It's true: I have been known to cross the border in the name of a taco. But I'd also be willing to do so for a tlayuda, a memela, and definitely for tamales. Bottom line is I L-O-V-E all the traditional Mexican street foods because, well, what's not to love?!?
But I also cook those classics at home whenever I have time. And for tamales I lean into the Mexican tradition of a tamalada, invite friends over, and make it a full-on party!
One must-make during such parties are these Rajas Tamales With Oaxacan Cheese. This classic tamale is found throughout central Mexico and you see variations on it as you travle about. For our version we filled it with charred poblano peppers, caramelized onions, a good dose of earthy Mexican oregano, and melty Oaxacan cheese.
It's pretty much a vegetarian tamale except the only thing is that the dough for traditional tamales is usually made using lard. One simple switch -- make it with shortening instead! -- and you have a 100% vegetarian tamal.
Just a few things you should know before making them. First off, making tamales requires time so don't try to rush this recipe. The good news is that they last a long time so you could double or triple this recipe, make a ton, and gift or freeze them for later! Second of all, you could make the dough with coconut oil, vegetable oil, or room temperature butter; however, I encourage you to pull out the shortening as they make for the lightest tamales.
Finally, the garnish. Yes, these tamales are delicious unwrapped and inhaled without any toppings and I'd be lying to say I haven't done that often. However, I like borrowing a page from the classic enchiladas suizas recipe and topping it with tomatillo salsa verde, a bit of crema, some crumbly cheese, and, if I'm really feeling it, some pickled red onions. You don't need to serve them this way but trust me that they're addictive when you do!
or vegetable broth for the masa dough, plus more for steaming the tamales
or lard or butter or coconut oil
made without adding the crema
or low-moisture mozzarella cheese pulled into at least strips about 3 inches long
To Soak The Corn Husks For The Tamales: Bring a medium pot or a teakettle filled with water to a boil and add corn husks to a large bowl or baking dish. Cover the husks with hot water and top with a teakettle or pan to help the husks stay submerged. Soak the husks for at least 30 minutes or until they bend easily without breaking. Tear one or two husks lengthwise to create 1/4-inch wide strips to use for tying the tamales.
Husks may be soaked up to 1 day ahead; store in covered container in fridge. Bring to room temperature before using.
To Make The Tamale Dough: Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Place the 3 cups of masa harina in a bowl then pour in the water and stir to combine. Set the masa aside to hydrate, about 15 minutes.
Once the masa is hydrated, combine the 8 ounces of shortening, butter, or oil with the baking powder and salt in a stand mixer fit with a paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Turn off the mixer, scrape down the inside of the bowl with a spatula. Restart the mixer and add the hydrated masa one handful at a time until it's all added. (It will look like whipped hummus when you're finished.) Set the dough aside for 30 minutes to rest before using.
If you live in a particularly dry climate (like we do in Los Angeles), you'll likely want to whip in that last cup of water after you've let the masa dough rest -- it may not be necessary in a humid climate. So long as you have that texture of whipped mashed potatoes or whipped hummus, you're good to go!
Once you've added all the masa to the lard, the end result should be a damp dough that is not cracking from dryness nor is it in anyway wet and soupy.
To Assemble The Tamales: To start making the tamales, wipe each corn husk dry with a towel. Working with one corn husk at a time, place it lengthwise with the wider end toward you and the tapered end pointing away from you.
Place 1/4 cup of the masa dough in the middle of the husk then, using your hands, a large spoon, a pastry scraper, or a masa spreader, spread the mixture into a thin rectangle about 3 inches wide and 4 inches long. Add one strip of the cheese to the middle of the masa rectangle then place a small spoonful of the rajas filling (maximum 1 tablespoon) just on top the cheese.
Fold the husk so that the two long edges of masa touch and then close it similar to the way you would for rolling sushi. clean side over the the other clean side and roll tightly to secure. Fold the long tail of corn husk that is empty up over the filled corn husk then tie ends of tamale shut with husk strips. Repeat process to make 24 tamales.
Uncooked tamales can be frozen up to 4 months before using. When you want to make them, do not defrost them -- simply cook them a bit longer than you would if they were fresh!
To Cook The Tamales: Use a tamale steamer or a steamer insert set inside a large stockpot and add water to just below bottom of the steamer insert (make sure the water doesn't touch bottom of the insert). Cover and bring water to boil. Arrange tamales in the pot upright, leaning against one another.
Cover and steam until dough is slightly firm to touch and separates easily from husk, adding more water to pot as necessary, about 50 to 60 minutes. Turn off the heat then let the tamales steam for at least 10 minutes more before serving. Serve unwrapped tamales garnished with salsa verde, crema, crumbled cheese, or even pickled onions.
To reheat the tamales, place them in a slow cooker set over low heat until warmed through.
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