On the off chance that my prior Wednesday night baklava, candy making adventures, or Sunday layer cake baking haven’t convinced you that I’m a wee bit off my rocker, this really ought to do the trick. How many people go on impromptu solo tamales-making binges, I ask you? Tamales are the sort of thing that generally involve tons of planning and the rallying of an army of assistants, but I decided at lunchtime on New Year’s Eve eve not just to make tamales, but to start by making mole as the sauce first, which is normally considered a whole-day, once-a-year, multi-abuela job all on its own.
But the thing is, even rationally accepting how insane the idea was, I still had to do it, because while on a shopping excursion on Friday, I finally stumbled on a place in this generally foodie-positive but sadly Mexican-ingredient unfriendly city that sold fresh masa. I hadn’t had really good tamales since my last California trip, this time last year, so finally having the proper ingredients on hand, I was going to do it up right, damn it. Since it was also nearly New Year’s, I was also going to incorporate lentils somehow, as has been my habit for the past decade or so.
Tamales really are a ton of work and time, so I don’t expect anyone to try this particular recipe any time soon, but if you don’t have a ready source of really fantastic tamales, I seriously think these are worth the trouble once a year. They’re sweet and spicy and scrumptious, not to mention colorful, comforting, and festive, and unless you’re actually having them in the context of a tamales-making party, you should have at least a dozen tamales and at least a cup of mole to stash in your freezer for a few lovely effortless meals later on.
Roasted Sweet Potato, Beluga Lentil and Mole Tamales
(Adapted from Nancy Zaslavsky, Meatless Mexican Home Cooking, 1997)
Makes approximately two dozen tamales
4 ancho chiles
4 guajillo chiles
1 chipotle chile
¼ cup golden raisins
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered
¼ cup toasted sliced almonds
1 ½ cup vegetable stock
½ can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3-4 grinds black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons peanut or olive oil
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 2-ounce disk palm sugar, grated or shaved, or 2-3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes
Peanut or olive oil for roasting
½ cup beluga, black, or French green lentils
1 kilo (2.2 lbs) fresh masa
1 ½ cups softened unsalted butter, vegetarian non-hydrogenated shortening, or a mixture of the two
1 cup frozen corn
2-3 tablespoons cream or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 1-lb packages frozen banana leaves, defrosted
Stem and seed the chiles, then toast them in a dry pan over medium heat until pliable, flipping often to prevent any browning. Put the toasted chiles in a large bowl or measuring cup with the raisins, cover with boiling water, and soak for 20 minutes.
Toast the onion and garlic in the same dry pan until beginning to darken slightly on each side. Place the onion and garlic in the carafe of a blender with the drained chiles and raisins and a few tablespoons of the vegetable broth. Blend until smooth, adding more broth as needed to keep the blender running. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and blend again.
Heat the oil in a medium pot with a heavy bottom and high sides, and fry the sauce for five minutes, stirring regularly. Add the chocolate, spices, sugar, and remaining broth, lower the heat, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching along the bottom and sides. Set aside to cool while preparing the rest of the tamale components..
While the chiles for the mole are soaking, preheat the oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Peel the sweet potatoes, then halve them and cut into 1-inch slices. Toss them on the baking sheet with just enough oil to lightly coat them, and bake until cooked through and starting to caramelize on the bottom, around 30-45 minutes. Let cool slightly, then cut into chunks of about half an inch. At the same time, boil the lentils with ample water to cover until they are tender but not falling apart. Drain the lentils and set aside while making the masa.
In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream the butter and/or shortening until light. Scrape down the sides and, with the mixer running, slowly add the masa by the spoonful and continue beating until fluffy, about another 10 minutes. With a food processor or immersion blender, puree the corn and cream or stock, then whip into the masa with the salt and pepper. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap to prevent the masa from drying out.
Unfold the banana leaves and rinse the powdery residue off. If they’re not already cut in half, remove the center vein from the leaves and cut into two long strips with a pair of kitchen shears, then cut each leaf strip into 10-inch rectangles. Steam the leaves in a large steamer until they’re pliable. Tear a few of the less nice leaves, or any that have torn while processing, into ribbons for tying up the tamales.
Lay down a steamed banana leaf square on a work surface. Using an ice cream scoop, portion out a ball-sized scoop of masa, and press it into a 6-inch circle in the middle of the leaf. Over the center of the masa, pile 2-3 pieces of roasted sweet potato, a small spoonful of lentils, and a spoonful of mole. Using the bottom edge of the leaf, flip over about a third of the masa over the filling, then lay the leaf flat again. Starting at the top edge, flip over the other edge of the masa to seal in the filling, then keep rolling to enclose the tamal completely. Fold under the two open sides until they meet underneath the tamal, and use a strip to tie it securely shut. Lay the finished tamal on a cookie sheet and continue forming tamales until the masa runs out.
Lay a few of the leftover banana leaves on the bottom of a large steamer over simmering water, and fill with the finished tamales. Cover with a few more leaves, and steam for about 1 hour, adding water to the bottom as necessary. Tamales are done when the leaf pulls cleanly away from the masa. Let rest for a few minutes before serving with the remaining mole on the side.
Leftover cooked tamales will keep in the fridge for a few days and reheat well in the microwave, or they can be frozen immediately after folding and steamed later.
If you can’t find a source of fresh masa, you can substitute the equivalent amount of reconstituted masa harina, which should be available in most supermarkets. It won’t taste quite as sweet and lovely as fresh masa, but it should still be good, especially when livened up with the pureed sweet corn.
I used banana leaves rather than corn husks as the wrapper because I could easily get the leaves at the Asian market a block away from the tortilleria that sells the masa. Tamales are traditionally made with either of those wrappers in the various parts of Mexico and Central America, so use whichever you prefer. They will each impart a slightly different flavor to the tamales but will work equally well.
Palm sugar, like the banana leaves, is commonly found in Asian markets. It’s less sweet than cane or beet sugar and has a wonderful rich caramel flavor, similar to maple sugar, which you could also use. If you don’t have either one, light brown sugar is more than fine, but start with the smaller amount and taste before adding more, because it’s significantly sweeter.