May 2, 2015
By Lou Groccia
Let’s make tamales.
I’m going to take you through the thoroughly enjoyable if somewhat time-consuming process.
First we’ll go on a one-stop shopping trip for the ingredients, and maybe have a little lunch while we’re at it.
Just what is a tamale, you ask?
This staple of Mexican cuisine is among the most versatile foods you can make. A specially treated cornmeal dough is stuffed with one of a wide-range of fillings, then the tamale is wrapped in a corn husk and steamed.
Then, you remove the tamale from the corn husk and garnish it with whatever sauce you like.
The usual fillings are ground meats, beans, chiles, cheese, vegetables or fruit. Since the process includes making the dough as well as soaking the husks, many cooks whip up dozens at a time. Believe me, this is the way to go. Tamales tend to be inhaled like potato chips.
Ok, now let’s go food shopping ... and have some lunch.
For me, that means heading to Hadley to visit The Ecuador Andino Store Latino Market. It’s located in the Village Shops complex just over the Coolidge Bridge from Northampton. As soon as you turn into the parking lot you’ll see the store on your left.
The beauty of this vibrant, busting-at-the-seams Central and South American market is that it doubles as a small restaurant. It’s owned and run by Tony Garay, of Ecuadoran descent, who lives in Hadley. He opened the business six years ago.
Tony (it took about three minutes after introductions for us to be on a first-name basis) is there every day of the week, from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., except Sundays, when he closes at 6 p.m., “because I have to have some time to do my laundry.”
That’s right, he’s working every day, except New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. On those days he’s closed.
Geography lesson: The Andino in the market’s name refers to the Andes, the South American mountain range that Ecuador is nestled in, just south of Colombia on the Pacific Ocean coast.
Before we pick out our tamale ingredients, let’s have Tony cook up a little lunch.
There is a small kitchen behind the cash register area. To the left of the register are two smaller counters where about four people can sit and eat inside. Outside there are three umbrella-shaded picnic tables on the lawn.
Near the cash register is a picture of the 20 Mexican meals that Tony makes to order. On previous visits, I’ve had the pleasure of watching him make me a Cubano sandwich ($8.99), beans and rice ($7.99), a pork burrito ($8.49) and Bistec ($10.99), which is a meat stew with yellow rice.
Tony takes pride in his creations: “I want everything I cook to be beautiful,” he told me. “It’s important to me.”
His prep station has at least two dozen ingredients ready to be added to the sizzling pans on his stove. As he was frying up a batch of beans and vegetables he reached for a bottle of sauce. “I want to make sure all the food comes out nice and tender, and seasoned, which is why I am squirting my ‘secret sauce’ on these beans right now,” he said.
He won’t say what’s in that sauce but the beans and rice — in a very hearty portion — tasted quite good.
Every day he makes at least one large rice cooker of yellow rice. Some days he’ll go through four of these.
Being a one-man operation, he has had to perfect the art of multi-tasking. As he cooks, he watches a monitor on the wall next to his stove so he can see when customers come into the store and balance waiting on them with preparing the food orders in a timely fashion. He handles this with aplomb which is critical during his lunch hours, when things can get, in his words, “quite crazy busy.”
OK, lunch is over. Let’s shop.
The market has three long aisles filled with groceries. Along one wall is a floor-to-ceiling cooler filled with about a dozen kinds of Mexican cheeses, four or five brands of tortillas, vacuum-packed cooked meats, miscellaneous items and cold drinks.
It’s these cold drinks that are among the market’s biggest sellers: tamarind juice, refrescas, coconut juice with pulp and dozens of other imported beverages.
But today we’re at the cooler looking for the 1.65-pound, plastic container of Manteca rendered pork fat ($6.99). That’s right, just pure, unadulterated pork fat. Some of this will be used for the dough.
Then we’ll turn around and walk down the middle aisle — past the wide selection of dried beans — to find the Maseca Tamal ($3.99). This is a 4.4-pound package of masa harina, which is used to make tamale dough as well as all your basic Latin American doughs: tortillas, pupusa, empanadas, gorditas, sopes.
Masa harina is the dried and powdered form of masa (which means dough in Spanish). It is reconstituted with water before use. (Don’t think you can just use that 3-year-old cylinder of corn meal you have in your cupboard. You cannot add water to cornmeal and create a dough. It has to go through a chemical process called nixtamalization for that, like masa harina).
Now we’ll keep walking past all the cellphone accessories hanging wherever there’s room to the other end of the market. Along the right-hand wall is where we’ll find at least 14 (at last count) types of dried chiles and all the spices you’ll ever need for Latin cooking.
But today we’re looking for a package of Hoja de Tamal dried corn husks ($3.99). This six-ounce package contains dozens of husks and should be enough if this is your first time making tamales. But there are larger packages there, too, if you are so inclined.
If you want a sauce or two for your tamales, go to the back of the store and you’ll be overwhelmed. And not just by the large selection of sauces. There are canned goods there of all ilk, like menudo (tripe stew). And six-pound cans of green tomatillos as well as green pickles and pickled jalapenos, etc., etc., etc.
Tony’s favorite sauce to drizzle on the plate is El Yucateco Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero ($3.99). It comes in green, his favorite, and red. Both are hot but each has a different flavor. They come in eight-ounce bottles.
It’s time to go home and make tamales.
Back in the kitchen
Tamale-making can be divided into five steps: making the dough, soaking the corn husks, making the filling, building the tamales and steaming them.
Making the dough and the filling can be done a day or two ahead. That way, on the day of all you have to do is soak the husks, build the tamales and steam them. That’s the way I do it.
3¼ cups Maseca Tamal
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3½ cups stock or water
¾ cup Manteca rendered pork fat
A pinch of salt.
In a large bowl, mix thoroughly the Maseca Tamal, baking powder and kosher salt. Add the stock or water and again mix thoroughly. Using your hands works well.
In a standing mixer beat until light and fluffy the Manteca rendered pork fat and pinch of salt.
Add the dough mixture in four stages into the fluffy pork fat and beat until the batter becomes smooth and slightly sticky. Drop a small ball of dough in a glass of water. If it sinks, you need to add more liquid. If it floats, it’s good to go.
Refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight. Use a mixer to beat the dough for just a minute or so more before making tamales. It should be like soft cookie dough.
Use your imagination. I’m chopping up some rotisserie chicken with cooked onions and some hot enchilada sauce I had on hand. You’ll need about 2 cups worth for about 18 tamales.
Soaking the corn husks:
Take around 25 usable larger corn husks and soak them in hot (not boiling) water. Placing a heavy lid on the pot helps keep them submerged. After about 30 minutes, drain and dry them off. Keep them in a plastic bag or covered dish so they don’t dry out too much before you use them.
Building the tamales:
With a large corn husk on a flat surface, spoon about 2 tablespoons of your dough onto the husk, spreading it down the middle. Leave about 4 inches from the narrow end of the husk and 2 inches from the other end. Spread the dough to the edge of one of the long sides and 2 inches away from the other side. The dough should be about a ¼-inch thick.
Now spread a couple of spoonfuls of your filling down the center of the dough, leaving at least 1 inch of dough around the sides.
If your corn husks are small, simply place two overlapping husks with one upside-down, then proceed like it’s one large one.
Carefully roll the tamale, starting with the side covered with dough. Turn it over to the center of the filling. Fold the other side over the filling, allowing the plain part of the husk to wrap around the filling. Fold down the tops and tie with strips of soaked husks.
Steaming the tamales:
In a large steamer, place a soaked corn husk to cover the bottom of the basket, leaving small gaps for steam to escape. Fill the basket with tamales, with open ends up. Loosely cover with a couple of husks. Steam for 90 minutes to two hours. Take one out to test for doneness. Dough should be smooth and come apart from the husk easily.
Remove from the husks and serve with your preferred sauce — maybe some crema (Mexican sour cream). Maybe a side of yellow rice.
By the way, the steamed tamales can be stored in the fridge for a week, or frozen. Simply resteam when ready to eat them.