried field corn. The first time I attempted this I used field corn grown by a local farmer for animal feed. It worked great but needed alot of cleaning before I could use it. A couple of weeks later I found myself with a little time to try again and had an idea. Almost everybody has dried corn in their house in the form of popcorn! I look forward to trying many different blue, red and other various heirloom maize varieties in the future but I highly recommend popcorn as an always-available alternative.
To turn your popcorn into nixtamal all you need to do is boil it with the cal (a generous tablespoon per pound should be fine) for 15 minutes and let it rest for an hour or more, even up to a day. After resting it needs to be rinsed thoroughly. Put it in a colander under cold running water and rinse it, rubbing it together to remove as much of the softened hulls as possible. In a perfect world you would end up with perfectly white and completely hull-less corn. I have yet to achieve this and don't consider it necessary for a great tamale batter. Then you'll need to grind your nixtamal in a blender or food processor. The food processor will not give you as fine a grind but will get you a stiffer batter, closer to what most of us are used to using. The blender will give a much finer grind but will require more liquid (hopefully good homemade stock) to keep it moving through the blades. I've done it both ways and have had slightly better results from the blender version even though the thinner batter can be a bit messy to work with during assembly. Either way, don't be concerned about the gritty texture. Once they are steamed you will end up with a completely un-gritty result.
Standard procedure would have you beat your fat (hopefully real, fresh rendered pork lard) with salt and maybe some baking powder to aerate it which will ensure a good rise during steaming and therefor a light texture. That's fine but I've had great results from adding cold fat to the machine for a few seconds once the mixture is ground as fine as you can get it. Feel free to experiment. As always, make sure it's seasoned well and tastes great.
Fillings can be anything you want. The one pictured above was filled with some leftover achiote-braise pork shoulder but anything delicious will do and a small amount of leftovers can be turned into a feast.
As far as filling, folding and steaming, Rick Bayless can explain it better than anyone so I'll leave that to him.
Now go make some tamales.