Tell half a dozen people that you're serving tamales, and you just might find six different notions of what the dish ought to be. Depending on where they've feasted in Mexico, Central or South America, the American Southwest, Detroit, Texas or the Mississippi Delta, they might be expecting a corn husk, banana or plantain leaf, or a parchment pouch, stuffed with masa (a finely ground corn batter) or cornmeal, and a filling of long-stewed pork, beef, chicken, turkey, peppers, vegetables, cheese or even fruit inside.
You can also expect that they'll want seconds. Tamales are the perfect excuse to get a crowd together to craft a whole mess of them to take home and still have plenty left over to eat after all the work is done. Many Latino families and communities gather to host tamaladas: tamale-making parties where each participant plays a role, from making the fillings or mixing the masa to wrapping the husks or labeling the finished product. The fests are traditionally hosted around the holidays, but since each tamale is like opening a little handcrafted gift, we say there's no time like the present.
Over the years, Bill Smith, executive chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has earned a cult following for his Southern-inflected tamales, with fillings like country ham and chiles; sweet potatoes and jalapeños; and even sweet, dessert-spiced pineapple. While he admits his personal benchmark is the variety sold out of car trunks by Mexican women around the city on weekend mornings, he has gathered plenty of experience himself—even serving 300 of them at an event in Nashville just last week. So naturally, as Tasting Table associate food editor Katy Peetz was wrapping her head around this month's Big Dish, she asked Bill to fill her in on his tried-and-true tamale method.
To make the dough that lines the wrappers, Bill uses roughly equal parts masa and liquid to keep the tamales moist. He most often uses broth, but he's especially partial to the juice from the country hams he cooks in Coca-Cola at his restaurant. Though Bill initially learned to make them with banana leaves as a wrapper, he usually uses corn husks at the restaurant, carefully folding them so that the edges of the leaves overlap, making a little, secure package, before piling them into a steamer, seam side down. "It's OK to really crowd them. They don't care," he explains.
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And when Katy ran her filling notion by Bill, he approved wholeheartedly. "There are a million kinds," he says. "Sometimes there isn't really any filling, and a salsa is offered on the side." Her final result after many rounds of testing: a gloriously moist, tender masa, stuffed with roasted poblano strips, poached and shredded chicken, and a tangy roasted tomatillo salsa. It's the perfect dish for feeding a crowd—and though they're best (and most fun) made and served fresh, the dough can be frozen a few days beforehand.
Ready to get all up in these tamales? Get the recipe right here.
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