American Sandwiches, the Christmas Tamale edition
I have this very strange dream of cooking all the American sandwiches. Why? Because sandwiches are delicious, not horribly complicated, and they’re a great way to learn about the history and geography of the United States. Old and new, East and West, North and South, red states and blue. It’s a project I’ve set out to do several times and then been too broke or busy to follow through with it, but in this time of bubbles and divisiveness it seems like a noble cause. After all, who can hate a sandwich? They’re both yummy and apolitical. Maybe sandwiches are just the thing we need to heal the rifts in our country and bring us together again -- at a picnic table, in the sunshine, passing the napkins, talking about the things we all agree on.
Big T is tablespoon, small t is teaspoon, c is cup.
I know what you’re thinking, but this is still an #AmericanSandwichProject article. For while this article is ostensibly about tamales, it’s really still about sandwiches.
Tamales, you see, are the world’s original sandwich-type-thing -- a corny outer layer stuffed with a tasty filling and steamed into solidity over boiling water. Plus, they’re totally, inarguably American. Aside from barbeque, tamales are probably the oldest dish we’re still eating today. People were brewing up tamales in Central and South America for sure 5000 and maybe even as long as 10,000 years ago. Like sandwiches, tamales were meant to be portable, carried with you when you needed a meal on the go -- workers and soldiers and travelers. Unlike sandwiches, tamales come wrapped in a leaf and not a plastic baggie. Old school tamales came stuffed with all sorts of things including tadpoles, ants, and bees but luckily for us, now they’re stuffed with meat and vegetables and cheese and even sweets like chocolate and cinnamon.
Christmastime tamales are a beloved tradition for those of us who grew up in the Southwest and/or the Missisippi Delta and/or have Hispanic heritage and/or are of African American descent. Truly, tamales are an American cross-cultural extravaganza. While many people think of tamales as being “Mexican food” they’re also very important in African American cuisine, so much so that legendary blues musician Robert Johnson even wrote a song about them all the way back in 1936.
The downside of tamales is that they’re a lot of work to make and cook, thus they’re typically relegated to festive events like holidays and celebrations. For many Americans, the process of making tamales is a fundamental part of holiday celebrations. All the distant cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and old neighbors and family friends get together for one great big glorious tamale-making party called a tamalada. It’s a special chance to catch up with people you don’t see that much, while you all work together to cook up dozens if not hundreds of tamales. Then the tamales are divvied up and taken home for everyone’s immediate families to eat, usually on Christmas Eve. Tamale-making parties are a really huge part of the holiday season for lots and lots of folks and even if it isn’t part of your tradition, you can adopt the tamalada tradition because in this nation, tamales belong to everyone.
If that feels overly ambitious to you, no worries, because restaurants all across America, like the awesome DeLeon Foods in my hometown, sell authentic and delicious tamales (good recipes in that article, too) for holiday parties. You can even buy your tamales frozen in the grocery store in many regions. But maybe you, like me, prefer to do it yourself. At first blush tamale-making seems like a really daunting thing to do, particularly if you’re one person cooking for a crowd, but it isn’t if you have a pressure cooker or an Instant Pot.
A burning desire for homemade tamales was one of the main reasons I bought an IP. The steaming step, in which the tamales are cooked over boiling water, takes place in a pressure cooker in a fraction of the time. While tamales are decidedly still a “special occasion” project, the occasion doesn’t have to be quite AS special as it was back in the day when it took 1-2 hours of steaming (not to mention constant babysitting during the steaming process to make sure your pot doesn’t run out of water) per batch of tamales. Pressure cookers steam tamales quicker and with way less babysitting. Hip Pressure Cooking features recipes and a great set of basic instructions. If you don’t have an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, wikiHow has a great guide covering both a stovetop steamer and the “aluminum foil balls in the pot” method many of us grew up with.
This year I made tamales for my oldest son’s birthday. He inconveniently decided to be born in December so his birthday has infiltrated Christmastime like a Russian honeypot burrowing seductively into a vulnerable political campaign. I made red chile shredded pork tamales and green chile shredded chicken tamales because my son is in college and he looks like he never eats any meat that didn’t come inside of a Hot Pocket.
But I’m not going to give you the recipes for those tamales because they’re very popular and widely available. My step-grandmother (my stepfather is Mexican) made her tamales with ground beef but I won’t give you the recipe for that one either. Standard tamale recipes are ubiquitous. Instead, I’ll give you the recipe for my very favorite vegetarian/vegan tamale filling instead -- and it also works as an unorthodox burrito as well. It’s cheap, it’s good, it’s filling, it’s easy, and if you ditch the cheese it’s totally vegan too.
Green Chile-Potato Tamale Filling, Possibly Vegan
That’s right, I said filling. There are tons of online recipes for tamale dough including on the package of Maseca -- that’s the special kind of corn flour called “masa” or “masa harina” you’ll need to make tamales. Use whichever recipe appeals to you. I really suggest making the lard-based tamale dough -- while many people have a lard aversion, the cooked dough tastes way better with lard than shortening-based recipes. Do NOT under any circumstances use corn MEAL for your dough. That is not the same thing as masa and it won’t work. If you’re wondering what the difference is, masa is flour made from corn that’s been turned into hominy first, and cornmeal is made from regular old corn, which can be yummy but makes batter rather than dough (which is why you have to add wheat flour to cornbread batter to breadify it.) Turning corn into hominy prior to grinding it allows it to form into dough, and also helps prevent pellagra, if that’s a pressing issue for you.
BTW, Bob’s Red Mill makes a decent (if expensive) masa flour that’s often available in the specialty flour section if you can’t find those big bags of Maseca in your grocery store.
A couple of potatoes (Your amount will vary depending on how much you want to make. This is a more-or-less kind of thing. I always meant to make this recipe with those fancy Peruvian purple potatoes but never have.)
Canned chopped green chiles (You want enough chiles to work their way all through the potatoes. I’d use more than you think you need, because the tamale dough will also absorb some flavor and some moisture. Dry tamales are a plague upon tamaledom. Fire roasted chilis add a little smoky flavor, but it’s totally optional.)
Shredded Pepper Jack Cheese (I’m of the opinion that there is no such thing as too much cheese. The cheese will melt and bind everything together, so use enough so that happens, keeping in mind this will be surrounded by dough and may benefit from being abnormally cheesy. Or, if you prefer to leave this out and make this a vegan meal, you can do that, but since the Pepper Jack adds spice, you’re going to want to add some heat to compensate, and since it adds fat, you may want to mix in some melted margarine or oil.)
Cumin (I love cumin, so I use a lot of cumin. You don’t have to though.)
Salt and Pepper to taste. Maybe a little garlic powder or some sauteed garlic.
Tamale assembly: Very easy. Peel, cube, and preboil the potatoes. Keep in mind they’ll continue to cook more in the steamer so they don’t have to be mush, but don’t take the chance on them being still crunchy, either. Drain them and mix in the chiles, cheese, cumin, and give it a taste. Adjust seasoning accordingly. Assemble your tamales by coating your corn husk (you can even use parchment paper or tin foil, if you can’t find corn husks) lightly with a small layer of dough, and then roll them up. There is a knack to this which you’ll develop over time -- please refer to this wonderful photo guide in the meantime. Then steam those bad boys in your Instant Pot or on the stove. OR, if you’d rather, you can just take that filling and stuff it into a tortilla or torillas, plural, and bake it or them in the oven and you’ll have a burrito meal. Scramble some eggs and mix them in, and you’ll have breakfast burritos.
Tamale analysis: This year I did two things differently from my past tamales which I cannot recommend. I used parchment paper instead of corn husks -- the parchment did work as promised, and the tamales still tasted ok. But they weren’t pretty to look at, nor did they smell good coming out of the steamer. The outside of them not only smelled, but felt, like soggy paper, which is exactly what it was. Not terribly appetizing and not terribly festive, either. If possible, spring for the corn husks, even though it’s simply for aesthetics. In the past when I’ve made tamales, I have used fresh corn leaves left over from shucking corn ears, and not the super expensive dried ones, and I CAN recommend that. It’s cheaper and easier and it’s actually just as authentic to use green corn leaves. Many cultures use green corn leaves or other leaves like banana and avocado leaves to wrap their tamales. You can even use chard or grape leaves if you have them. Those dry corn husks are not mandatory.
The other thing I did wrong this time was that I used instant masa. I wish I hadn’t. Again, the tamales were ok, and certainly easier (since I was cooking for a large group, I kind of needed the shortcut to be honest) but just weren’t the same level of delish as they would have been if I’d used lard and mixed up my own dough. Also, because the dough was easy to mix, I made too much just in case and ended up succumbing to temptation and slathered too much dough on some of the tamales to use it up. It would have been better had I just wasted the excess because some of the tamales were a little dense. You want just enough dough on your tamale to hold the whole thing together. Don’t use too much dough. I got away with it because I had good filling and extra sauce to go on top, but it could have been a disaster.
Suggested side dishes: Aka, my secret shame.
I must sadly confess that I’ve never truly mastered either refried beans or Spanish rice. My step-grandmother made both perfectly -- I still crave her versions, even though I haven’t had them in decades -- but even though I often asked for a recipe, either no one had one or else maybe they didn’t want to give it to a gringa. So even though I do make these things (the Instant Pot is insanely awesome for beans of all sorts) and they’re ok, neither of them is really good enough to share with the fine chefs of Ordinary Times. So if you have any hints and tips for me, please post in the comments. I’m also looking for a recipe for that cole slaw vinaigrette you get in restaurants, if you have one. I love that stuff
I did get a picture of it all together on the plate, even though the rice and beans were subpar.
What I can tell you is how to make authentic Mexican potato salad to serve with your tamales.
If you Google “Mexican Potato Salad” you’ll get a lot of very complicated recipes, 9 out of 10 of which have corn in them for some reason. It’s like the people who invent recipes thought “Hmm Mexicans like corn, so let’s put some corn in potato salad and call it Mexican”. But believe it or not, real live Mexicans do not, in fact, put corn in everything. I promise.
Real Live Mexican Potato Salad
Step 1) Make whatever your favorite non-sweet potato salad is. If it has sour cream, that’s a definite plus.
Step 2) Put sliced olives in it. Mostly black olives, but green ones might add some holiday flair.
That’s it. It’s that easy. No chili powder, no jalapenos, no lime juice, and for the love of God, NO CORN. If you will literally die without adding something more than that, try a couple dashes of Tapatio or Cholula and a little of my beloved cumin (especially if you used sour cream in your dressing -- cumin and sour cream have a real affinity for each other) but the Mexicans I know eat bland and entirely corn-free potato salads.
Not Real Live Mexican Iced Tea
This is a recipe I invented that I thought tasted vaguely South of the Border. It’s not authentic, but at least it doesn’t have corn.
Make iced tea using:
50% regular tea bags
50% Constant Comment tea bags
Sweeten to taste.
That was a lot of talking about tamales for a sandwich article, wasn’t it? That’s all because there is a unique little sandwich based on a tamale. The good news is you don’t have to make your own tamales to make the sandwich -- you can use restaurant tamales or frozen tamales and in fact a readymade tamale will likely be even better than my too-doughy tamales were.
The Mother In Law Sandwich
Anthony Bourdain once called the Mother In Law sandwich “the evil stepbrother of the hot dog, disturbing in design, yet strangely compelling.”
Hearing that description, who could resist?
They say the reason why this sandwich is called The Mother In Law is because it gives you heartburn. This makes it a good holiday sandwich since most of us have to spend time around relatives that disapprove of us at this time of year. My mother-in-law is the world’s greatest so I’d name it after some other relative probably, but you get the point.
The Mother In Law Sandwich originates from Chicago, which is pretty much a sandwich lover’s Mecca -- we’ll be visiting the Windy City repeatedly in the months to come. I really like Chicago and hope to someday actually visit it in person instead of vicariously through writing projects.* Chicago has all the stuff that’s good about a really big city without the snooty a-hole factor that puts me off of some of the other really big cities.
Just like with those disapproving relatives, I won’t mention any names. They know who they are.
The Sandwich Tribunal site has a great deconstruction of the Mother In Law sandwich which everyone should read. Tl;Dr version -- legit Mother In Laws are sold at only two restaurants in the whole wide world -- Johnny O’s and Fat Johnny’s (no relation). Which is why we, like the Sandwich Tribunal people, are going to make our own.
Tamales (technically this should be a very cheap storebought perfectly round tamale about the same size as a sausage, or you could use your homemade tamales like I did. I used the pork tamales since I thought they’d have more affinity for chili flavor than the chicken ones.)
Chili WITHOUT beans (You can use a can of chili, or make your own. I made an enchilada-style sauce with ground beef and used that. Just don’t use the be-beaned type of chili. De-beaned chili ONLY. Mother In Law sandwich aficionados are adamant on that little detail.)
Buns (I used cheap buns as this sammie seems like a cheap date, but I think a better quality bun would have improved the final product greatly. The cheap bun got too mushy when the chili soaked in and without the hot dog to compensate, it wasn’t as toothsome as it ought to have been. An onion bun, I’m thinking, or maybe a pretzel bun.)
Optional toppings (Like any hotdogish type of thing, chopped onion, pickles, peppers, chopped tomato. Maybe even lettuce to turn it into some kind of a tamale taco salad. The only hot dog topping I can’t imagine being good on this trainwreck is sauerkraut -- but I bet a coleslaw vinagrette would be great. Some crushed corn chips would have added a bit of crunch -- and it needed crunch.)
Optional -- Shredded cheese or cheese sauce (Cheese is entirely optional here. The traditional Mother In Law sandwich as served by the two Johnnys, do not have cheese.)
Sandwich assembly: Treat the tamale like a dawg and make a chili dog out of it. Bun, tamale, chili, various vegetable-based toppings, even ketchup and mustard if that’s the way you roll. If you don’t have a bun, you can do everything exactly the same and call it a tamale boat. If you have fries, you can do everything exactly the same on top of your fries and call it a tamale sundae. Put cheese or cheese sauce on top of all that and it’s a Humdinger. Or you can delve even deeper into the well of American crapulence and make yourself a Mighty Dog, which is a Mother In Law where the tamale is cut in half and a hot dog is inserted inside of it.
A hot dog in a tamale in a bun, that’s like tamaleception.
Sandwich analysis: The original version of the Mother In Law was meh for me. I am not the super hugest fan of chili dogs on a good day though so it’s not that big of a surprise that this wasn’t really for me. Plus, it was just too damn mushy. I even forgot to take a picture of it, that’s how unmemorable it was.
But then I started to think about the general principle and came up with a variation that I liked much better.
My mother-in-law is named Darlene, and she’s really really nice. Not all mother-in/laws are bad, so it didn’t seem right to me that the Mother In Law sandwich has exclusively negative connotations. So I invented my own tamale-based Mother In Law sandwich and named it after my wonderful mother-in-law even though she’s from North Dakota and would never, ever eat such an exotic thing in a million billion years. Plus I had some green chile chicken tamales to use up.
Green Chile Chicken Tamale (no exceptions, you’ll have to make your own)
Shredded Cheddar Cheese
Sweet Pickled Jalapenos (another name for these is cowboy candy and again, you’ll have to make your own)
Good quality hot dog bun (no going cheapies on this one, folks, get good ones)
Barbeque sauce (Even the Washington Post agrees that the best barbeque sauce in the whole wide world is Longhorn from my hometown of Spokane but I am not sure you can get it online. I looked it up and there was some other kind called “Longhorn” available for the ordering, but it wasn’t the real Spokane Longhorn. I would offer to send you some, but I’m lazy. Use whatever kind you like the best.)
Optional -- Butter for the bun and/or for reheating tamale
Optional -- Bacon (as I was eating this I realized it would have been stellar with bacon on top)
Sandwich construction: Toast or grill the hot dog bun using the butter if you’d like. I didn’t do this but I should have. I also think that heating the tamale on a hot grill in butter would have been very good too. I microwaved mine but it was lacking a little something.
Put the hot tamale into the hot bun and then top it with shredded cheddar. Microwave or run it under the toaster oven or broiler till cheese is melty, then top with chopped onion, cowboy candy, and drizzle barbeque sauce over the top.
Sandwich analysis: This sandwich was the result of several hours of effort -- I had to make the tamales, make the cowboy candy, and then finally after all that, make the sandwich. And it was worth it! It was a totally different and unique thing -- I’ve never had anything like it before and for someone who loves noms as much as me, that’s saying a lot. And if I’d have taken the last extra 5 minutes and grilled the bun/heated the tamale in hot butter and topped it with some bacon it would have been otherworldly. Even with too doughy a tamale, it was a worthy experiment.
I love it when a plan comes together.
This is not the most appetizing picture but it was really good.
Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and a very Happy New Year!!
* If you never read my fiction piece set in Chicago, Ferris Bueller: Day of Retribution I’d be honored if you did.
Photo by iotae