It was with great suspicion and disquietude that the Salvadoran women agreed to allow me to help them make tamales for Bellehaven’s employee party.
I didn’t think it prudent or appropriate to ask whether this was a tradition bestowed among the traditional housewife, but only assumed it as the women kept laughing at either my ineptitude or presence in general; I preferred to think that it lay on the latter.
“No, Paul!” said Sylvia in her thick accent, “Foil too small!” she scolded as my aluminum foil wraps were apparently too thin. Karla laughed in agreement.
Now situated with the correct width, Sylvia again chided me; “No, Paul! Foil too big.” More laughter.
Finally, she showed me a strip of foil, the size of my first attempts and said “perfecto!” And so I began to cut and lay out the foil.
Also on my to-do list was cutting the banana leaves which would lay in the foil, in which the maseca mixture and fillings would go before being tightly wrapped and secured by the foil.
Having worked with banana leaves plenty of times in the past, I was not too worried; until I saw Sylvia’s leer. She said nothing, but I waited for it; I felt like a wounded gazelle avoiding the stare of the leopard as it slinks its way up for the pounce.
But it never came. Apparently my unwavering skill at cutting squares of banana leaf wrappers was sufficient.
As a chef and teacher I always look for those teachable moments, and this was no exception. When someone is performing a culinary task with which I am not familiar, I am nigh ecstatic to jump in and learn whatever I can. It’s all for the cause, I constantly remind myself.
Attending the employee party was not an option as I have to be on this side of ‘The Crick’ for other obligations, i.e. my real job and our local chefs’ dinner. Yet, as much as I missed the gang in Alexandria, I was thrilled to know that Sylvia packed me two containers of these amazing tamales; honestly the best I have ever eaten.
These take time; just get ready for that. In the tradition as it was shown to me on Sunday, the chicken is left on the bone, and the tamales are carefully picked apart when served. Just as they do with stock, the bones lend their flavors and gelatin to the mix, affording a fuller, richer flavor than I have as of yet experienced in this standard fare.
In the recipe below, I say to pick the bones and just use the meat. The choice is completely yours. Either way, my eyes were opened as to what tamale could taste like.
I’ve had good ones, but never great ones before Sunday. And now my taste has transformed further into knowledge as I file away how to make a great Salvadoran Tamale. Keep laughing, my Salvadoran friends; keep laughing.
Dough (recipe follows)
Sauced chicken (recipe follows)
Thin green beans
1” dice potato, blanched
Garbanzo beans, as needed
When you have spent the better part of the day amassing all of the components, set up the materials in an orderly manner on your work station
Cut the banana leaves into approximately 8”x 8” squares
Lay out a piece of foil slightly larger than the banana leaf
Set a banana leaf on the foil
Place a spoon (about 1 cup) of dough on the banana leaf and spread slightly
Place ½ c. cup of the chicken and sauce on the dough
Top with one piece of potato and 3 thin green beans
Roll the tamale like you would a burrito and at each end use your palms to press tightly inwardly, folding the foil underneath
When complete, place the tamales on a rack in a pot large enough to hold them
Arrange them so that steam will move freely through them
Bring the water to a rolling boil and steam for 45 minutes
Unwrap and serve. If you keep the chicken on the bone (as did my instructors), be sure to relay this to your guests so as to avoid any broken teeth
2 c. Masa Harina
1 ¾ c. Chicken broth (from chicken below)
½ c. Lard
Onion powder, cumin, granulated garlic to taste
S&P as needed
In a pan, combine the ingredients and heat over a medium heat (around 250-ish) and cook until it thickens. It should be the consistency of a thick oatmeal or cream of wheat. As it cools it will thicken again
Taste the dough and when seasons properly, cool in the refrigerator
Sauce for Chicken
1 ea. Medium tomato
1 ea. Red onion
1 ea. Red bell pepper
1 ea. Green bell pepper
Cumin to taste
S&P as needed
Process the ingredients until smooth
Cook until the flavors have married well
1 ea. Chicken
Water to cover
Mirepoix, as needed
Peppercorns, as needed
Simmer the chicken until it can be pulled easily
Pick the chicken and set aside
Strain and use the broth for your corn dough