Food & Drink

Sweet or savory, tamales are a holiday tradition for some Lexington cooks

Maria Rios filled tamales in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 5, 2014. Rios makes tamales for Rancho Tapatio on Burt Rd. just off of Nicholasville Rd. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Maria Rios filled tamales in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 5, 2014. Rios makes tamales for Rancho Tapatio on Burt Rd. just off of Nicholasville Rd. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

When you walk in Maria Rios' kitchen, you know immediately: She's cooking tamales. A wonderful, spicy steam permeates the air. And a tableful of ingredients are waiting to make more.

Tamales, tasty pockets of corn goodness wrapped around a deliciously flavorful filling, are a Mexican and Central American holiday staple.

They are time-consuming and labor-intensive, so making them often becomes a multigenerational family affair, with mothers and aunts and kids lining up in a kitchen assembly line — first filling corn husks or banana leaves with doughy masa and dropping in a delicious filling, then folding them into bundles for steaming.

Put on a little music and you've got a party.

Afterward, everyone shares the finished product, and if you're lucky, you have enough left for holiday guests who drop by.

But in Maria's kitchen, it's just her. And it's all business. She makes her tamales for friends and family.

Her son-in-law, Luis Castillo, manager of El Rancho Tapatio on Burt Road, is particularly fond of the sweet ones she makes for special family occasions. They're filled with pineapple and pecan.

It isn't that the family wouldn't help with making the tamales, Minerva Castillo said. It's just that her mother goes so fast that it's quicker to do it herself.

"She doesn't have the patience to teach us," Castillo said with a laugh.

They do get to help with a few steps, including chopping vegetables for the chicken and vegetable filling, or pulling the meat off a boiled chicken.

Rios makes dozens of tamales at a time, but her recipes aren't written down.

"All in her head," Castillo said. Rios learned them 30 years ago in Mexico, at a night school cooking class.

But Rios did share a few tips for making great tamales. Besides the sweet kind, Rios regularly also makes tamales of chicken and vegetable, pork in molé sauce version, and a cheese and pepper version.

She starts by boiling a whole chicken in seasonings, including onion, garlic, salt and oregano. Separately, she boils whole carrots and potatoes, which are then peeled and chopped and mixed with cooked peas, pickled jalapeño peppers and the chopped chicken.

While that cooks, she soaks corn husks in water to soften them. (Tamales wrapped in banana leaves give them a slightly different texture, Minerva Castillo said.)

Rios saves the stock to put into the Maseca instant corn masa mix, with baking powder and salt. She pours the stock into the corn flour, mixes by hand, then adds hot corn oil.

Many people use lard in traditional tamales for flavor, but Rios prefers corn oil.

"For my cholesterol," she said.

The hardest part, she said, is mixing the masa. After the oil cools slightly, she begins mixing by hand.

The masa is ready, she said, when she can paste it into the corn husk, curl it up slightly, then peel back the husk and the corn will hold the curl on its own.

Rios likes to overlap two corn husks, rather than use one at a time. No small tamales for her.

"She makes big ones," Castillo said. "And my mom doesn't know how to make a few. She always makes lots."

One at a time, Rios spoons in the masa paste, spreads it out smooth and flat, then spoons in her filing, wraps the husks back together, flips up the end, and it's done.

For the pork filing, Rios chops cooked pork leg, adds chopped tomatoes cooked in whole cumin seeds, and two kinds of dried chili peppers: chiles de arbol and guajillo.

For the cheese filing, Rios uses shredded white mozzarella cheese and roasted pablano peppers.

Once the tamales are filled, they can be sealed in bags and frozen for later, or cooked right away. The tamales are steamed in a big pot for an hour and 45 minutes. They are finished when the husk peels back cleanly from the cooked tamales, which will firm up as they cool.

"The thing about tamales is ... they're really good hot and fresh," Castillo said, cutting off a bite with her fork, "This is my job, making sure they taste good."

The cornmeal shell of the tamale (technically, the singular of tamales is tamal but everybody says tamale) can be filled with just about anything. Beef, chicken, pork, cheese, vegetable or fruit are all possibilities.

Once, Castillo said, someone brought her some filed with "a whole egg, figs and a sweet molé sauce, in a banana leaf. ... It was weird, but good weird."

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