I think steamed tamales with their soft filling of masa is one of the best Mexican dishes, so this Sunday I kept myself busy with preparing tamales for dinner. It’s quite an elaborate process, especially when you’ve never made them before. But the result is very rewarding. This is my vegetarian version with a spicy sweet potato and black bean filling. I make my tamales quite small, because they are rather heavy. And I always secure the tamales with a string made from corn husk to ensure they won’t burst open while steaming. Dried corn husks can be ordered online.
Action Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, plus 60-80 minutes steaming time
8-10 large dried corn husks, plus some extra
limes, quartered, to serve
hot sauce, to serve
For the tamales dough:
275 g (2 cups) masa harina
1 tsp baking powder
about 400 ml (13.5 fl oz) warm vegetable stock
150 g (5.2 oz) butter, at room temperature
For the filling:
about 500 g (1.1 lb) sweet potato
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 small red bell pepper, seeds removed and cut into small cubes
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1 to 2 chipotles in adobo sauce (see note)
1 can of diced tomatoes (400 g/14 oz)
1 can of black beans (400 g/14 oz), rinsed and drained
a large handful of cilantro, chopped, plus extra
Extra: a hand mixer, a large pot with a metal steaming basket
1. Make the filling. Peel the sweet potato and cut it into small cubes of about 1 cm (1/16 inch); you should have about 350 to 400 grams (12 to 14 oz) of potato cubes. Bring a pot with water and some salt to a boil. Add the potato, bring to a boil again and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until soft. Drain in a colander.
2. In a sauté pan, heat the oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the bell pepper, oregano, cumin, and add 1 to 2 chipotles. Cook briefly until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, turn down the heat and let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce is thick. Mix in the beans and cilantro. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Set the filling aside.
3. Make the tamales dough, the masa. In a large bowl, whisk the masa harina together with the baking powder. Gradually, while kneading lightly, add stock until the masa comes together and feels like play-doh. Add some more stock if it feels to dry. Cover, and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, with a hand mixer, ‘whip’ the butter for 1 to 2 minutes until very smooth and aerated. Gradually knead the butter into the masa. It should feel very soft and moist. Add a little more stock if the dough looks too dry. Taste the dough and add some salt if you like. You can store the masa tightly covered in the fridge for up to 24 hours. The refrigerated masa may need a little more stock before it’s ready to use.
5. Soak the corn husks (add several more than you need, because sometimes they tear) in a pot with warm water for a couple of minutes, until they are pliable. Cut one husk lengthwise into 8 to 10 thin ‘strings’ (with these you’ll secure each tamale).
6. Divide the masa into 8 to 10 portions. Working with one at a time, lay a husk with the narrow end towards you on a clean surface (if your husk is small, you need to use two husks, overlapping their long edges slightly). Place a portion of masa onto the husk and spread it out to form a circle about 10 cm (about 3 inches) across, leaving the edges of the husk clear. Place about 3 heaped tablespoons of the sweet potato filling on top (you might not need all the filling). Pick up the two long edges of the husk and fold over the filling. Fold over the narrow end and wrap a ‘string’ around to secure the tamale; leave the top end open.
7. Add water to the pan with steaming basket. Transfer the tamales vertically with the open ends up into the insert of the steamer. Make sure the water is not touching the basket (keep the cooking tamales in the pot above the boiling water so they don’t get wet). Cover tightly with a lid and steam for 60 to 80 minutes, or until the dough has firmed. Make sure the pot is tightly covered; if any steam escapes, cover the opening with some aluminum foil or put something heavy on the lid. Listen to the pot every once in while to make sure there is enough water in it. Do not let the water run dry! Add extra water if necessary.
8. The tamales are ready when a toothpick inserted into the dough comes out clean. The masa should be firm and moist. Open the tamales at the table. Garnish with cilantro, and serve with quartered limes, hot sauce and a large Mexican salad.
-You can prepare tamales in advance and freeze them. Steam frozen tamales 15-20 minutes longer.
-You can replace the chipotles in adobo sauce by 1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika (pimentón de la vera picante)