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corn husks for tamales?

Mexican Vegetarian

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#1 byrdhouse

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Posted 13 December 2003 - 03:43 AM

Good evening. We are newcomers to this forum. Our question does not address Mexico per se, but we hope it will engender responses from fellow tamale enthusiasts.

We live in an isolated community on the far northern California coast (Eureka is the largest town). There is virtually no good Mexican cuisine in local restaurants, although the Chicano community is sizeable. A couple of the multitude of cheap restaurants provide decent tapa-style tacos, but little else; the vegetarians have intimidated them. :angry:

Our own home is the only place we can expect such routine fare as frijoles de olla, refritos, carnitas, chile verde, etc. [We render our own lard, whereas local restaurants use only vegetable oil; accordingly, their food is overwhelmingly bland.] :wink:

Recently I bonded with a couple of Spanish language teachers at the local college where I teach. We agreed that we are starved for real tamales, since all we can get is tasteless, dense, and flavorless.

So we decided to do a "tamale project" in January, after all the holiday stress is over; we booked a small "boutique" bakery that has an industrial mixer for the masa/lard/broth, and we've agree that we're going to bring our own fillings, and conduct a Tamale Assembly that will produce freezable and delicious tamales. And if we run out of fillings, we'll generate a bunch of "tamales de casa," fillingless dumplings that can be used to make the Mexican version of "tamale pie."

The last time my wife and I made tamales, we were totally successful, except that we struck out on corn husks: our "Achilles Heel" was the husks, which were Safeway, hence small and old (prolonged soaking tended to have little effect - they remained stiff, and using 2-3 husks per tamal was tedious and time-consuming). The supermarket stuff doesn't cut it.

Since so much quality will be going into this project, does anyone have a source for high-quality corn husks? (I'd welcome ideas for fillings too, although one of our 5 participants is a visiting Guatamalan mama, who has some entirely different recipes.)

#2 Jaymes

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Posted 13 December 2003 - 11:55 AM

Good luck on your January "Tamalada."

When I am not in an area where I can pick up quality Mexican products, I order them from mexgrocer.com

Everything I've gotten from them has been first-rate.

Edit: I just noticed a link to mexgrocer.com at the top of my page here on eGullet. Don't know if that link appears all the time. But it seems as though eGullet may get a commission if you click on the link and arrive at mexgrocer through eGullet. If so, I'm sure the jefes at eGullet would appreciate it if you order that way.

Edited by Jaymes, 13 December 2003 - 12:01 PM.


#3 ExtraMSG

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Posted 20 December 2003 - 03:53 AM

Yeah, online is probably your only source. Even tiendas and Mexgrocer won't be able to compete with what you find in Mexicos's mercados. If I was going to bring one thing back with me from a Mexican market it would probably be a good supply of large, wonderful, cheap corn husks. Second would be some fresh huitlacoche. I have no idea if I could get either in the country, though.

I usually end up using multiple corn husks per tamal. I use the worst of the husks for strings to tie up the tamales, tearing down strips and tying two together to make them long enough.

When using multiple husks for tamales, first use one and do the best you can, then add the second as a patch focusing on the area least covered, then finish the folding. I leave my corn husk tamales open on one end to allow for expansion. I also tie them twice per tamal.

Eureka's not a big place, but maybe you'd have better luck finding banana leaves and doing southern Mexican style tamales, too. Nearly every Asian grocer has frozen banana leaves.

#4 chefette

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Posted 22 December 2003 - 02:01 PM

I read your thread the other day and just now I happened to see some Corn Husks on sale in the store. Whole Foods carries these http://888eatchile.c...sp?intCat_ID=26. I noticed that online they are $5.40 for 6oz, but in the store they were selling for $4.49

From Los Chileros de Nueve Mexico

#5 byrdhouse

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Posted 22 December 2003 - 03:38 PM

Thank you, Chefette. The WholeFoods husks (6 oz.) pictured look similar to what I ended up ordering from GourmetSleuth.com, which were 8 oz. The price was even better, $3.25/package. They have arrived, and we are delighted: big, 7-8 inches wide, bright and clean, with a substantial feel to them. With shipping, 5 pounds came to $43, but I'd guess there are 70-80 tamales per pound. There's a nice sheet of tamale hints with them (Ex., "the tamale is cooked when it separates easily from the corn husk").

We've been preparing by hitting up our local meat markets for free pork and beef fat, which I'm rendering. It browns slightly while cooking, which adds more flavor than the commercial lard. I'm not sure what I'd use as a substitute if we were making vegetarian tamales; probably Crisco, which will whip up nicely, although I have seen recipes for butter. The problem, of course, is that fat and broth give the flavor to the masa, and make it more than a bland casing for the filling.

Another useful hint I've picked up is to cover each layer of tamales with extra husks during the steaming, and even to wrap the whole layer with a few more. The subtle flavor is thus intensified. I'm looking forward to making the last batch with the remains of the masa and no filling at all (an alternative would be some crumbled añejo cheese or a few rajas de chile verde).

And having multiple cooks not only means an assembly line, but we'll each get a variety of tamales to take home and freeze. :smile:

For those who are beginners, note that tamales are not supposed to have sauce over them, since the sauce is part of the filling and on the interior of the tamal. One of the reasons bad Mexican restaurants pour canned enchilada sauce over their tamales is to compensate for lack of flavor in the tamales themselves.

#6 bleudauvergne

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 03:44 AM

I once reached tamale nirvana (it was home made, shared with me by a kid I met on a bike trip). Ever since that afternoon so long ago I have been trying very hard to re-create that tamale experience. Many dissapointments in restaurants and finally I have resorted to doing it on my own. It's not so easy because I live in France. Masa Harina is not available here. But I brought 5 lb. bag with me last time I was back in the states. So I've been making them.

I have a couple of questions which might seem odd.

1) Can I use fresh corn husks, and if not, why not? I have been using baking paper but I think I could get some fresh husks from a local farmer.

2) I did notice that the home made tamales create their own juice and don't need sauce, but I am having a party where I plan to serve tamales and realized that some people don't like cilantro. Would it be a complete no-no to make a roasted pepper sauce with cilantro and one without and set it on the side for serving?

3) What is the best accompaniment to a tamale?

Thanks!

-Lucy

#7 byrdhouse

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 07:46 AM

1)  Can I use fresh corn husks, and if not, why not?  I have been using baking paper but I think I could get some fresh husks from a local farmer. 

2)  I did notice that the home made tamales create their own juice and don't need sauce, but I am having a party where I plan to serve tamales and realized that some people don't like cilantro.  Would it be a complete no-no to make a roasted pepper sauce with cilantro and one without and set it on the side for serving? 

3) What is the best accompaniment to a tamale? 

1) Yes, there are regions of Latin America where fresh corn husks are used. I have no experience with them, so I can't advise how the tamales would be different. Banana leaves and avocado leaves are also used, but they would likely be even harder to work with. (There is one state in Mexico that instead of individual tamales, features one huge platter-sized one.)

2) and 3)If you substitute "dumpling" for "tamale" you will always be on the right track. Dumplings (a tamale is a corn dumpling) can be put in soups, or served with sauce or other accompaniments. A home-made roasted pepper sauce sounds like it would be fine. I personally would make a salsa and a "pico de gallo" (which in my case would include minced tomato, pickled chiles and carrots, onion, cilantro, and Mexican oregano, with vinegar and salt - a kind of relish, rather than a fresh salsa). You could also use creme fraische, which is similar to (though thicker than) Mexican "crema."

A resource we've found invaluable is Native Seeds/Search in Tucson, AZ. I particularly recommend their Sonoran Desert oregano, which has a sour, pungent flavor quite different from the Italian kind. Also a good place for chiles and chile powders.

#8 GG Mora

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 07:54 AM

Too late for byrdhouse, I'm afraid, but another good online source for Mex ingredients is The CMC Company. Everything I've gotten from them (masa, corn husks, an assortment of dried peppers and herbs) has been first-rate. The website is a little frustrating in its organization and "literalness", but the goods are there. For example, "corn husks" aren't listed anywhere...only listed as "Hojas Para Tamal", and not under "Corn Kitchen" or "Essential Items" in the Mexican section, but under "Mexican Specialties". Oh, well. Small complaint – the stuff is still good.

#9 bleudauvergne

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 01:21 PM

What would you say if I said I was considering using duck fat instead of lard to make the tamales? Would that seem bad?

Thanks,
Lucy

#10 theabroma

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:38 PM

1)  Can I use fresh corn husks, and if not, why not?  I have been using baking paper but I think I could get some fresh husks from a local farmer. 

2)  I did notice that the home made tamales create their own juice and don't need sauce, but I am having a party where I plan to serve tamales and realized that some people don't like cilantro.  Would it be a complete no-no to make a roasted pepper sauce with cilantro and one without and set it on the side for serving? 

3) What is the best accompaniment to a tamale? 

1) Yes, there are regions of Latin America where fresh corn husks are used. I have no experience with them, so I can't advise how the tamales would be different. Banana leaves and avocado leaves are also used, but they would likely be even harder to work with. (There is one state in Mexico that instead of individual tamales, features one huge platter-sized one.)

Tamal wrappers:

Fresh corn husks are used, chiefly, to wrap fresh corn tamales, which are an especial delicacy of the State of Michoacan, and are called uchepos. Read Diana Kennedy in her Art of Mexican Cooking to find out about them. In Mexico they are made from fresh field corn (dent, flint, or flour corns), and the kernels contain sufficient starch to hold together when they are steamed. Here, using our sweet corn, you need to toss in a bit of cornstarch to bind them together. The fresh corn masa is dropped into the husk in the curve at its base, and they are then basically rolled up, as they naturally rolled around the ear of corn. They are steamed just like dried corn masa tamales. I don't know that you absolutely couldn't put dried corn masa in a fresh husk and successfully steam a tamal, but typically you see fresh corn/fresh husk, dried corn/dried husk. Tamales are also wrapped in Swiss chard leaves, and the leaves of other edible plants. There is another tamal, the corunda, or ash tamal (the masa is made by boiling diluted wood ash with the corn instead of cal, or calcium hydroxide). They are pyramid shaped, with rounded sides, and they are wrapped in the fresh leaf of the corn plant[I].

Avocado leaves are hard to come by here - you can buy dried ones in the spice and herb section of a Mexican grocery, and use them with, say, black beans, for flavoring. But the big, fresh leaves required for tamal making are scarce - I have never found them here in the States.

Banana leaves are really easy to work with ... if you've got a good source for them. Some markets sell them in packages frozen. They must be 'blanched' by passing them over a flame (stove burner, electric or gas), and as you move the leaf back and forth, you will see it soften, and taken on a gloss. Place the leaf on a flat surface and, using a very sharp knife, cut the central stiff vein out of the leaf. Then cut it crosswise into 10" segments, and you are ready to roll.

The huge tamal is a zacahuil, from the Huastec region of Mexico (Hidalgo, Veracruz) and it is constructed on banana leaves, laid out on a banana stalk lattice (looks much like a ladder), and it is baked in an oven. A zacahuil can be large enough to contain a whole hog or some turkeys. It's a big social event, and .... sorry, I can't help myself ... it really does take a community to raise a zacahuil.

Sauced or Sauceless: it is traditional to serve tamales with a variety of salsas or mole sauces, or crema and sauteed strips of chile jalapeno or poblano.

The best accompaniment to any tamal is a very cold beer and lots of good friends.

Regards,

Theabroma
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#11 theabroma

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:42 PM

What would you say if I said I was considering using duck fat instead of lard to make the tamales? Would that seem bad?

Thanks,
Lucy

Be aware that the duck fat may well be more liquid at room temp than lard or butter. That being the case, you will need to test out amounts, and perhaps consider adding a bit of rice flour or cornstarch to the masa with duck fat to keep it from being slumpy.

No reason you couldn't use it, and every reason to experiment. Sounds delicious.

Theabroma
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#12 bleudauvergne

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 01:19 AM

Thank you thank you! Theabroma!

The chard idea sounds very nice since this is something all over the market right now. I hope this is what the French call bettes (some people say Blettes but it's not lyonnais). A large white stemmed veggie with big green leaves. What would be a nice way to tie if I used the bettes?

What other leaves might be used? I love this idea and am going to try it tomorrow for Thursday. I think my Africa man also has bananna leaves, I'll have to look closer next time. He's only at St. Antoine on the weekends, however.

If anyone opened a good mexican restaurant here in Lyon France they'd get rich, by the way.

Point taken about the duck fat, I thought of that myself, and will adjust accordingly.

I'll let you know how this turns out.

Thanks to all. :wub:

- Lucy

Edited by bleudauvergne, 10 February 2004 - 01:21 AM.


#13 theabroma

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 12:32 PM

bleudauvergne, what are you using for the masa? can you get Quaker Masa Harina or Maseca there? Easily? Are you making your own? Also, what ratio of masa to fat are you using for the masa? I am curious!

Theabroma

Edited by theabroma, 10 February 2004 - 12:36 PM.

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#14 bleudauvergne

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 01:03 PM

what are you using for the masa? can you get Quaker Masa Harina or Maseca there? Easily? Are you making your own?


Last time I was at back in the states I picked up a 4.4 lb bag 2 kilos of

"MASECA

Masa instantenea de maiz

Para Hacer: Tortillas, Tamales, Enchiladas, Pupusas, Atoles, y Otros Platillos Mexicanos, Centro y Sur Americanos. "

From Azteca Milling L.P.

It has directions in English but the directions make far more than I ever could imagine being able to eat nor have freezer space for (I live in the city) so I have adapted it and created my own little recettes for small quantities. I mean do mexican moms make 400 tamales at a time or do they make enough for the family fresh each time?

Is that one an OK brand? The results so far with it have been just fine by my standards, but then again, I'm judging from the memory from 17 years ago, one sultry summer afternoon outside Boston somewhere. After a long day of biking, these boys came to meet us in the park with these wonderful fabulous tamales in their backbpack they were wrapped in foil...

As far as finding sources in Lyon, I have to do more checking. There may be channels I am not aware of. I am a weekend tamale maker. But I suspect, due to the complete void of all mexican products in any and all venues I have been here, (I've scrounged just about everywhere within the city itself and taken notes on various ethnic products from many cultures here) anyone preparing to set up a real authentic Mexican kitchen may have to consider preparing a container shipment every couple of months, I think. The peppers here are hard to translate from recipes, many varieties of peppers but none really matching what I've learned from american sources, but I have found a nice selection of different peppers coming from Marocco and Africa in general that do alright but I suppose not exactly the right thing.

I really do need to take a pepper course. A serious pepper course where I can see the peppers and know what they're used for in order to use them judiciously and with skill. It's mostly a shot in the dark each time for me. Sorry, off topic.

I will report on the strange tamales I'm mixing up over here soon
-Lucy

#15 ludja

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 01:22 PM

Probably a silly question, but does anyone dry their own corn husks from fresh corn they eat in the summer and then use them for tamales in the winter? Not exactly sure on the best way to dry them so they are stlil pliable.
"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

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#16 ExtraMSG

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 12:52 AM

They wouldn't need to still be pliable since you could soak them. I imagine that you could go about it several ways. It'd be interesting to have someone test it. I'd probably start by putting the oven on the lowest setting and putting them in there. Or maybe the lowest setting with the door open. I wonder if a dehydrator would work at all.

#17 theabroma

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 05:11 PM

This is making me want to round up the troops and have a tamalada.

Yes, Maseca is the current gold standard for nixtamalized corn flour used to make tamales, gorditas, tortillas, etc. There are two varieties, one in a white bag for tortillas, and one in a pink bag for tamales. This 'difference' is a bit of a refinement: the grind for tamal masa is a bit coarser than that for tortillas. Either, however serve both purposes, with the white bag tortilla variety being the most generally useful.

Sit down, bleudeauvergne. The first time I was taken to a tamalada, to learn how to make them, there were about 10 'viejas' - little old ladies. They gossipped, cooked, sliced, and diced their way to a stunning 200 dozen in one day ... ok, they had cooked the pig's head the night before. I have seen production kitchens and slam kitchens, and I have never seen anyone in a kitchen who could not have learned a trick or twelve from those grandmas.

As for drying your own, yes you can do it. A few problems here, though. The prepopnderance of our corn is sweet corn, whereas the corn needed and used for tamales is field corn - flint, dent, flour. The ears, and consequently, the husks are much larger, as well as rounder - they are cut at the top of the stalk, not at the bottom of the ear. They are scattered out on concrete pads, or else on the roofs of houses, to dry. They are turned daily, and once completely dry, they are stacked and tied in bundles.

Theabroma
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#18 ExtraMSG

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 06:19 PM

One thing that sucks, too, is that you really can't get good corn husks in the US. At least I haven't found them yet. You see the ones available at markets in Mexico and it's like Jenny's response to seeing Forrest Gump's member for the first time: "where have you been all my life." (book, not movie) Good corn husks make a big difference, I think, in the ease of making tamales, not to mention the options it gives you with size. I end up using two husks per tamal way too often.

Speaking of las abuelas. The talk on the Mexico City thread of El Bajio made me think of the open kitchen with all the abuelas working away. I could spend hours just watching them work.

#19 bleudauvergne

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 01:04 PM

Hi I'd like to check back in to say that my tamales turned out great. The chard was rather awkward because it's very long and the green parts aren't big and flat enough to take a tamale. I was afraid it was going to get too soggy, plus I had 9 guests coming. I ended up using - eek - baking paper again! I did make them with duck fat which was scrumptious, and wild mushrooms. But one discriminating American guest said - very convincingly - "These are the best damn tamales I've ever eaten!" which gave a whole lot of credibility to the whole thing. (He was actually from Minnesota and had never had a tamale before.) The French guests asked for all details on every single ingredient and I felt very in the know as I informed them of the ways in which corn husks which are usually used are dried on the hot roofs of mexico. And all of the other possibilities for wrapping, and let them touch the MASECA package as it was passed from hand to hand around the room and then whisked it back into my kitchen. One person asked what Pupusas and Atoles are, and if I am going to make them soon. This photos is of dividing the one tamale that was leftover.
Posted Image
Edited to say thanks to everyone who helped!!
-Lucy

Edited by bleudauvergne, 16 February 2004 - 01:05 PM.


#20 theabroma

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 01:23 PM

Mlle Fromage:

What a wonderful photo! It emanates the ease of a wonderful meal. Congratulations, and thanks for sending that picture. Glad it worked out. Now I am going to give the duck fat a whirl. ANYTHING but Crisco!!!!!!

Regards,

Theabroma
Sharon Peters aka "theabroma"

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