And no, I’m not talking about the candy — ‘though I did enjoy those when I was a kid.
I’m talking about tamales — those lovely, yummy treats from Mexico. As Wikipedia tells us:
A tamale (Spanish: tamal [taˈmal], from Nahuatl: tamalli [taˈmalːi]) — also tamal — is a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa (a starchy dough, usually corn-based), which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping is discarded before eating. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.
Tamales have been traced back to the Ancient Maya people, who prepared them for feasts as early as the Preclassic period (1200-250 BC). Maya people called their corn tortillas and tamales both uah [uah].
Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. Aztec and Maya civilizations, as well as the Olmeca and Tolteca before them, used tamales as portable food, often to support their armies, but also for hunters and travelers. Tamale use in the Inca Empire had been reported long before the Spanish visited the New World.
Properly made, fresh tamales — not the kind you get from a tin or find in the freezer section — are ambrosia.
But they’re also a REALLY big deal to make. It’s a very labor-intensive process, which is probably part of why they tend to be associated with holidays — such as Christmas — and other festive occasions, so that you have a group of helpers to make the tamales as well as to eat them.
So thus far, I have never tried to make tamales myself.
However, hubby and I do enjoy eating Bean Soup with Tamale Dumplings, which makes you think of the deliciousness that are tamales, but while this is definitely a leisurely “putter about in the kitchen” recipe, it isn’t nearly the same amount of work as proper tamales.
The inspiration for this soup comes from my Better Homes & Gardens recipe card file collection. It’s like having your beans and cornbread all in one dish. The tamale dumplings are filled with seasoned meat and simmer in the beans during the last 30 minutes or so of cooking.
BEAN TIP: To reduce the flatulence that beans can cause, once I’m done soaking my beans — I typically do the quick-soak method as opposed to the overnight method — I pour out the soaking water and cook the beans in fresh water. This will greatly reduce the gas-causing properties of beans. I always rinse and drain tinned beans for the same reason — it reduces the gas-causing impact of the beans.
Vegetarians: While you can make this without the seasoned meat, making it Bean Soup with Cornmeal Dumplings, the seasoned meat does add something to the dumplings and to the soup. I would suggest using a seasoned meat substitute, such as Soyrizo or whatever you would use as your meatless filling for tacos and such. Or, you may prefer to fill the tamale dumplings with jalapeños, green chilies, or the like.
Are these tamale dumplings as yummy as real tamales? Nope — but it still makes for a yummy meal. It smells so delicious as it simmers away, you’ll find yourself dancing and singing the Hot Tamale song! (Go on, you know you want a little bit of silly in your day!)
With some cooler weather moving in last night, I’m making this soup today for the first time in ages (almost two years!). The dates on the photos are from when I last made the soup.
While this recipe halves fairly easily, this soup freezes very well — just add a bit of liquid (I suggest beer or water) into your pan and then gently reheat the soup.
Bean Soup with Tamale Dumplings (Makes 6 to 8 servings)
For the Bean Soup:
- 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups (1 pound) dry pinto beans (black beans would likely be yummy, too)
- 10 cups water
- A couple slices of salt pork, bacon, or a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil
- 1 medium to large onion, chopped
- Garlic (minced or powdered), to taste
- Seasonings to taste: chili powder, paprika, cumin, pepper (coarse ground black; also red or cayenne pepper, if desired), healthy splash of Worcestershire
For the Tamale Dumplings:
- 1 pound lean (I use 93/7 or 96/4) ground beef (I’ve not made it with ground turkey, but that would probably work, as well — and I’m betting ground turkey with black beans would be da bomb)
- 1 packet taco seasoning (or season as you would for tacos)
- 1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
- 3/4 cup all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup cooled bean liquid (from bean soup above)
Rinse and sort pinto beans. For the quick-soak method (which is what I always do): Place in a large pan and add lots of water (have water level 2 or 3 inches, at least, above beans). Bring to a boil. Boil two minutes. Cover and remove from heat. Let sit for 1 hour. Drain water and rinse beans again, then proceed with recipe as follows.
Place beans in a large pot and add 10 cups of water. Add salt pork, bacon, or oil; chopped onion, garlic, and seasonings to taste. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Remove 1 CUP of bean liquid and set aside to cool. Continue cooking beans until tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare tamale dumplings:
Brown ground beef and season as for tacos; set aside to cool.
Stir together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Stir in cooled bean liquid until moistened. Mixture will be thick and rather dough-like (kind of like a biscuit dough), but should be moist. (Add in a bit more bean liquid, a tablespoon or so at a time, if needed, until dough is moist.)
Divide dough into 16 portions (I score the dough with a dull knife into quarters, then each quarter in half, and then each eighth in half again).
With lightly floured hands, flatten each portion of dough.
Place a teaspoon or so of seasoned meat in the center.
Shape the cornmeal dough into a ball, around the meat (the meat will be in the center).
Place on waxed paper or lightly floured surface until ready to be placed into the simmering soup.
When beans are tender, mash beans slightly (if desired) and stir in remainder of meat from dumplings. Drop tamale dumplings into simmering beans. Cover tightly and cook for 30 minutes.* (*I have been making this soup thirty years…seriously. And tonight, made a slight change and simmered the dumplings for 25 minutes, then removed the pot from the heat, waited 10 more minutes, and then ladled some into bowls to cool a bit before we sat down to eat it…and this is my best batch yet, because the tamales have a more tender texture.)
Serve in soup bowls. We like to dress ours with some chow chow. Sliced jalapeños, diced green onion, sliced banana peppers, pepperoncini, salsa — all could be tasty accompaniments, as well.
Makes 6 to 8 servings. Freezes VERY WELL.