Cooking Like a Mexican

 Cooking Like a Mexican

As the most vibrant season of Mexican cuisine draws to a close, it’s time to gear up for the grand finale known as Candelaria. While the United States has Groundhog Day, Mexico proudly boasts Candelaria. This unique festivity, also known as Candlemas in English, harbors distinct traditions exclusive to Mexico, some of which date back to the times of the Aztecs. The funny thing is, that many Mexicans today are clueless about the roots of this celebrated day.

Taking place 40 days after Christmas, Día de la Candelaria marks an ancient Jewish tradition where a woman was considered unclean for 40 days after childbirth and thus not permitted in the Temple. This day commemorates the moment the Virgin Mary was finally allowed to enter the Jewish Temple. Not only does it hold a religious significance, but it also signals the official end of the winter festivities after the grand Three Kings Day celebrations.

Although not an official holiday across Mexico, some regions go all out with special mass services commemorating the religious significance of Día de la Candelaria. What truly steals the show, however, is the ancient tradition of feasting on tamales. These savory delights take center stage, as the lucky one who finds the hidden figurine in the Rosca de Reyes is tasked with hosting the Candelaria celebration, which inevitably translates to cooking a boatload of tamales for the entire family and then some.

These little bundles of joy are more than just a dish; they’re a living tradition passed down through generations, tracing back to the era before Mexico felt the touch of colonization. While some Central American countries stake their claim on tamales, none can rival the diversity found in the Mexican tamale repertoire. With a staggering 5,000 recorded recipes, tamales stand as a testament to the perfect fusion of European and pre-Hispanic culinary legacies.

Archaeological evidence highlights tamales as a crucial part of daily life across various Mexican cultures, featuring prominently in rituals, offerings, and even tombs. Social gatherings and tamales are inseparable; these delightful parcels of goodness are crafted with love and shared with joy. And let’s not forget their ingenious design – the wrapping doubles as a dish and sometimes even a napkin, keeping the need for additional utensils at bay. The best part? They leave behind only organic, compostable waste.

And the sheer versatility of tamales knows no bounds. With variations in leaves, masa, fillings, and salsas, there’s a unique tamale recipe for every Mexican state, easily surpassing 33 varieties (and that’s not counting the sweet ones). Oh, and here’s an interesting nugget from the past: in the pre-Hispanic era, all cooking was done in clay pots; comales, those flat disks for heating tortillas, made their appearance thousands of years later. That’s precisely why tamales are steamed to perfection, preserving their authentic flavor and texture.

This recipe is long and takes a while, but this is about as good as you’ll find. Heartwarming, traditional, and delicious, my personal favorite is pork in green salsa tamales. 

Ingredients.

FOR THE FILLING:

  • 2 cups cooked black beans
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 sprig of epazote
  • Salt and pepper to taste

FOR THE BATTER:

  • 2½ cups of pork lard, melted (Crisco works well too but the taste is waaaay better with real pork lard)
  • 1½ teaspoons of baking powder
  • 7 cups of masa harina, mixed with 4½ cups hot water (you can buy MASECA at the grocery store or tamal masa at the tortillería)
  • 2½ cups chicken stock
  • 1 large package of dried corn husks (buy at any supermarket or Mercado)

Instructions.

Preparing the husks:

  • Place the husks in a large bowl, or even your kitchen sink with the stopper in. Fill with warm water and weigh the husks down with heavy pot(s).
  • Let soak for at least 2 hours.

For the filling:

  • Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, and sauté until translucent.
  • Stir in the cooked black beans and epazote, and season with salt and pepper. Cook for another 5 minutes, then remove from heat and let it cool. Taste and season with additional salt, if necessary (taste first). Let cool.

Preparing the Batter:

  • Get a large container (I like to use a large plastic bowl), and add the wet masa and the salt, mix with your hands.
  • Pour in the melted lard, making sure it’s not too hot and continue to incorporate with your hands.
  • Now, add in the broth, one cup at a time, also cool so you don’t burn yourself. Keep mixing with your hands. The consistency should be like a cookie dough…but not runny. It should hold its shape in a spoon and be nice and fluffy. Add more stock if necessary.

Forming the tamales

  • Channel your inner Mexican abuelita and patience. Now, take a corn husk, and pat it off with a dish towel. Flatten the husk, and with a spoon, scoop out about ¼ cup of the batter. (Ice cream scoopers are great for portioning, but you should use a medium one unless you want huge tamales.)
  • In the upper, wider portion of the husk, spread the batter to the size of about a postcard. Don’t worry about making the batter thick in shape. It will expand as it steams.
  • Now, scoop out about two tablespoons of the filling mixture and spread it down the middle of the batter. Fold over the right third of the husk, then fold in the left side. Fold up the bottom.
  • Place uncooked tamales standing on a large baking sheet, folded side down! 

Steaming the tamales

  • Place unused corn husks on the bottom layer of your steamer. Place corn husks over the top of the tamales.
  • Add water to the steamer and cover.
  • Heat and steam over a constant medium heat for about 1 and ¼ hours.
  • Watch carefully to make sure that all the water doesn’t boil away. Add more hot water as necessary.
  • Tamales are done when the leaf peels away from the masa easily.
  • The tamales will need to rest for at least half an hour for the dough to firm up after cooking.
  • For the best tamales, let them cool completely, then steam again to warm (you can easily heat them in a microwave in a plastic bag at this point).

Some tips:

  • Use the freshest corn available to make the nixtamal and masa. If you use prepared nixtamal from a bag, you’ll probably get a gritty dry masa. That said, if that’s what’s available, use it, and don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of fresh hot tamales. Just beat for a longer time, so that it hydrates better.
  • Use the best lard available and use a fair amount of it.
  • Beat a lot, either by hand or with a stand mixer. Beating produces a suspension of masa, water, lard and air. An airy masa will produce delightful, soft and puffy tamales.
  • Make your filling thick, so that you don’t have runny ingredients while folding the tamal. You can also add a couple of tablespoons of masa to the filling, and this will help make it thicker and sort of bind to the tamales when cooking. 
  • Add a couple of CLEAN pennies, pesos or whatever currency coins you have to the very bottom of your pot with the water. The sound will let you know if it runs out of water and prevent an accident. Legend has it tastes more Mexican if you add peso coins. 

As an extra recipe: the day after making them, or maybe even a couple of days after they have been refrigerated, tamales taste great when fried in a skillet with a little oil and served with a slap of crema and a sprinkle of queso fresco.

Good luck! Find me at ale.borbolla@gringogazette.com for questions, and photos of your own creations and ideas! I hope you try to make them just in time for February second to celebrate Candelaria in a traditional Mexican way!