Contains: Nightshades, grains (corn). Is: Gluten-free, inspired by New World meals and ingredients.
The original goal for the tamales was to make them for Columbus Day, using only ingredients (though not equipment or techniques) available somewhere in the New World prior to the advent of Columbus – hopefully close to Central America, where tamales were prepared pre-1942. (While I made some with shrimp and some vegan the same date, I want to play around with the seafood recipe a bit further before releasing it. Expect the vegan one soon, however. With the shrimp, the corn masa overwhelmed any shrimp flavor – I may try crabmeat next.) As it was not practical (here) to make the tamales via pre-Columbian methodology, that wasn’t even remotely attempted. I kept the principle to the ingredients.
(As a note, the week of Columbus Day, I had also planned to present a Pasta Carbonara dish, made solely from Old World ingredients. That will be coming up later this month, I hope.)
While is is likely that the precursors to todays Guatemalans and Mexicans made both sweet and savory meat tamales, I’m not particularly fond of sugared meats (barring a good smoked barbecue).
Meats likely to be used back in pre-Columbian days would be local fish, frog, gopher, turkey, goose, venison… For ease of collection, I settled on turkey. Our turkey today, even if you nab a heritage turkey from Whole Foods or a farmer’s market, is markedly more meaty than the type that would have been available then. Selective breeding and all – which is not any different than the Mexican selective breeding program that brought us all manners of corn from the lowly teosinte plant. My turkey hunting friends find it near impossible to score a wild turkey (and when they do, they’re less likely to share, being as they may only get one or maybe two a season – if ever so lucky). So supermarket turkey thigh it was. (If you do luck into a wild turkey – other than the alcoholic beverage of that name – cooking time will take longer because it will likely be an older, sinewy truly free-range bird.)
One could also use already-ground turkey meat – I chose to use whole skin-on turkey thighs instead. After roasting, the fat and drippings from the thighs are reserved for the fat/oil component of making the tamale masa harina shells – which I used in place of lard found in many contemporary recipes. Tomatoes were chosen to add to these tamales partly because of alliteration, but also because I doubt that a solid meat filling plus seasonings would be the only addition to most of the authentic pre-Columbian ones. Other vegetables would/could be selected from a variety of peppers, beans, squash, tomatillos, avocado, corn kernels, and so forth. Meat as a condiment!
While is is likely that the precursors to todays Guatemalans and Mexicans made both sweet and savory meat tamales, I’m not particularly fond of sugared meats (barring a good smoked barbecue). However, maybe I’ll play with a cocoa mole tamale come 2021.
Please Fold Me!
The corn husks here (hojas enconchadas) came dried in a a 6 ounce/170 gram package (that since I didn’t get back to a Mexican grocery), was purchased from Amazon. Being dried, they are very light weight, and so six ounces will be more material than you might expect. If it is corn on the cob season where you are, feel free to make your own. The husks serve as both a cooking implement to make individual portions, and as a “plate”, especially in an era when plates as we know them were hard to come by.
(In the above photos – stack the tamales in the steamer so they can rise their open ends upwards!)
Do use a masa ground and prepared specifically for making tamales – I will discuss why when I post the vegan tamale recipe, as the discussion portion of this post has gone on long enough…. ! I used half of the recipe found on the back of the package, modified to eliminate ingredients not found in pre-Columbian central America. (And to add the turkey fat instead of olive oil.)
At this time of year, I prefer to use canned tomatoes (whether I canned them or store-bought). Nearly all “fresh” supermarket tomatoes are bred for shipping, NOT for taste.
Prep Time: Around an hour.
Cook Time: Turkey thighs: an hour of roasting.
Tamales themselves: 45-55 minutes.
Rest Time: N/A.
Serves: Made about 20 more or less. Two or four per person…
Cuisine: Central American
Leftovers? Yes. And can be frozen.
Turkey and Tomato Tamales
For the filling:
- 1 large turkey thigh, roasted (I cooked two, in order to render out more fat for the recipe), skin on, bone in (for now).
- 2 teaspoons ground ancho chili powder, divided 1:1.
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne, less or more as desired.
- Three medium tomatoes, peeled, San Marzano (or plum) preferred – or, if not in season, three tomatoes from a can of peeled tomatoes. I used the latter.
- Salt to taste.
For the masa dough:
- 2 cups / 475 mL masa harina
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon chili powder (pick your heat level of comfort)
- 1 teaspoon ground annatto
- 1 tablespoon allspice
- 2/3rd cup / 160 mL turkey fat/drippings, still liquid but not hot. If you don’t have enough, add avocado oil to balance.
- 1.33 cups / 315 mL water (if you have homemade veggie stock, use that)
For the Filling:
Preheat oven to 375 F / 190 C.
Lay the turkey thighs out in the pan, and sprinkle with half the ground ancho chili powder.
Bake for about one hour, remove from oven, reserve the fats and drippings – add a touch of water to deglaze, if necessary (it wasn’t). De-skin the one turkey thigh you’ll use for the recipe and add to the drippings, when cool enough to handle. (You may also do the same from the other thigh, before reserving that thigh for some other purpose.)
Chop or shred the meat from the one thigh into fine pieces, after adding the cayenne. Mix, and set aside.
Rinse the dried corn husks, removing any dirt or “threads”. Place them into a large bowl of room temperature to tepid water to soak. (Alternatively, soak overnight.)
If using non-canned tomatoes, blanch quickly in simmering water, toss into an ice bath, and peel. If using canned, just choose three. Chop the tomatoes up, draining off any excess liquids, and add to the turkey, mixing in. Add in the rest of the seasonings, tasting for quantities. (You can do this step while the masa “rests”, as described below.)
To make the masa dough:
Add the dry masa ingredients together in a bowl. Stir to mix.
Add the wet ingredients. Stir to mix. You can roll this out if you desire, then return to the bowl, but I didn’t find this necessary. If it is very dry, add a little water. If it seems too wet, add more masa harina – but note that the mixture will become less wet in the resting stage, where the masa incorporates the liquids.
Allow to rest at room temperature for half an hour, covered with a damp towel. (You can do some of the filling prep stages here if desired.)
Taste and adjust seasonings. If you need more liquid now, add a bit more, and mix.
Do refer to the photos in the discussion section of this post. Lay out each husk one at a time, and take a large heaping spoonful of dough (I didn’t measure), and place on the wide inner base of that husk. Using your fingers, flatten this out. Ideally form a rough rectangle, with the bottom of the dough about 0.75 – 1 inches from the bottom of the husk, and at least an inch away from the sides. Stay below the halfway height mark of your corn husk. (PS, if your masa dough is too dry, I think it will just simply want to fall off the husk if you hold it vertical – yes, I tried this because I demonstrated this on a Zoom culinary group a few of us intrepid foodie explorers belong to, and had to hold the dough up to the laptop.)
Add a strip of your filling down the center of the dough, leaving space especially on the sides for rolling the tamale together.
Take one hand and roll one side of the husk (say, the right, for description’s sake) towards the left. When you can go no further, pull back on the husk a bit, lifting it away just slightly from the dough. Then on the left, using the left hand, roll that portion over to the dough on the right. Let both sides of the dough meet, and carefully wrap the dough so it connects, and then have one side or the other of the husk overlap the other. side (with the dough and filling safely inside).
It will probably take a few attempts to get this right. It helps if you already have made sushi rolls, stuffed grapes, or summer rolls in your past – or even some types of dumpling. Similar but not quite identical principles to hand (ahem) here.
Fold the top half of the tamale over the bottom, filled, half. You can fasten with strands of husk from unused pieces of husk – nice little tie and all. (I saw some recipes that used cotton twine). Or if your husks cooperate – mostly, mine did – you don’t need to tie them at all.
Place into a steamer with about an inch of water at its base, but don’t add so much water that your tamales become inundated. Prop them up so they can have the open ends (the “bottoms” of the tamales when prepping) facing upwards, and especially if you don’t tie them, that the folded-down portions of husk are underneath (keeping gravity from opening them up). You can use anything (non-toxic) at the very center of the steamer to build your tamales up from, for steaming. I used some thin extra corn husks. They’ll stack up, as depicted above. Cover with some more extra husks, and bring to a simmer, covered, on your cooktop.
Cook for 45-55 minutes. Pull out one (careful because of steam), open, and taste. The corn should be reasonably solid and hold its shape with the filling inside.
Cook longer as needed.
Serve as appetizers, or as a part of a meal. Unwrap – no, the husks are inedible, but they do provide flavor while cooking. You can provide a dipping sauce / salsa for them should you so choose.
Tasty and awesome. But next time I am going to make sure all m y masa dough is thinned out to about 1/8th or so inches thick. Mine was often closer to 1/4 inches – which still worked out well and tasty, and you may prefer that. BUT, there’s always room for adaptations in making tamales! The filling was excellent, and the masa dough made New World style was also excellent. Definitely this turkey and tomato one is a keeper on my list. (The vegan one is almost there – watch this space!)
Note, this is both the first time I’ve eaten tamales, as well as having made these. Take that for what you will.
During the time this past October that I originally planned to make tamales and then an Old World Italian recipe – I was reading Charles Mann’s excellent but lengthy 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Some years back, I’d also read his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. One’s reading material can indeed influence what one chooses to cook. Even if it takes me a while to get around to it.
We are sharing this recipe with:
AND, you can find a spicy vegan variant of this recipe, still using the New World Foods theme, here!