Thank goodness for Tamales 101. I relish really good, authentic Mexican food. From long-cooked molé to authentic barbacoa to tamales, native Mexican fare is chock full of genuine, earthy flavor. Unfortunately, I am not very good at making much in way of comidos Mexicanos. Enter Tamales 101, Alice Tapp's first foray into culinary literature. Lucky for us, being the tamale divergent! Step-by-step and taste-by-taste, Tapp leads us from selecting the ingredients, pairing up the right components with their respective sauce, assembly and cooking methods as well as freezing, serving and reheating those precious corn-husk wrapped dandies. And did I mention she sprinkles some rituals, lure and shortcuts amidst the 190 pages of fundamental instruction?
My first experience with tamales came about while working in a great Italian restaurant in Santa Fe. Yes, Italian. Anyhow, one of our cook's Abuela sent along some tamales for the crew to sample. Neat, little packages, like primitive 'to-go' food. They were gone in seconds flat. The next night, I actually got to try one. The cornhusk was peeled back to reveal an unbaked (but cooked) version of cornbread, as best I could tell, blanketing chunks of cumin-spiked chicken. The sauce was traditional New Mexican Green, as in green Chile sauce. Hence, my eyes opened to the world of tamales. But, are there more? Is there anything else out there stuffed in a cornhusk and called a tamale?
Luckily, Alice Tapp has enlightened me. In her beginner's guide to tamale making, she explains that the unbaked cornbread I so enjoyed was the requisite masa the mixture of wet, stone-ground corn dough and some type of fat (sometimes oli, sometimes butter, sometimes lard) and often embellished with stock and seasoning. And unbaked it was in general, tamales are steamed in their husk. She not only explains the inner-workings of the tamales, like the Beef Tamales with Red Chile, she also adds some interesting sauces to match your choice of fillings. Of particular interest in my household, thus far, are the Tomatillo Salsa and the Grilled Tomato-Jalapeno Salsa. She colors the recipes with family lure and informative asides on tamale construction and a multitude of variations. Take, for instance, Greek Tamales! Who would have thought? And the Pumpkin Tamales! Yup, we tried them and they were well worth the effort. Especially with the remaining ingredients folded into some whipped cream and dolloped all about.
Speaking of effort, I did not say "work". How so? Aren't tamales laborious and mind numbing? Not according to Alice Tapp's Tamales 101, making light work of assembling the ingredients and composing each of the little packages of fanciful fare. So, you see, tamales are not as far flung as we once imagined. The basics are here. The cooking technique is here. And sandwiched between the pages of this easy read, is some good flavor.