Tamales de rajas con queso (corn dumplings with chile strips and cheese)

Tamales de rajas con queso (corn dumplings with chile strips and cheese)
Tamales (the singular is tamal) are essentially corn “dumplings” filled with something delicious, wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and then steamed. (You can also make tamales without a filling; these are called tamales sordos or “deaf tamales”.)

Tamales are one of the classic Mexican foods. Going back to pre-hispanic times, they were served to the Conquistadores – but they actually date from around 5,000 BC, predating tortillas!

Although they are delicious, they take a long time to make, so don’t plan on tamales for a quick mid-week supper. They are food for a special occasion.

Tamales are traditionally made of nixtamal, which is corn soaked in slaked lime until the outer husks come off (this makes the corn much easier to digest). The nixtamal is then coarsely ground into tamal dough. You can’t really get nixtamal in the UK, so you have to make your own dough out of masa harina (which is finely ground nixtamal “flour”). You can get masa harina and corn husks from any number of specialist shops and on-line retailers, including the Cool Chile Company, who even sell a tamal-making kit with everything you need.

Banana leaves (if you want to go Yucatecan or Oaxacan with your tamales) are available from certain Asian grocers. They are not part of Cantonese cuisine, so look for shops that feature Southeast Asian/Thai (or even Caribbean) ingredients.

Ever since the Spanish brought pork to Mexico, tamal dough has usually been mixed with melted pork lard to give it more flavour and a lighter texture. However, considering the amount of fat you need, this is one time I tend to substitute butter. Oil just doesn’t cut it, flavour- or texture-wise. (I have also read of Mexicans using vegetable shortening, especially in the North. I tried this once, however, and was not satisfied with the results.)

Note from the gringa:
I have added a very easy recipe for rendering lard at home to this list of recipes so you can make as much as you need to make tamales for days!)

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The tamal dough
  1. 200g masa harina
  2. 100 g melted butter
  3. 250 mL chicken stock
  4. ½ tsp baking powder
  5. salt to season
  6. 100 g corn husks
The filling
  1. 200 g tinned chiles poblanos, to be cut into strips (rajas)
  2. 150g queso fresco, to be crumbled or cut into ½ cm-thick strips
  3. A hot, smooth cooked salsa (optional)
To serve
  1. More salsa
The night before you intend to serve
  1. Put all the corn husks into a bowl, cover with water, weigh them down with a plate so they are all fully submerged, and leave to soak overnight.
The next day
  1. Cut your tinned poblano chiles into 2 inch strips and crumble your queso fresco into a bowl or cut into strips about 2 inches long and ½ cm wide. You will also need some salsa on hand, if using.
  2. Now to make the dough: sift the masa harina and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Melt the butter in a pan and pour it over the masa harina, then gradually stir in the chicken stock until you have a thick pasty mixture. Taste a bit and season if it’s too bland.
  3. Now drain the corn husks. Lay a corn husk out as flat as possible (you want it to curve slightly inward, though) with the narrow end pointing toward you.
  4. Scoop out about a dessertspoon of the tamal dough and spread it out on the corn husk in a square or rectangular shape about 2 ½ inches on the vertical side, leaving at least 1 cm gap on the top and left-hand edges.
  5. Add some cheese strips or a teaspoon of the crumbled cheese in the middle of the dough (leave a gap at the edges), a few strips of chile, and drizzle with a bit of salsa, if using.
  6. Now fold the tamal over from the left side so that the dough completely encircles the filling and the husk is completely sealed. Fold the bottom and (optionally) top edges of the husk down and tie them with kitchen string or, more authentically, strips of corn husk (just take an imperfect husk and pull it into thin strips along the grain. It will tear easily). Any unused husks can be left to dry out and be reused the next time you make tamales.
  7. Now you need a steamer. Prop the tamales up against the sides of the steamer with the top end (ie the widest end) up, cover, and steam on high. (They make special tamal steamers with extra high sides, but I find you can just about manage with a standard non-reactive metal steamer.) What will not work is one of those bamboo steamers that fit inside a wok. They are just too small.
  8. The tamales will need to steam on high for at least 45 minutes, with about 10 minutes of low-to-medium steam. So if you start with just-boiled water from the kettle, you should be ready to serve in just under an hour.
I told you this wasn’t a quick recipe
  1. A first you will probably think nothing is happening. Then, after 20 minutes to half an hour, your kitchen will be filled with the miraculous smell of tamales cooking. It’s impossible to describe, but completely unforgettable.
  2. To serve, arrange the tamales on a plate and let people help themselves. You should have another plate or bowl for discarded husks and extra salsa on the side.
If you don’t have a steamer, don’t despair. Make Muk-Bil!
  1. Muk-Bil is a Yucatecan “tamal-pie”. Originally it was cooked in a pit oven, but it works just as well in a normal oven.
  2. Make the tamal-dough as above. Line a casserole dish with half a banana leaf (as this is Yucatecan, you really should go with banana leaves, but you can still use corn husks if you want to, or neither if you grease the dish).
  3. Put in ⅔ to ¾ of the dough and press it against the bottom and sides of the dish. Then add all your filling and salsa to taste.
  4. Press the remaining dough against the centre of the other half of the banana leaf. Leave plenty of room around the edges; you want just enough area to cover the “pie”.
  5. Put the banana leaf on the “pie” dough-side down, forming a “lid”. Trim off the excess leaf so you can get the lid closed.
  6. Bake at 180 C for 30-45 minutes. Before serving check the edges to see if they are cooked through (they should have “risen” and feel more springy than the raw dough).
  7. Once it is cooked, cut it into slices and serve with extra salsa on the side.
The salsa
  1. Any salsa will do, but ideally you want one that will complement the filling. Poblanos are a mild, fresh green chile, so a good contrast is a salsa made with hot, dried red chiles. To me, “hot dried red chiles” means one thing: chiles de arbol, the “tree chile”, second-hottest in Mexico (after the habanero). This chile is frequently featured in the hot red salsa taquera (taco sauce) that graces nearly all taco stands in Mexico.
  1. Is an Edinburgh-based blogger and his site is a journey in celebration of Mexican food in the UK: home cooking, restaurant reviews and the finest products and ingredients on the market. Find more recipes and news at http://mexigeekedinburgh.blogspot.co.uk/
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