Saturday, March 29, 2014

Segue from National Security to Vegetarian Tamales

You may ask what is the relationship between a recipe for vegetarian tamales and national security, not to mention story structure in theme parks.  The answer is clear: there is no relationship whatsoever.  As part of my experiment in poverty, I never eat out (way too expensive) and make all my own food and the result has been a real improvement in my cooking skills.   One thing we noticed is that good vegetarian tamales are a rarity.   The following recipe is the result of about 10 experimental tamale episodes over the last year.   I wrote it down to remember it, and post it here so I can find it again.  I hope you, or someone, finds it useful.  No doubt it will change over time.   

One of the very few advantages of living in southern california is access to inexpensive and fresh ingredients for Mexican cuisine. Authentic and traditional Mexican tamales are not vegetarian as they are made with lard, chicken or other broth, and often pork or other meat for the filling. There may in fact be an authentic vegetarian Mexican cuisine, but it is not one that is well known north of the border. The following is a combination of many recipes found on the Internet and modified to be vegetarian (defined as no meat but some dairy). To make it pure vegan, substitute more corn oil for the butter and use another filling ingredient for the cheese (e.g. steamed potato).

Tamales are made with various types of fillings and this recipe is suitably vague on that topic. It is assumed that when the tamales are assembled that there will be a corn husk, a layer of masa, a layer of green sauce and then a filling which might be: some cheddar cheese and a slice of hot pepper, or some pinto beans, or a slice of pepper and some steamed potato. Many variations are possible.

This recipe makes enough for 10 - 12 tamales.

Time required: about 2 hours to make the ingredients and assemble, about 2 hours to cook.

Equipment required: blender, steamer, string or twine

1. Masa

1-1.5 teaspoon cumin seeds (or powder)
1-1.5 tblspoon ground red pepper
1-1.5 cups of corn oil
1/2 stick of butter or substitute corn oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
2 cups masa harina
1 large serrano or jalapeno pepper chopped fine (optional)
1 cube concentrated vegetarian soup stock (optional)

1.1 Combine masa harina, cumin, salt, red pepper and corn oil in a bowl
1.2 Microwave water, butter and soup stock for a minute or two, stir, add to bowl
1.3 Mix thoroughly adding corn oil or water if too dry
1.4 Let sit for at least 30 minutes and add more water or corn oil if too dry
1.5 One possibility is to use some of the green sauce to moisten the masa

Note: I have found that I keep adding more water and corn oil to get the masa moist enough. You will see what I mean.

2. Green sauce

1 lb or so tomatillos with their paper wrapper removed
1 or 2 serrano or other hot pepper
1 medium onion
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bunch cilantro (optional)
2 or 3 tablespoons corn oil

2.1 Boil tomatillos and hot peppers (whole) for 10 minutes until they change color, dump water
2.2 Roughly chop tomatillos and add to blender
2.3 Clean peppers (chop off end, decide how many seeds, etc you want to keep), add to blender
2.4 Roughly chop onion and garlic and add to blender
2.5 Wash and destem about 1/3 of the bunch of cilantro and add to blender
2.6 Pulse blend, it doesnt have to be too smooth
2.7 Heat corn oil to pretty hot and add the contents of the blender. It should sizzle
2.8 Turn down heat and simmer for 15 minutes or so
2.9 Put aside until assembly

3. Filling

The filling is highly improvisational. It might be cooked pinto beans, or it might just be roasted chiles and some cheese, or potatoes that have been steamed or microwaved and cut into vertical slices. Everything has to fit unobtrusively into a tamale so think about pieces being 1/4 " x 1/4 " by 2 "s for example. During assembly, these will be combined with the green sauce.

4. Corn Husks

These are the large dried corn husks found in mexican supply stores or most s. california markets in the back where they keep the mexican spices.

4.1 Soak in hot water for about 1/2 hour or more.

5. Assembly

1 piece of string about 2-3 feet long for each tamale
1 or 2 corn husks, soaked for each tamale
Green sauce

5.1 Lay out 1 or 2 corn husks on board (overlapping)
5.2 Add with spatula a layer of masa
5.3 On top of that add green sauce and your filling of choice
5.4 Roll up and fold corn husk and secure with string
5.5 Place in steamer
5.6 Repeat for each tamale
5.7 Your first tamales will look weird but taste fine.
5.8 You must practice and develop your technique.

6. Steaming/Microwaving/Etc

6.1 Place some sort of plastic bag over the steamer, or use a pressure cooker
6.2 Steam for several hours, being sure not to let the steamer dry out
6.3 When you get tired of waiting for the steaming to be done, microwave them for a few minutes.

7. Serve with ... 

7.1 If tamales are dry then something went wrong with the masa or the steaming
7.2 Serve with homemade salsa, I use salsa fresca because it is easy and fool proof
7.3 For those who are not vegetarian, sour cream is a also a good addition along with the salsa.
7.4 Depending on how spicy you make these, the sour cream can be used to cool them down.
7.5 Salsa and sour cream are the traditional ways of moistening a tamale that is dry.

8. Other Notes

8.1 You will be amazed at how much moisture the masa will absorb. .
8.2 All ingredients can be prepared in advance but be aware that the green sauce in particular seems to lose spiciness every day it is kept in the icebox.
8.3 My life would be a lot easier if I had a real steamer or a pressure cooker.
8.4 There is a real art to making these things look beautiful.
8.5 Tamales last several days in the icebox and can be frozen for a long time.

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