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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 12/ 2/2010

Project Downscale: Tamales and refried beans

By Joe Yonan

The steamed tamales, ready to be unwrapped. (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

If I had my West Texas childhood to live all over again, here’s one thing I would do: Ask my high school buddy Stella Galindo (or any number of other Mexican-American friends in San Angelo) to invite me to her family’s annual tamalada, or tamal-making party. The fact is, as much as I have always loved Mexican, and Tex-Mex, food, I did relatively little to learn how to make it myself during the years I was in the presence of so many great practitioners of the cuisine. I was too busy perfecting my chicken-fried steak, I suppose.

Perhaps, too, it was because great tamales were so easy to come by, especially around the holidays, when every Mexican-American family I knew seemed to churn them out by the thousands. As HRH Diana Kennedy writes in her seminal “The Cuisines of Mexico,” of course the dish predates not only Texas, but the Spanish arrival in Mexico, too. “Tamales are made for an occasion,” she writes, “and an occasion is made of making them. … Tamales are fiesta food, the Sunday night special in many restaurants, the ceremonial food prepared in honor of the dead on All Saints’ Day.” The latter is probably why they came to be associated with Christmas in Mexican-American households. The Texas tamalada is akin to a cookie-baking party or a quilting bee: an assembly-line production that includes plenty of conversation.

Lisa Fain, who blogs eloquently at Homesick Texan, describes it like so: “Certainly a tamale party takes an investment of time. But the rewards are outstanding. Not only will you have a terrific meal (and hopefully lots of leftover tamales to freeze and steam at a later date, just when you need a quick fix), but it’s also very satisfying working in harmony with a group of treasured friends and family toward a common goal. A perfect way to celebrate the season.”

Recipe Included

Given that this is my second dish for Project Downscale, at this point I think I know what you’re thinking, and it goes something like this: “Really? Are you seriously going to tell us, after all of that, that tamales can -- or even should -- be made for one?”

Hmm. Well, I am indeed going to tell you that this party food, known for its large quantities and special-occasion status can, like just about anything else, be made in small portions. As for whether it should be -- well, read on.

The idea to try tamales for PD came to me from Alejandra Owens, who blogs about cooking at One Bite at a Time (and whose Twitter name is, delightfully, @frijolita). She’s an Arizona native, transplanted to Washington, and says:

I've learned slowly but surely how to make many of the foods I grew up eating -- but I always have to invite several people over due to the large-batch nature of traditional Mexican recipes. Also, I have to summon up a great amount of energy and do a little psych myself up dance because it takes several hours, if not days, to prepare a traditional Mexican meal. For once I'd like to be able to come home after work and have some frijoles refritos and a tamale (or two).

Well, for refried beans, Frijolita, it’s really simple. Rather than a full-fledged recipe, I’ll just blurb you through it. Get in the habit of making a pound of dried beans from scratch periodically (following Steve Sando’s master method or this great post from Pati’s Mexican Table), then freeze them with their liquid in cup-size containers. Transfer one from freezer to fridge the day before you want to fry them, then do this: Heat a little olive oil over medium heat in a medium cast-iron pan, and add 1/2 teaspoon or so of freshly ground cumin and another 1/2 teaspoon of ground dried ancho or other chili pepper, and let the spices bloom for 30 seconds or so, then add a chopped garlic clove and a chopped shallot lobe and saute until the veggies are tender. Spoon in the cup of cooked and defrosted beans with their liquid. Let it bubble up and heat through, then use a fork or potato masher to mash the beans in the pan. Taste and add salt and pepper, and keep cooking until the beans have thickened up the way you like them.

Now for the tamales. I started with this recipe for Spicy Mushroom Tamales from “Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen” (Scribner, 1996) for three reasons:

1) I love Rick’s recipes.
2) It looked easily divisible: It makes 16 tamales, and I wanted four, and Rick includes both volume and weight measures.
3) I was at my sister’s house in southern Maine for Thanksgiving, and with the exception of the masa harina, we had everything we needed on hand, including beautiful oyster mushrooms she had foraged that week.

I switched out cherry tomatoes and a shallot for the larger toms and onion, but other than that, it was pretty much a matter of math. And with Rick’s directions to guide me, this was really not very tough at all: The hardest part was finding a bowl small enough to allow for efficient beating of the masa. (If you don’t beat the masa/shortening mix well enough, your tamales won’t be light and tender.) The result was delicious: four perfect tamales.

Enough pussy-footing around, and back to the crucial question at hand. Is it worth it to make such a small batch? This is enough for two meals, in my book, because I want to eat two tamales at a sitting, and yet it takes at least an hour and a half to make. That’s about 15 minutes to make the masa dough, another 15 minutes to form the tamales and about an hour of steaming. I’m including the four-tamal recipe here in case you want to try it this way, but the fact is, much like beans, tamales freeze beautifully. That means you can go ahead and scale this up (or follow Rick's original recipe) to make eight or 16 (or even more), save perhaps four to eat over the course of a couple of days, and freeze the rest. I’d suggest wrapping batches of two or four tightly in aluminum foil, then packing those foil packs into larger plastic freezer bags.

On those busy days when you want a tamal or two for dinner, put the foil packs directly into a 350-degree oven still frozen, and bake for about 30 minutes. While they’re heating, refry those beans, get out your favorite salsa and prepare to be taken right back to Texas (or Arizona).

Do I hear plans for a tamalada taking shape? This time, I'll come right out and say it: I would appreciate an invitation.

Yonan is the author of "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," coming in March from Ten Speed Press.

Spicy Mushroom Tamales
Makes 4 tamales

You can fill the tamales with any cooked meat or vegetable you desire, combined with enough salsa to be moist but not soupy. Black beans with queso fresco or mozzarella are a favorite combination.

You'll need 8 corn husks.

Adapted from "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen" (Scribner, 1996).

For the masa dough
7 tablespoons dried masa harina
4 1/2 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cool chicken broth

For the filling
12 ripe cherry tomatoes (about 1/4 pound)
1 small fresh poblano chili pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 shallot lobe, cut into thin slices
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
2 ounces oyster, chanterelle or other flavorful mushrooms, cut into thin slices (about 1 cup)

Beating the masa and fat helps ensure the tamales will be light ...

... and you'll know you've beaten it enough when a pinch of dough floats.

After you spread a square of tamal dough onto the corn husk ...

... the filling goes inside ...

... and the tamales, folded so the dough encloses the filling, get tied up and stacked in the steamer. Wads of foil keep them standing upright.

The tamales are done when the corn husk peels away easily.

A little salsa can go on top, if you like. (Photos by Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

Cover the corn husks with water in a large saucepan set over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, then weight the corn husks with a heavy plate to keep them submerged. Let them stand for at least an hour.

To make the dough, stir together the masa harina and hot water in a small bowl and let cool.

Combine the chilled lard and baking powder in a small bowl and use an electric hand-held mixer to beat the mixture on high speed until it is light in texture, about 1 minute. Continue beating as you add the reconstituted masa in three additions. Slowly add 2 tablespoons of the broth, and beat for another minute. Test the dough by adding a 1/2-teaspoon dollop to a cup of cold water; if it floats the tamales will be tender and light. Beat in the remaining 2 teaspoons of broth. Season with salt to taste.

For the filling: Turn on the oven broiler.

Put the tomatoes and poblano pepper on a rimmed baking sheet set 4 inches or so below the flame, and broil until they are blackened and blistered on all sides, about 10 minutes total, turning every few minutes.

Transfer the poblano to a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a plate. Let stand about 5 minutes, then peel, pull out and discard the stem, seed pod and seeds. Cut the flesh into 1/4-inch strips.

Coarsely chop the tomatoes.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until the oil starts to shimmer. Add the shallot and garlic and saute until lightly browned and tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the roasted poblano, tomatoes and mushrooms; cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms collapse and release their juices, about 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste and cool.

To form and steam the tamales, pick out 4 nice corn husks, then use the remaining 4 husks to line a small steamer set into a medium saucepan. Fill the pan with 1 to 2 inches of water. Tear four 1/4-inch strips off one of the extra husks for tying the tamales.

Lay a corn husk in front of you, lightly pat it dry, then spread a scant 1/4 cup of masa dough into a 4-inch square, leaving at least a 1 1/2-inch border on the pointed end of the husk and 3/4 inches on the other sides. (Use a spoon or palette knife dipped in cold water to keep from sticking.) Spoon about 2 tablespoons of filling down the center of the batter. Pick up the two long sides of the husk and bring them together, causing the batter to roll around and enclose the filling. Roll the flaps of the husk in the same direction across the tamal to enclose it. Fold up the empty, pointy section of husk to close off the bottom of the tamal, then secure it by tying one of the strips of husk around the tamal and the folded flap. Stand the tamal on the folded end in the steamer, leaving the top open.

Repeat to form the remaining 3 tamales, and fill in the gaps in the steamer with loosely wadded foil to keep the tamales from sliding down. Lay any unused husks over the tamales. Cover the pot, bring to a boil and steam over medium heat for 60 to 75 minutes, making sure the water stays at a steady boil and never runs out; replenish the water as needed. The tamales are done when the husk peels away easily. Remove from the heat and let them firm up for a few minutes in the steamer before eating.

By Joe Yonan  | December 2, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Cooking for One, Recipes  | Tags:  Joe Yonan, Project Downscale, recipes  
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Wait a minute...San Angelo isn't in West Texas...

Posted by: JayeVee | December 3, 2010 12:22 AM | Report abuse

I don't have an atlas with me and I've not lived in Tx, but isn't San Angelo where Lyndon Johnson went to college? If so, then I think it is in what is considered west Tx. At least that is how it was described in Robert Caro's bio of LBJ.

Posted by: familynet | December 3, 2010 5:41 AM | Report abuse

Hon, it's south of Abilene. While it's just a bit west of Austin, I'd say that counts. Hill Country kind of, but West Hill Country.

Posted by: BadMommy1 | December 3, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

Lyndon Johnson lived in Stonewall Texas, about 45-50 miles west of Austin (on the road to Kerrville, Texas) and went to school in San Marcos which is 30 miles south of Austin (right on US 35).

Posted by: DonJose42 | December 3, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Who among us grew up there? Hey, I did! Of course it's in West Texas: It's 4.5 hours west of Austin. West Texas is a big place, y'all. It's not the Hill Country because, believe you me, there are exactly zero hills! If I'm driving there at night, and I've done the drive from Austin hundreds of times, I can see the lights of S.A. from a good 50 miles away: a single line on the horizon.

Posted by: Joe Yonan | December 3, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

OMG, I can't believe you silly Yankees are arguing with a native West Texan about where his hometown is. Of course it's in West Texas. Take it from another West Texan, who's from Lubbock. And Joe, thanks so much for the recipe, but if you're pressed for time, do what we do -- order them online from Texas Tamale Co. They are superb.

Posted by: gklein31 | December 3, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, GK -- It's true, I didn't think that this of all things would be what we would end up devoting our commenting energy to! I'll check out TTC; and I'll also be sure to buy a bunch to bring back. I used to love patronizing Austin Tamale House. Even Central Market's tamales are damn good. Down there, pretty much everybody's are.

Posted by: Joe Yonan | December 3, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse


You must be a SAINT! Being able to limit yourself to just 2 of these deelicious tamales for dinner? Thanks for offering a healthy, delicious filling though!

BTW, if ever you cook a true Goan duck or pork vindaloo, do save the supernatant fat and use that as the shortening in your masa!!

Posted by: bosc817 | December 4, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Do you steam them before you freeze them?

I have always made them, frozen them, then steamed them from frozen when it's time to eat them.

Posted by: SAF_dc | December 6, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Interesting, SAF -- no, I do the opposite, following Diana Kennedy's method of steaming them, cooling, freezing, then baking in the oven from frozen as I described.

How long do they take to steam from frozen? I'll try it that way sometime.

Posted by: Joe Yonan | December 6, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

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