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Green corn tamales are a seasonal favorite in the American southwest, various areas of Mexico including Sonora and Veracruz, and even a few islands in the Caribbean. If you’re unfamiliar with green corn tamales, one of the hallmarks is the texture: where a traditional, well-made tamale is moist and cake-like, a green corn tamale is generally a little “wetter”. Depending on the version, the texture can range from nearly a creamy corn salad to somewhat like a thick custard. They are best made when corn is in season, generally from May to October in northern regions.
After doing some digging, it’s clear that there are a variety of theories on why they’re called green corn tamales. I’ve read ideas ranging from the use of the green husks to wrap them, to the fact that some include a non-traditional whole green chile (I highly doubt the latter as the reason). The theory I find most likely however is the use of fresh corn straight off the cob. Where “traditional” tamales rely on corn flour (masa) as the primary ingredient for the dough, green corn tamales generally use fresh corn as the main ingredient. The physical difference is obviously the moisture content in fresh corn, but I’ve also found that the flavor is (usually) slightly sweeter (particularly if the corn is ripe). The flavor also has an “earthy” quality to it that I don’t seem to get as much of in corn flour tamales. I also tend to think that the use of fresh corn for the tamale probably predates corn flour, but I don’t have any proof – it’s just a hunch.
Are green corn tamales worth the effort?
When I decided to try to make green corn tamales for the first time, I received a variety of responses from folks I knew who had made tamales before. But mostly it seemed that each comment echoed two themes: a) It is a LOT of work, and b) what time should I come over for dinner?
In making these tamales, I can confirm that they are right – there is a fair amount of work involved. But I would counter that it is no more work than many other traditional “real food” dishes we’ve tried so far (for example, authentic Indian meals we’ve prepared took nearly twice as long to prepare).
They are truly delicious, satisfying, and…did I mention delicious?
So the answer is YES. It is time consuming and does require some manual labor, but for me the payoff is well worth it.
One last thing…
I freely admit that I am far from a tamale-making expert, but I do love to eat them (big surprise). I developed a love for authentic tamales while living in Los Angeles for years, where abundant Latino culinary traditions are fundamental to the cultural landscape. These days I have some definite opinions on the qualities of a good tamale (translation, I’m rather picky at times), but I certainly fall into the Gringo category when it comes to making them. In fact as I made these, I really wished that I had my brother-in-law’s mother from Mexico looking over my shoulder and telling me what I was doing wrong – because truth be told it took a few tries to get them right.
Real Food Recipe: Green Corn Tamales
This version of the recipe happens to be vegetarian, but substituting beef or pork would be excellent as well. One of the great things about making tamales is you can really use any filling that suits your taste. Most typical savory tamales have shredded beef or pork of some kind, but I’ve found that this basic cheese and green chile vegetarian option is excellent (and does not require the extra steps of preparing the meat). Experiment; see what tastes good. For example, we recently had a Nicaraguan version of a tamale called a Nacatamal , and they used ingredients like a savory meat and asparagus with sweet plums, which was a great combination.
One alternative to try? Goat cheese and sun-dried tomato is excellent. And I imagine that a more dessert-like version would be wonderful as well.
Here’s the recipe.
20 ears yellow corn, ripe and in season
1 package of corn husks* (optional, see notes)
2 cups medium grind cornmeal
1/2 cup unsalted organic butter**
1/2 cup organic shortening**
3/4 cup agave syrup (sugar also works if you don’t have agave)
1/2 cup cream
1 Tbsp. salt
16 strips medium or sharp cheddar cheese
1 24-oz. can of whole green chiles
Parchment paper (optional)
Makes approximately 16 tamales
Cut the ends of the corn off, leaving the husks easy to remove in large pieces. Reserve the husks and discard the silk. With the corn still on the cob, rinse each in cold water and pat dry. Cut the kernels from the cob.
In a blender, grind the kernels with the corn meal in roughy equal batches to make sure the corn meal is distributed evenly. The length of time in the blender depends on the texture you prefer, but we blended each batch pretty well until the hulls of the corn were mostly gone. Using a large spoon, mix the batches together in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl, beat the butter with the shortening until the mixture is creamy. Add the agave, salt, and cream, and then mix lightly. Add the cream mixture to the corn and mix together well.
On a piece of parchment paper roughly 12 inches square, place two large husks, overlapping them lengthwise so that the narrow ends are pointing outward. Your little tamale nest should be shaped something like an American football. Using a large spoon, spread the batter into the husk – somewhere around a half a cup or so depending on the size of the tamale you want. Add a piece of cheese and a green chile in the center, and then cover with more batter.
Roll the long edges of the corn husks over the tamale, and then fold in the ends to seal in the batter. Roll the tamale up in the parchment, and then twist the ends of the parchment several times to seal the package. You can also tie them shut, but twisting seemed to work just fine.
To cook, steam on a rack for about an hour depending on how you’ve packed the tamales. For us, I stood the tamales up on one end and packed them into the steamer pot. This increased the overall cooking time to about 1.5 hours, but allowed for many more to be cooked at once. To test if they are done, take one out and open it up carefully (the steam is of course scorching hot, so use caution). If the tamale pulls away from the husk in a single piece, it’s done.
One side note: I don’t believe that the parchment is strictly necessary. If you package the tamale properly in the corn husk, you don’t necessarily need the paper to wrap it in – you can use string to tie off the ends. But if tamales are not in your regular rotation of cooking, the parchment is a shortcut that makes it a little easier.
One of the brilliant things about green corn tamales is they really do not need a sauce since they are by nature very moist. That said, a good fresh mango salsa is excellent with this version. Serve with a side of seasoned rice and black beans, or eat it by itself – it’s up to you. Tamales are typically served in the husk, so that the person eating unwraps the little package and enjoys the melting, comforting contents.
One of the great things about these tamales is they freeze and reheat very well, so it’s worth taking a little extra time to make a large batch. By freezing them, green corn tamales transform from real food into “convenience” food for later. Forget the frozen TV dinner or awful tasting Hot Pocket – opt for the homemade comfort of a tamale.
*Corn husks: To wrap the tamales, there are basically two options. Traditional green corn tamales use the green husks from the corn you use, which does work, though your success depends on both your skill and the size of the green husks you have removed. The second, easier alternative is to use pre-dried corn husks that are pre-soaked in warm water. I tried both ways and found that I had better results with the pre-soaked husks, as they are much larger and easier to work with. So, if you go with the easier choice, you’ll want to pre-soak the husks in warm water for at least 10 minutes. Dried husks can be found in ethnic food aisles at most grocery stores, and a package of 100 or so costs all of five bucks.
**Lard as a better alternative: The next time I make this I’ll use locally obtained lard (not the hydrogenated store-bought version), which not only has health benefits but is undoubtedly closer to the original recipe. For more information on the health benefits of lard, see this Seattle Times article: The Real Thing . The Weston A Price Foundation also has some excellent information on the subject.
All in all, this recipe was well worth the time and effort. I’ll be making another batch soon – so be on the lookout for a dinner invitation.
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