A Gift From The Heart
As the holidays approach, my mind wanders back to memories of neatly wrapped packages full of heart-warming surprises from a mother, gifted with all the love and affection that she could muster. Of course, I am talking about my mom’s famous tamales, a family tradition whose roots spread across Mexico, and then some.
Tamales are a unique pre-Columbian dish that is believed to have originated in Mesoamerica. Almost all of Central and South American cultures have adopted the dish into their own cooking style, but the Mexican version is perhaps the best-known one. Yet still, each state in Mexico has their own version and, like the case of lasagna in Italy, each family has their own signature tamal. The recipe that I am sharing with you for the first time is the most treasured gift that my abuelita Lupita ever presented my mother with.
Abuelita’s family is from Michoacan, a beautiful state on the west coast of mainland Mexico. The gastronomic styles are heavily influenced by a mix of Spanish and indigenous recipes from natives. Abuelita Lupe, however, got married in Mexico City to a man from Oaxaca, abuelito (Grandpa) Ramon. As the family story goes, one night, a long time ago, when grandma was only fifteen, he “stole” her into the night, put her on the back of his horse and they both journeyed all the way to Mexico City, with no more than a backpack and a heart full of love. My abuelito was older than my grandma, and he had to teach her how to prepare some of his favorite dishes. His favorite one was tamales oaxaqueños, which is a version made in the traditional style of Oaxaca. My Abuelita took the recipe to a different level by adding some of her very own Michoacan flavors and spices to the recipe. In turn, being Abuelita’s culinary heir, my mom’s tamales recipe turned out to be quite unique. A passionate mix of the Michoacan traditional food, grandpa’s “Oaxaqueñan” favorite flavors, and to finish it, a taste from Puebla and Guerrero, the states where my father’s parents are from. This finishing touch was a lesson my mom learned from grandma: “…if you make your husband smile with the first spoon of your soup, you will forever own his heart.”
Following is a true Mexican Holiday recipe full of love, tradition and evolution.
For the dough:
- 1 kilo of Nixtamal*
- ¼ kilo of manteca de cerdo (lard)
- 2 tablespoons of sea salt
- 2 tablespoons of tequesquite* (baking powder)
- 3 cups of broth (recipe below)
Beat the lard with a wooden spoon until creamy. Then, add the Nixtamal dough and mix to integrate it. Add the baking powder, salt, and then the broth (try not to water the dough down). Knead constantly. To check your progress, roll a little ball, put it into a glass of water, and if it floats, the dough is ready.
- 5 cups of water
- 1 chopped onion
- 1 chopped turnip
- 2 chopped leeks
- 1 chopped potato
- 1 chopped celery
- bouquet garni
- 2 chopped carrots
- 4 chicken legs
- 2 chicken carcasses
- 1 free range chicken breast
- 200 grams of veal sausage
- 1 calf knee bone
- 2 bay leaves
- Start by browning the onion and the chicken carcasses. Put a little oil to brown well.
- Once golden, add all of the other ingredients into the express (lidded) cooking pot.
- Cover with water and heat at high temperature.
- Chicken bones will release a foam that must be removed. With the help of a skimmer, carefully remove the floating foam.
- Once the foam has been removed, cover the pot with the lid and let cook at medium heat for 40 minutes.
- Once finished cooking, strain half the broth and add a little more water to the pot. Cook the pot for another 20 minutes. This is because the bones can produce more broth.
- Once the second cooking is finished, strain the broth and mix it with the first.
- Cool, degrease and save.
This recipe came from my dad’s favorite fideo (noodle) soup. A recipe that I’d love to share with you some other time.
*This broth is going to be used for the dough and the mole
The filling “Mole almendrado estilo Doña Alma” (Doña Alma style almond mole)
This dish is made up of a lot of ingredients that will give it that unique and varied flavor that only my mom’s mole can have. The extra touch is provided by the crushed almonds and nuts sprinkled on top of it.
- A quarter cup of hazelnuts
- Half cup of almonds
- Two toasted tortillas (Or more, depending on the number of guests)
- Half a cup of raisins
- Three chocolate tablets of your choice.
- Five vanilla cookies.
- Cinnamon to taste
- Half cup of oil
- One hundred grams of chile ancho
- Eight hundred grams of chile mulato
- One hundred grams of chile pasilla
- A sliced onion.
- Two garlic cloves
- Half cup of sesame seeds
- Half a cup of peanut
- Half cup pumpkin seeds
- Half cup of pecans
- Half fried plantain
- One teaspoon of cumin
- Two cloves
- One teaspoon of pepper
- Eight cups of broth (recipe above)
- Sugar to taste
- Salt to taste
- The first step of this amazing recipe is to pour the oil into a pan or a wok and deposit the chile ancho, the chile mulato and the chile pasilla.
- Stir and add the garlic and onion. It is advisable to use a wooden palette to mix the ingredients and put the flame over low heat or at low intensity so that they gradually brown and their flavor is fully integrated.
- After this we will add the sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, pecans, hazelnuts and almonds.
- At the same time we can brown the tortillas that will accompany the dish and will give that extra touch so known to everyone around the world.
- As a third step we must let the mixture cool and fold into it the missing ingredients. We can then add raisins, chocolate, vanilla cookies, cinnamon, cloves, fried plantain and, if you wish, you can add an extra nice kick with pepper and cumin.
- The paste we obtain is then fried with the broth. Taste it for just the right level of sugar and salt. Don’t forget to inhale during this step, since the flavor will most likely take your breath away.
Preparation of the “regalitos” (tamales):
- Roast the banana leaves on both sides to handle them and cut them into 4” x 4” squares. The roasting will give it a special taste.
- Add lard with your hands to cover one side of the leaf completely.
- Then spread 1 tablespoon of dough onto the side that you just added the lard to, and use your palm to flatten out the dough on the leaf creating a thin layer. This is one of my favorite steps, since usually there is more than one person doing it and it’s the perfect time to chit-chat, share stories and sometimes even a little bit of gossip.
- Put a spoon of Mole Doña Alma in the center of the flat dough.
- Add cooked shredded chicken (this ingredient can be replaced for a vegetable or your favorite protein). Wrap the tamal and tie with a thin strip of the same leaf.
- Repeat until the ingredients are finished. If there’s still a bit of mole in the pot left, take a warm tortilla and use it clean it up. It will make a perfect taquito if you add some queso fresco (fresh farm cheese).
- Arrange the tamales into the steamer, put the lid on and cook for 90 minutes, or until fully cooked. My mom always put a penny in the pot, that way she knows if she needs to add more water. The penny will start wiggling, which is the alert signal that will tell you to add more water.
- Tamales are ready when the cooked dough can be completely and easily separated from the banana leaf.
The tamales need to be served hot. Remember, the banana leaf is just the wrapping, so please don’t eat it. Which reminds of the following part of the story:
My abuelitos Lupita and Ramon had ten kids. They lived in a house where love was the most important value and the pillar of the family. In my abuelito’s own words, “Money did not grow on trees” and with more than ten mouths to feed, plus five hairy pets and my grandma’s four parrots, the Holidays were a little different than those of most of the other families. That is why my abuelita Lupe would cook for more than three days in a row every Christmas to have a table full of delicious food for the whole family. In a delicately wrapped banana leaf, eleven special tamales filled with eleven different toppings, each one specially made with the favorite filling of each one of her ten kids and husband who would be sitting proudly at the head of the table. A cup of atole (a traditional hot corn beverage) would accompany this special present with a hand-written letter that read:
“Feliz Navidad, (Name )
For being such a good child this year I send this gift through your mother Lupita so you can taste the flavors that come from the heart and the love of the soul.
With all my love, Papa Noel.”