I was determined to make tamales this summer but kept hearing that the corn piling up at the markets wasn’t the “right” kind. Sweet and bursting maybe, but not the starchy field corn needed to make traditional tamales. Though they can be made year round using cornmeal, masa harina or tamal flour specially made for the purpose, it seemed a shame to make the same tamales in July that I could have in December.
I was about to go the all-maseca route when I tried a Guatemalan tamal from a street vendor. Sweet, airy and topped only with crema and fresh cheese, it had the delicate flavor of the white summer corn crowding the farm stands. Known as tamales de elote in Mexico and Central America, humitas in the Andes, and green corn tamales in the States, these fresh corn tamales could be made with domestic corn and just a small amount of masa harina to approximate the taste and texture of starchier varieties. Though savory fillings can be added like shredded pork or chicken, they’re wonderful just on their own blended with fast melting cheese like Oaxaca or Monterey Jack and green onions. With every part of the corn, from the husks to the kernels to the cobs, imparting their own shades of flavor, you can savor everything the season has to offer while it lasts.
Though fresh field or dent corn works best, white or bi-color sweet corn can be used. Choose corn that’s heavy for its size with bright green husks that still retain some moisture. The kernels should be plump and tightly spaced with no brown spots. Using a heavy knife, cut the corn as close to the base as possible so that the husks pull away easily without tearing. As you shuck the corn, sort the husks by size for later use – the coarse outer leavers to line the bottom of the steamer, the wide inner leaves with the curved bottoms to wrap the tamales, and the thin leaves closest to the kernels to cut into strips and tie the tamales.
Working in batches, blanch the husks in a pot of simmering water for about one minute to make them pliable and easier to work with. Remove from the water, drain and set aside until ready to use.
Remove the silks from the corn and discard. Using a sharp knife, cut the kernels from the cob from top to bottom and gather the kernels with their juices in a large bowl. Use the back of a knife or grater to scrape the residual corn from the cobs. Repeat with the remaining corn. Using a food processor or blender, pulse the corn until it forms a thick puree. As an alternative, the corn can be ground by hand with a cheese grater set over a mixing bowl. Reserve the cobs for later use.
Ingredients and seasonings vary, but fresh corn tamales are typically a mixture of fats (freshly rendered lard, vegetable oil, melted butter or a combination thereof), liquid (broth, milk or water), leavening (baking powder or baking soda), and seasonings (salt and sometimes sugar, cinnamon or aniseed). Because corn in the United States is sweeter and has a higher water content, masa harina or tamal flour is added to give it the right flavor and texture (both are widely distributed by Maseca). Starting with a 1/2 cup, add the tamal flour a little at a time until the dough is thick and creamy but is no longer runny and can hold its shape in a mound. Peppers, onions, grated cheese, beans, cooked chicken or pork can either be blended into the dough or tucked into the tamales as they’re being wrapped.
To wrap the tamales, lay down the widest interior husks with the curved bottom closest to you. Add 1-2 heaping tablespoons of the dough to the center of the husk towards the curved end. The tamales will expand in the steamer so leave at least 1” border around the dough. If using a filling, add a spoonful to the center of the dough. Fold the sides of the corn husk over the tamal to form a rectangle. Fold the pointed end of the husk up and over the bottom half to form a package. Tie the tamal with the reserved husks cut into thin strips or kitchen string. The curved top can remain open but the sides should be well sealed to avoid leakage.
Wrapping tamales can be tricky at first but you soon get the hang of how to tuck and fold in the dough. To make bigger tamales or just to give yourself more room to work, lay down two husks with the sides overlapping to create a larger wrapper.
Line the bottom of a large stock pot with reserved cobs. Add enough water to almost but not quite submerge the cobs. Cover the cobs with a layer of the dark, coarse husks. The tamales should not come in contact with the water so they don’t get soggy.
Add tamales to the pot with the open seam up. Cover the tamales with the remaining, unused husks. Cover tightly with a lid and set to a gentle boil over medium heat until the tamales are firm, 20-30 minutes. The cooked tamales should pull away easily from the wrapper.
While the tamales cook, you should be able to hear the water simmering. Add warm water to the pot as needed if it dries out. If you’re using a steamer rack instead of the cobs, drop a nickel into the bottom of the pot before layering the rack with husks. If the water evaporates, the nickel will rattle and let you know to add more water.
Serve hot on its own or topped with Mexican crema, salsa verde or other fresh salsa and crumbled cheese.
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