With the holidays upon us, and chef Ramon Velazquez at my disposal, I find myself consumed with one thought: Tamales. (Specifically, extracting his recipe for same.) “Tamales mean a celebration to anybody in Mexico,” he said. “Sort of a big deal, a fiesta, when you welcome someone to your house. You get everybody involved — it’s a lot of labor … The kids gather the ingredients, the moms do the dough, as people arrive they get involved, and that’s when you have the time to talk, to learn about grandma, maybe about how grandma met grandpa, you know?”
In other words, when it comes to making tamales, it’s the journey, not the destination. Oh, who are we kidding? It’s the destination, too.
Ramon Velazquez’s Tamales
“At Cielito Restaurant we make our own tamale dough from scratch, but an excellent alternative is buying dry tamale dough base and hydrate, or try La Bella Rosa on the Westside for tamale-ready dough that is just as delicious and efficient.”
Tamale Stuffing (makes about 3 cups)
3 Tbsp. canola oil
3/4 cup white onion
2 tsp. garlic
2 cups butternut squash
2 cups chayote squash
2 cups poblano chile pepper strips, roasted, peeled, and deveined
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
In a saucepan, heat canola oil, add white onion, and brown. Add garlic, butternut squash, chayote squash, and poblano pepper strips. Cook ingredients until soft; season with salt and pepper to taste.
Tamale Salsa Verde Sauce (makes about 2 cups)
1 pound tomatillos, halved
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 chiles jalapeños (add to taste)
½ cup water
½ cup white onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
Roast tomatillos and garlic in a nonstick pan about 4 minutes on each side. Add chiles, ½ cup of water, and salt to taste. Blend, put sauce in a 3-quart pot, and bring to a boil.
Building Your Tamales
Cover the husks with very hot water, weighted with a plate to keep them submerged, and let stand for a couple of hours until the husks are pliable. To form the tamales, separate out the largest and most pliable husks. If you can’t find enough good ones, overlap some of the large ones to give wide, sturdy surfaces to spread the batter on. Pat the chosen husks dry with a towel.
One at a time, form the tamales: Lay out one of your chosen corn husks with the tapering end toward you. Pat a rectangle of dough (masa) onto the middle of the husk. Spoon about 1½ tablespoons of the filling down the center of the dough, about 1½ inches from the bottom. Pick up the two long sides of the corn husk, and bring them together (this will cause the dough to surround the filling). If the uncovered borders of the two long sides you’re holding are narrow, tuck one side under the other; if wide, roll both sides in the same direction around the tamale. Finally, fold up the empty 1½-inch section of the husk (to form a tightly closed “bottom” leaving the top open), and secure it in place by loosely tying one of the strings or strips of husk around the tamale. As they’re made, stand the tamales on their folded bottoms in the prepared steamer. Don’t tie the tamales too tightly or pack them too closely in the steamer. They need room to expand.
Steaming tamales can be done in batches in a collapsible vegetable steamer set into a large, deep saucepan. To steam them all at once, you need something like the kettle-size tamale steamers used in Mexico or Asian stack steamers. It is best to line the rack or upper part of the steamer with leftover cornhusks to protect the tamales from direct contact with the steam and to add more flavor. Make sure to leave tiny spaces between the husks so condensing steam can drain off.
To steam, set the lid in place, and steam over a constant medium heat for about 1 1/4 hours. Tamales are done when the husk peels away from the dough easily. Let tamales stand in the steamer off the heat for a few minutes to firm up. For the best textured tamales, let them cool completely, then re-steam about 15 minutes to heat through.
Finish dish with minced cilantro, finely chopped onion, and crème fraîche.
And remember, as Velazquez says: The key to a good tamale is to steam to order.