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Hot Tamales

Simple tips for a healthier version of this south-of-the-border treat.

Tamales are a sign of celebration at holiday gatherings in Mexican households on both sides of the border, especially for occasions like Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve dinner. But often the real party is the tamale-assembly get-together, where everyone pitches in to help make and fold the tamales. Of course you can go out and purchase them at your local tamale shop if you’re lucky enough to have one in your neighborhood. But making your own allows you to choose your favorite fillings, and you may find that a tamale-making party is the perfect spark for your holiday routine.

Tamales are folded and steamed bundles of corn dough filled with tasty goodies. The fillings range from simple green chiles and cheese or spinach and mushrooms to slow-cooked and shredded beef, pork or chicken.

Though undeniably tasty, tamales often get poor nutrition marks. Traditionally the batter is made with lard (rendered pork fat), which keeps it moist, flavorful and fluffy, but also high in saturated fat. We tested batters with alternatives to lard, and opted for part-skim ricotta. Beating it with an electric mixer makes it fluffy and light before adding the grits and combining it with the masa. The results: moist and light dough with 50 percent fewer calories and at least 65 percent less fat and saturated fat than a traditional version.

All sorts of wrappers are used for tamales (including coffee filters and banana leaves) but we used traditional cornhusks. There’s no one right way to fold the wrappers. Our method is simple and the accompanying photos make it easy to follow, so you’ll have it down in no time.

Use whatever you like to fill the tamales—that’s the fun part. Our recipe for Squash, Black Bean & Goat Cheese Tamales is a delicious, easy vegetarian option. The simplest recipes just use a bit of salsa. You’ll need about 2 tablespoons of filling per tamale or 21⁄2 cups for 16 tamales. If you have time to make a batch of Slow-Cooker Braised Pork with Salsa you can eat half of it for dinner and then use the rest to fill tamales the next day. Chile-stewed beef, shredded cooked chicken with salsa and cheese or even a quick vegetable sauté with cumin and chile are great options.

All the work pays off—tamales freeze wonderfully, so after you make a big batch and eat some fresh, put the rest in the freezer to have on hand when you’re ready for another tamale celebration.

Make Your Own Tamales
(Looking for the recipe? Try our Squash, Black Bean & Goat Cheese Tamales.)

With this technique and our easy step-by-step photos you’ll have these little bundles filled in no time. Our version of tamales has 50% less calories and 65% less fat than traditional versions, but still has great texture and flavor. To prepare wrappers: Place cornhusks in a large bowl, cover with hot water and weight with a heavy plate or pan to completely submerge them. Let soak for 30 minutes. Drain the cornhusks and pat dry. Sort through and pick out 16 large, unblemished husks to use as wrappers. Cut about 2 dozen thin, long strips from the remaining husks to use as ties (or use kitchen string instead). Cover the husks and ties with a damp towel to keep moist.

Working on a clean surface, unfold one of the large cornhusks so it’s completely flat. Spread 1/3 cup of the batter in the center of the husk in a 4-inch square, leaving a wide border at the top and the bottom.

Spoon 2 tablespoons of the filling in a thin strip down the length of the batter.

Bring the two long sides of the cornhusk together, causing the batter to completely surround the filling—but don’t fold the sides over the tamale yet.

Fold the cornhusk ends in.

Then fold the sides around the tamale. If a cornhusk splits while you’re folding the tamale, just wrap a second husk right over the first and finish rolling.

Tie the tamale closed using a thin strip of cornhusk. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make 15 more tamales.

To steam tamales: Fill a large Dutch oven with 1 inch of water. Place a steamer basket in the pot and loosely place the tamales upright in the basket. Cover and steam over medium heat for 1 hour. Check the water level periodically and add more boiling water if necessary. The tamales are done when the batter is firm and easily pulls away from the wrapper.

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