Sunday, October 31, 2010

¡Hot tamale, hot, hot tamale!

I just returned from a week long trip to Santiago yesterday, and wanted to post something about cool foods I got to try while there. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything that really seemed to define the place. There was some great stuff mind you (I had one of the best steaks EVER!) but nothing seemed to scream out "Hey! I am the iconic food of Chile!" This is most likely due to the fact that my Spanish is non-existent, and reading menus was an exercise in guessing words from similar pieces in other languages (a dangerous, if potentially hilarious game), so I never quite got a sense of what was really available. The iconic drink was no problem though! Pisco sour rules down there. There's no need to post a recipe though, since it's basically a whiskey (or whisky, take your pick) sour made with the local hooch called pisco. It is delicious and sinister at the same time (i.e. they can sneak up on you pretty quick. 'Nuf said!).

I did have some inspiration while there though. One of my bosses posted a video on my Facebook account about hot tamales. If this doesn't inspire you to want a tamale, then I don't know what will. (Don't wait for a punchline in the video, it just does the same thing over and over.) I didn't manage to find a tamale anywhere during my travels, but I did find this thing:

...the capsule that pulled the trapped miners to the surface after two months under ground. It kinda looks like a tamale, so I figured I had my theme. Now for the recipe!

This recipe comes from Cocina -- Spanish for kitchen (ok, I know one word). A great little cookbook that came out of Ten Speed Press a few years back (ok -- 14 years back). It's the kind of cookbook I can really get into -- great pictures, wonderful recipes, some neat new techniques, and thin enough that you don't get all distracted by a million possibilities and then never open it again.

A tamale is basically a steamed bun with a filling. The whole bundle is held together by a corn husk. So, the first step is to put some corn husks in a bowl of water to soak for awhile. Use a little plate to keep them submerged.

Where on Earth do you get corn husks? If you're lucky enough to have a latino grocery in your town, then that's a good bet. I get mine at Chilly Chiles, who augments their massive collection of hot sauces with some kooky ingredients like these.

Next, you make the dough. You need one cup of masa harina (corn flour), 2 tablespoons of corn meal, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 3/4 teaspoon of salt, one ripe banana, 1/4 cup of butter, some chipotle chile in adobo, and some bbq sauce.

First, get the wet ingredients mixed. Mash the banana, then add a chopped chipotle chile with a bit of adobo sauce and mash that around too. Finally, add 5 tablespoons of bbq sauce and mix it in. The original recipe calls for 6 tablespoons of bbq sauce and no chipotle, but we want a hot tamale, hot, hot tamale!

Put the dry ingredients in a mixer. Then cut in the butter until it's all crumbly. Add the banana and bbq sauce mix and whirl that around on fairly high speed for about two minutes until the dough is nice and fluffy. (The book calls for 8 to 10 minutes, but my dough looked ok after 2 and the mixer was just plain too noisy.)

Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl and make your dough into a nice ball.

Now for the filling. You'll need a lime, a banana, some leftover chicken (or pork, or duck, whatever! the recipe actually calls for duck), 1/2 cup of cheese, some scallions (I never have any, but the Egyptian onions are still going strong -- in spite of the snow!), and some chiles (because we want a hot tamale, hot, hot tamale!).

Dice the banana, and squeeze the lime's juice over it. Then add the chopped chicken (if you make this without using leftovers, fry-up about 4 chicken thighs), the cheese, the chile, and the chopped onions and mix that all around.

Now, lets make tamales, hot, hot tamales! (I am starting to annoy myself with this...)

Take your ball of dough and cut it into 8 pieces (the recipe says 6 to 8, but seriously, just try to cut something into 6 -- ok, it's not THAT hard, but still).

Roll the pieces into balls, swapping dough between them to make sure they are evenly sized.

Now get your corn husks out of the water. Rummage through them and stack the widest ones to the side. Shred the thinner ones and the damaged ones to make a pile of tamale ties.

Put a ball of dough in the middle of a corn husk and then flatten it out, making sure you have enough space at the edges and ends to tie the tamale properly (try one first to get a sense of how it works). Put some filling in the middle (a heaped small wooden spoon was just right here),

and then roll it into a tube, making sure the dough wraps completely around the filling.

Tie the thin end with one of your corn husk strings.

Then, tuck the open end down for a second to help seal the filling in there.

Pull the husk back away from the filling, ...

and tamp the tamale dough down a little to give you some room to tie the top shut. Don't tamp too hard, or the corn husk will split. (Don't worry if it does, just unwrap it and pop the dough into another corn husk.)

Tie the top, and you're all set. Now do the other 7. (The recipe advises to leave the second end open, but I like the way they look if you tie both ends -- an added advantage is that you avoid any oozing while they cook. And we all know that it's good to avoid unwanted oozing!)

I find it easier to do all this in assembly line fashion. I roll all the tamales, then tie all the bottoms, then do all the tamping, then tie the tops. If you have helpers, you can form a real assembly line, and each person can become an expert at a specific task. It's pretty fun!

Now what?

Now you cook 'em! Put them in a steamer (four per layer) and steam for about 20 minutes. While they're cooking, you can make a nice fire-roasted salsa to go with it (this post is long enough already though, so I'll put that one up a little later).

To serve, you can put them on a plate as is, or slide the knot off the fat end and peel back a couple of strips to expose the insides, or just eat them like a banana. Up to you.

I hope you like tamale! I like tamale, hot, hot tamale!

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