Tortillas, tamales are delicious, gluten-free

April 13, 2011
Tamales are wonderful little packets of filling inside flavored corn dough wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. BY JACK CLEMONS

In a recent note, a reader said she would be interested in recipes for corn tortillas and tamales – gluten free foods her daughter might enjoy. The basis for these and many other Mexican specialties is masa harina or “dough flour.” Sold in bags just like wheat flour, masa harina starts as dried field corn or maize. The first step in production is to soak the corn in a water and lime solution (slaked lime – the mineral, not the fruit) to loosen the hulls and soften the kernels. This process has been around for centuries and is essential to making nutrients in corn accessible to our digestive system (we can thank the Aztecs). After the mixture is thoroughly rinsed, it’s dried and ground into flour.

When shopping for masa harina, make sure the only ingredients on the package are corn and lime (don’t worry, it’s perfectly edible after all that rinsing). You can usually find several choices in the international foods aisle. Remember that this is a very different ingredient from both cornmeal and regular corn flour, which are not processed the same way and won’t work as substitutes.

To make fresh corn tortillas, all you need is water to reconstitute the dried masa harina into dough. I’ll sometimes mix in a little bit of vegetable oil to give the tortilla a smoother texture. You can also combine spices with the dry flour before adding the water, if you’d like to add subtle flavor notes to the corn taste. Some recipes call for salt in addition to water, but it’s not at all necessary. These soft tortillas are delicious for soft tacos, quesadillas or a sandwich wrap.

Although I don’t typically advocate purchasing kitchen gadgets, a tortilla press is a helpful tool to produce consistently thin, round tortillas. Once the dough is ready, simply pinch off a ball, set it between pieces of plastic wrap or waxed paper on the tortilla press and close to flatten the dough into a circle. If you don’t have a tortilla press, try placing the dough ball between two pieces of plastic wrap and flatten it with a pie plate. The tortillas should cook for about 30 seconds on each side in a hot, dry skillet.

Tamales are wonderful little packets of filling inside flavored corn dough wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. The process of building tamales is time consuming, but not at all difficult. For traditional savory tamales, pork is boiled until it falls apart, then shredded and mixed with signature seasonings, as in the recipe below. For the batch of tamales in the photo, I combined chicken breast meat from a roasted bird, a leftover chunk of beef brisket and generous shakes from my spice jars.

The key to tasty tamales is how the corn dough is assembled – you’ll need savory broth, seasonings and shortening. While tradition calls for lard or rendered fat, you can substitute Crisco or margarine. First, spices are mixed with the dry corn flour; then you add broth and stir to create a dough. While the dough softens, the lard is whipped until fluffy, then folded into the dough to create a consistency like peanut butter. Before starting the dough, set the corn husks to soak in a pot of water; you may have to weigh them down with a plate to keep them submerged.

Once everything is ready, you can begin packaging the tamales. Spread about 1/3 C of corn dough in the middle of a softened corn husk. The use of a plastic masa spreader is not required; a spatula will work just fine. Add a generous tablespoon of the meat filling along the center of the dough and roll up the husk lengthwise. I fold down the top and bottom; some cooks prefer tying them closed with a strip of the corn husk, but folding is definitely easier.

Stack the rolled tamales upright in the basket of a steamer, as tightly packed as possible to keep them from unrolling. Set the steamer basket into a pot of simmering water and steam for about 45 minutes to an hour. Try not to burn your fingers when you pull out the first one to taste-test your delicious creation. With thanks to Carolyn for the suggestion – hope your daughter enjoys these!

Corn Tortillas
2 C masa harina
1 1/3 C water

Pour the corn flour into a mixing bowl, add 1 C water and mix to moisten the flour. Continue to add the remaining water, a little at a time, until the dough holds together. Divide the dough into 12 balls and place each between squares of waxed paper or plastic wrap. Flatten into a circle about 6 inches in diameter using a tortilla press or a pie plate. Preheat an ungreased griddle or skillet. Peel off paper and cook tortilla for about 30 seconds on each side. Yield: 12 tortillas.

Tamale Filling
3 lb pork roast
2 lb chicken parts
1/4 C canola or corn oil
3 T chili powder
1 T garlic powder
2 T ground cumin
2 t black pepper
1 T salt

Masa Dough Filling
4 C masa harina
2 T paprika
2 T chili powder
2 T garlic powder
2 t cumin
1 t salt
2/3 C lard, Crisco or margarine
5 C broth
corn husks

Pork: trim and cut the pork into golf-ball-sized pieces. Place the chunks in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for at least one hour; the meat should be falling apart. Drain and reserve the broth; set the meat aside to cool. Once the meat has cooled, shred it into small pieces, discarding any fat.

Chicken: place the chicken parts in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for at least one hour; the meat should be falling off the bone. Drain and reserve the broth; set the chicken aside to cool. Once it has cooled, discard the skin, bones and any fat. Shred the chicken into small pieces.

Filling: combine the shredded pork and chicken in a large pan; set aside. Whisk together the oil and seasonings in a small bowl. Pour the seasoning mixture over the meat and stir until thoroughly combined. Cover and refrigerate until ready to assemble the tamales.

Dough: place the masa in a large mixing bowl and add the spices. Stir to combine thoroughly. Begin mixing in the reserved broth, 1 cup at a time until reaching the consistency of peanut butter. In a small mixing bowl, beat the lard until fluffy. Mix the whipped lard into the dough until thoroughly combined.

Corn husks: soak the corn husks in a large bowl of warm water for about 30 minutes, separating them as they soften. Remove the softened husks from the bowl and shake off the excess water. Assembly: Place one husk in the palm of your hand, small end at your fingertips. Spread about 1/3 C of the masa mixture across the husk with a spatula, leaving the sides uncovered. Place 1 T of meat lengthwise on the dough along the center. Roll up the tamale from left to right and fold down the top and bottom; set aside on a flat surface with the seam side down.

Steaming: Place 3 C of water in a large pot with a steamer insert. Arrange the tamales upright in the steamer, packed tightly together. Place the steamer in the pot, cover and bring to a boil over a high heat. Reduce the heat to low and steam for one hour, checking the liquid level in the pot and adding more water , if necessary. Test for doneness by opening a corn husk and checking that the masa is soft and cooked through. Yield: two dozen tamales.

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