If you have ever eaten tamales, you know the taste of pillowy, stone-ground corn mingling with delicious fillings, like spicy pulled pork in chile sauce, or melted cheese. National Tamale Day — March 23 — offers the perfect excuse to celebrate this traditional Latin American dish.
A tamale is a pocket of simple corn dough, called masa, stuffed with anything from meat and cheese to fruit and vegetables. Each one is wrapped in a corn husk or a banana leaf, and steamed or boiled before eating.
In pre-Columbian Central America, this was the original takeout meal: filling fare that could easily be packed for a journey. In modern Latin America, tamales are an important part of holiday and special occasion celebrations — a family or a small group might come together to make hundreds to share or sell.
You can start your own tradition, by taking an assembly-line approach and getting the kids or other family members involved to help spread and fill the dough.
Sweet or Savory?Part of the beauty of tamales is their flexibility — there are more ways to make one than there are people who make them. Sweet tamales made with fruit or berries can be enjoyed for breakfast or dessert, sometimes dunked in coffee in place of a pastry. Savory fillings, seasoned with cumin, garlic powder, oregano, thyme, and different chiles, are typically eaten at lunch or dinner.
Follow the StepsIf you follow the step-by-step guide in this recipe for Chile and Mushroom Tamales, you will be filling and steaming husks like a pro in no time. Remember to use a gentle touch to avoid tearing the corn husks; face the pointed end of the husk toward you as you work with it; and leave space at the bottom of the husk when you spread the masa.
Get Out the SkilletIf you're pressed for time, this Mexican Skillet with Quick Tamale Dumplings is like one big, deconstructed tamale in a pan, offering similar flavors with minimal work.
Put Leftovers to Work
Because they can be stuffed with almost anything, tamales are a dream for re-imagining leftovers. Do you have shredded beef chili or sweet and spicy roasted chicken in the fridge? Fold the leftovers into a pocket of masa, wrap in a corn husk and steam.
Run out of filling? Not a problem — use up the rest of the masa in plain or cheese-stuffed tamales, sometimes called “tontitos" (little fools).
Cristin Nelson is a freelance food and travel writer whose words, recipes and photos have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe, Vegetarian Times magazine and Edible Boston and Chickpea Magazine. She holds a master's degree in gastronomy from Boston University. Cristin lives in Boston with her husband and her enthusiastic appetite.