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Pork Picadillo Sweet Corn Tamales

This image courtesy of Professor Paul Elledge

There are first tastes you never forget. The flavor of local strawberries made into shortcake or pasta with homemade pesta or fresh-caught fish cooked on a campfire. For me, one of the most vivid is a fresh corn tamal filled with sweet-and-savory pork picadillo eaten at a market stall in the old downtown Veracruz market. The stall was makeshift and tiny, a few stools crowded in front of a counter that supported a gas burner on top of which was a steamer full of fragrance. Banana leaves, earthy corn, sweet spices. The pudding-like texture of the sweet tamal dough encased the savory spiced pork with raisins and nuts. And I was seduced. The corn is different here, but that didn’t stop me from creating a very close facsimile.

Cooking MethodSauteeing, Steaming

CostModerate

Total Timeunder 4 hours

OccasionCasual Dinner Party

Recipe CourseMain Course

Dietary ConsiderationEgg-free, Gluten-free, Lactose-free, Peanut Free, Soy Free, Tree Nut Free

MealLunch

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium white onion, cut into ¼-inch pieces
  • 1 pound ground pork—best with coarse-ground pork, often called “chili grind” or “stir-fry” pork
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely Chopped
  • A generous ½ teaspoon EACH ground cinnamon and black pepper
  • ¾ of a 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire roasted)
  • A generous 1 tablespoon vinegar (apple cider vinegar is a good choice)
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1/3 cup coarsely chopped roasted peanuts or toasted almonds
  • Salt
  • 1 1-pound package banana leaves, defrosted if frozen
  • The kernels cut from 2 large cleaned ears sweet corn (about 2½ cups)
  • 1 pound (about 2 cups) fresh coarse-ground corn masa for tamales OR about 1¾ cups dried masa harina for tamales reconstituted with 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot water, then allowed to cool
  • 4 ounces (½ cup) rich-tasting pork lard, vegetable shortening (we’ve had pretty good luck using Spectrum Organic All Vegetable Shortening) or unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch bits and slightly softened
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder

Instructions

  1. Make the picadillo. In a very large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the onion and meat broken into small clumps. Cook, stirring regularly and continuing to break up the meat into smaller clumps, until richly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the garlic and spices, stir for a minute, then add the tomatoes (and some of their Juice), vinegar and raisins. Simmer, stirring regularly, until the mixture is thick enough to hold its shape when scooped up. Remove from the heat, add the peanuts (or almonds) and season with salt, usually about 1½ teaspoons. Cool.

  2. Prepare the banana leaves. Unfold the leaves and trim off the thin hard strip on the side of each one, where the leaf connected to the central stalk. Cut into twelve 12-inch pieces, choosing sections that are relatively unbroken. From the widest of the extra pieces, tear twenty-four ½-inch-wide strips for tying the tamales; set aside the leftovers for lining the steamer. To make the banana leaf pieces pliable, either steam them for 20 minutes or pass each one briefly over an open flame until it turns from dull and stiff to soft and shiny.

  3. Mix the batter. Scoop the corn into a food processor and process to a medium-coarse puree. Add the fresh or reconstituted masa to the corn, along with the lard (or one of its stand-ins), sugar, salt and baking powder. Pulse the processor several times making sure that all the lumps are broken up, then let it run for 1 minute, until the mixture is light and homogeneous.

  4. Form and steam the tamales. Set up a steamer (a Mexican tamal steamer, large vegetable steamer or deep Chinese steamer will give you the greatest surface over which to distribute the tamales) with water in the bottom and the steaming compartment lined with some of the leftover banana leaves. One by one form the tamales: Spread 1/3 cup of the corn masa on a banana leaf piece (shiny side up) in a 4 x 8-inch rectangle that extends from the center of the leaf to one of the sides. Spoon ¼ cup of the filling onto the masa that is in the center of the leaf. Then fold the uncovered masa (and its portion of leaf) over the filling, to cover it. Fold the uncovered stretch of leaf over the top, creating a long, thin package. Fold the two ends under the tamal, then, in each direction, secure the banana-leaf package with a banana-leaf string.

  5. When all are done, arrange the tamales in a single or double layer in the steamer. Top with a few more of the leftover leaves. Set over high heat, and, when steam comes puffing out, reduce the heat to medium or so, to keep the water at a nice boil. Steam for 1 to 1½ hours, until the masa comes free from the leaf. (Don’t be alarmed that the tamales will be soft; they firm as they cool.) Make sure the water doesn’t boil away; if it becomes necessary to replenish the water, add boiling water.

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