Dec 1, 2015

Recipe Box- Italian Tamales

One month.

It's been one month since I moved from Chicago back to my hometown of Birmingham, AL.

Without a doubt, this has been the longest and the shortest month of my entire life. It feels like a lifetime since I've been here, and longer since I've seen my friends, but I know it's only been a measly 30ish days. 

So, what have I been up to over the last month?

Mostly working. Working and hanging out with my parents. Let me tell you season is no joke at a bakery. Now, I'm lucky that I work for a locally owned business because we had two whole days off for Thanksgiving, which is probably unheard of in other places. And, with Christmas right around the corner, I'm bracing myself for an unprecedented amount of gingerbread houses and buche de noels

On a personal level, it's been great to jump right in to work (I started just a day after moving) so that I didn't have time to dwell on the consequences of packing up my life, but it's been hard to get my feet underneath me with the adjustment to the early hours, the physical demands of the job, and navigating the landscape of living in my childhood bedroom again. An "adjustment" doesn't really describe it. It's more like an "upheaval." Now, that's not to say that I'm not okay. I am. I really am. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to be able to physically show and taste the fruits of my labor for the day. It's not a spreadsheet. It's a scone. But, I'm definitely still in the adjustment phase. And, also, how does one go about making friends as an adult? Also, carpal tunnel


Enough chit-chat and more food, right? As promised in my last post, it's time to talk about...dun dun DUN...Italian Tamales.

Why Italian tamales and not just normal tamales, you might ask...Good question. Blame it all on, Kevin

Many moons ago, my friend Kevin had a dream. A food dream. He dreamed that he was eating tamales, but not just any run-of-themill tamales. Tamales with Italian twist. A culinary mash-up of two beloved cuisines created in Kevin's subconcious, and, as we would find out, as delicious in real life as they were in his dream. 

So, on a chilly Sunday on my last weekend in Chicago, I headed over to Kevin's house with the few cooking equipment pieces I had yet to pack for the move to make his dreams come true

Now, I'd never made tamales, nonetheless, Italian ones, so I looked up what the almighty Alton Brown had to say about the matter. His recipe can be found here, but below is mine with a few adjustments. I must confess that I didn't think about a few of these additions until after the fact, but I think they'd make these even better. 

First things first, you gotta make the masa:

Masa for Italian Tamales

1 package of dried corn husks- your local grocery store will carry them around the holidays, but you should be able to find them any time of the year at a Hispanic grocery store

1 bundle of kitchen twine

2 lbs. masa harina or finely ground corn flour- I recommend using Maseca

1 1/2 tbs. salt

1 tbs. baking powder

1 cup lard, - seriously, use lard. Don't go half-ass with this. 

3-4 c. of chicken stock

2 tsp. dried basil

2 tsp. dried oregano

1 tbs. garlic powder

Wait. I fibbed. Before you even get started on the cooking, you have to soak those corn husks at least two hours before you plan on cooking with them. This'll require a little pre-planning, but nothing too extreme. You'll need to boil some water, so put the kettle on and while that's happening, take the corn husks out of the package and place in a large bowl. Once the water is boiling, pour it carefully over the husks and cover with a damp towel to weigh them down to soak. The husks can soak for up to 8 hours.

Combine the masa harina, salt, baking powder,and spices together. Then, using your hands, cut in the lard. This is a similar process to cutting butter into biscuit or pie dough and you'll be looking for a similar "wet sand" texture. One cup at a time, add the chicken stock to the dry ingredients and stir until a dough forms. You'll know it's ready when you can pick up a piece and mold it into a shape that holds together. Cover the masa with a damp paper towel and cover that puppy up. Here's the good news...the masa will hold as long as it doesn't dry out, which makes it perfect for traveling in case you want to have your own traveling tamale party. 

Once you've made the masa, then it's time to focus on the filling. Go wild! You can make whatever kind of tamale you want! Kevin couldn't quite remember what exactly was in the dream tamales, so I brought a few options:

  • Bolognese, which I've blogged about before.
  • Spicy Italian sausage- you'll want to make sure that it's already cooked
  • 4 cheese blend
  • Giardiniera relish- you'll want the relish since it's already diced

From there, it was time to mix and match and assemble the tamales. Set yourself up for success by organizing your assembly station. Set all of your fillings out with spoons, make a space for each person to have a surface for assembling, make sure your twine is already cut, ect... This is where I'd really recommend watching a video about assembling tamales. It's difficult to write it down step by step and much easier to understand by watching someone else do it. Alton's got a good one on the recipe link that I posted above. Basically, you take a couple tablespoons of masa and spread it out on the top 2/3rds of the husk, making sure that you leave some blank space at the bottom of the husk for rolling. 

Photo yanked from the interwebs because I was having too much fun to take picutres of every step. Sorry! 

Then, you add a few teaspoons of the filling of your choice and roll the masa around the filling,wrapping the husk around the masa. Then, you flip up the bottom of the husk and place it seam side down on a surface. Now, you have one open end and one closed end. When you have three completed tamales, you can tie them together with a piece of twine. See...kinda hard to describe, but much easier to do than explain.

This recipe should make about 4 or 5 dozen tamales, so that's why it helps to have some help in the kitchen for this one. Seriously, tamale party! Luckily, Kevin and his roomate Dan are excellent sous chefs, and it didn't take us long to assemble the tamales. 

Now, it's time to cook those beautful babies. You'll need a deep pot with a steamer insert. What? You don't have a steamer insert. Me neither, girl. That's when tin foil comes in handy. Just ball up a few equal size pieces of tin foil and place them in the bottom of your pot, then, you can use a steamer plate with holes in it or fashion one out of more foil for your tamales. The key is that these tamales have to steam. They should not have any contact with boiling water or the bottom of the pot, so you've got to figure out a way to keep them elevated in the pot. 

Once you've McGyvered a way to steam your tamales, stand the trios of tamales open end up in the pot and carefully pour water down the side of the pot so that there is at least an inch between the tamales and the water. Try not to pour the water into the tamales. Place a lid on the pot and bring the water to a boil, then, reduce the heat to low and simmer for an hour and a half. I know, I know. Waiting 90 minutes seems cruel, but I assure you, it will be worth the wait.

While the tamales are cooking, you can make marinara sauce for dipping!

Marinara Sauce

1 onion

1 stalk of celery

1 carrot

1 garlic clove

1 32 oz. can of crushed tomatoes

1 bay leaf

salt and pepper to tast

This one is super easy. Just finely dice the veggies, and throw them in a pot with some olive oil. Once they've cooked down a little it, about 10 minutes, add the tomatoes and bay leaf and simmer for a hour. That's it. Well, if you have an immersion blender, you can really puree everything, but that's totally optional. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve!

Once the hour and half is up, take the lid of the tamales and when the steam clears, marvel at the glorious food you've just cooked.

I don't think I can really emphasize enough just how good these are. Seriously, dream Kevin is a total culinary genius and these are truly delicious.