In Mexico, after the Spanish conquest in the 16th Century, most indigenous rituals were sadly declared grifts and banned, but some were incorporated to Catholic observances if they had common elements to a particular feast day, easing the conversion process of the native population. Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas) is observed on February 2, as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus and of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Mexico, pre-Hispanic ceremonies connected to the beginning of the agricultural season around this date included offerings of corn presented to the gods for healthy and abundant crops. These corn offerings were incorporated to Candlemas celebrations during colonial times, but their original polytheistic meaning became obscure, and fell in the penumbra of the Catholic holiday. Nowadays, Día de la Candelaria celebrations involve church services for the blessing of candles and figurines representing baby Jesus, with the corn offerings mostly morphing into a shared meal of corn-based food afterwards, particularly tamales. As detailed in a previous post, the meal is usually hosted by the person(s) who found figurines representing baby Jesus, hidden in the special bread that was served on Epiphany Day (January 6).
There is an endless variety of tamales in Mexico, which may be put into categories by region or state, ingredients, type of wrapping, and also depending on individual family recipes and traditions. They are ubiquitous street food, sold directly out of the “olla tamalera”, a huge steamer pot often propped over a portable coal brazier. There are also well-established businesses that sell tamales de sabores (in different flavours), ranging from the classic verdes (chicken or pork in green sauce), rojos (chicken in red mole), and de dulce (sweet dough with cinnamon and raisins, or pineapple), to cheese and hot peppers, sweet corn (elote), beans, and more recently, innovative flavours such as chocolate, sweet corn with cream cheese, fruit preserves, etc. They are wrapped mostly in either banana leaves or corn husks, the former more popular in the Southern sates, and the latter in the North. In the photo below, hot tamales displayed at a store in Culiacan, in the Northern state of Sinaloa (2019), all wrapped in corn husks, and including flavours such as ground meat, cheese and pepper strips, butter, bean & raw sugar, and sweet corn & cream cheese:
In preparation for next week’s Día de la Candelaria, I am sharing some of my recipes for tamales de sabores, Central Mexico style, wrapped in corn husks. In this post, three savoury classics: chicken in green sauce (verdes), chicken in red mole (rojos) and hot pepper strips with cheese (rajas con queso). I am using lard for this batch, which is the most traditional fat for tamales, although nowadays some people – and many businesses – use vegetable shortening; it is less expensive and may also be an option for vegetarians (I use vegetable oil), in which case the chicken may be skipped for the fillings, and hot water used instead of broth.
Assorted Savoury Tamales –
Tamales de sabores (salados)
Ingredients (for approximately 20 small tamales)
2 cups white corn flour (masa harina or tamale flour, not corn starch)
2-3 cups hot broth (from cooking chicken, see below) or hot water
¾ cup lard (or vegetable shortening, or ½ cup vegetable oil)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
3 pieces chicken breast, preferably bone-in and skin-on
Water, as needed
¼ onion; peeled
1 cup cooked green sauce (click here for my homemade, or store-bought)
½ cup red mole paste (click here for my homemade, or store-bought)
1 cup hot green peppers, either roasted poblanos (printable instructions above) or/and raw jalapeños
½ lb (225 g) melting cheese (such as Chihuahua, Friulano, or Mozzarella); sliced into long strips
Dry corn husks
Clean and re-hydrate corn husks: Rinse in water, carefully separating individual husks and removing stained pieces. Soak in hot water for 20 minutes (photo below, left), then drain, propped up in a colander (photo below, right). Set aside (printable detailed instructions, above).
Prepare fillings: Place chicken breasts and onion in a pot, cover with water and cook, covered, for 35 minutes. Allow to cool down, discard bones and skin, then shred the meat and reserve. Strain broth through a mesh and reserve. Add one half of the shredded meat to a pot with the green sauce; bring to boil, mixing and cooking for one minute (photo below, left). Remove from heat and reserve. In a bowl, mix the red mole paste with enough hot water just to get a thick sauce consistency, not runny. Mix this thick mole with the rest of the shredded chicken (photo below, right):
Slice hot peppers into strips, removing seeds and stems; roasted and peeled poblanos shown in the photo below, left, and raw jalapeños, right:
Set aside, along with the sliced cheese.
Prepare corn dough paste: Beat lard in a large mixing bowl until fluffy, by hand or with an electric mixer. Add corn flour, baking powder and salt (photo below, left). Beat all together to form a sandy mix (photo below, right):
Add two cups of the reserved hot broth, while mixing (photo below, left). Continue mixing, adding more hot broth, if needed, until a smooth and airy paste is formed (photo below, right):
Prepare steaming pot by filling the bottom of a large pot with at least one inch of hot water (photo below, left), then place steamer basket on top, making sure the water does not touch. I do not own a large steamer, so I always use a metal colander fitted on top of a large pot (photo below, right):
Assemble tamales: Arrange rehydrated corn husks, corn paste, and all the fillings for assembly. Take a corn husk and spread about a quarter of a cup of corn paste, forming a band across the middle, about one inch from the wider end of the husk, and leaving a couple of inches empty at the other end:
Add filling of choice at the centre, about one quarter of a cup for the saucy fillings, such as chicken with green sauce (photo below, left) and chicken with thick mole (photo below, right):
For the peppers and cheese, place a strip of cheese and top with several pepper strips. In the photos below, roasted poblanos on the left, and raw jalapeños on the right:
Bring edges of husk together over filling (photo below, left), then roll to form wrap. Press corn paste away from the pointy end (photo below, centre); finish by folding that end (photo below, right):
Continue with all the husks, corn paste and fillings, to make approximately twenty small tamales. Using leftover husks, line the bottom of the prepared colander/steamer (photo below, left), then arrange tamales vertically, with the open end facing up (photo below, right):
Cook tamales: Cover with more husks (photo below, left), then with a clean kitchen towel, tucking over the tamales inside the edge of the basket/colander, so the tamales will not get wet with condensation during steaming (photo below, centre). Place lid, completely closing the top (photo below, right):
Bring hot water to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a rolling boil, and let steam for at least one hour. I always check the bottom of the pot halfway through, to make sure it is not drying too fast; if needed, add boiling water. Carefully open the pot and remove one tamale; check doneness by opening husk, the tamale is ready when it separates easily from the husk. My batch needed one hour and twenty minutes.
Turn off heat; the tamales may be left in the pot for a while until serving time. In the photo at the top of the post, and below, a variety of the savoury tamales de sabores, still in the husk, and in cross section:
These tamales were the right size to make a nice serving with a sample of all the flavours, from back to front, verde (green), rajas con queso (pepper strips and cheese), and rojo (red):
Delicious as a hearty breakfast, for brunch, or to honour the sponsorship of a Día de la Candelaria meal.
In my next post, I will share my recipe for tamales de dulce (sweet tamales).
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I am sharing my recipe at Thursday Favourite Things #474, with Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, Pam @ An Artful Mom, Katherine @ Katherine’s Corner, Amber @ Follow the Yellow Brick Home, Theresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.