Making Panamanian tamales is quite a production, but they are SO good. Cedo agreed to teach me how to do it as she had been taught by her grandmother. How cool is that! First we made just a few so I could see how it was done, and then we made a lot of them for my party.
You can made tamales from dried corn, but we made these from fresh corn which I like even better. There are guys in town here who sell it from the backs of their trucks, 15 ears for $2. Corn here is starchy, not the sweet corn I was familiar with in the US because there aren’t the long days needed for sweet corn (the length of the days varies very little throughout the year this close to the equator).
15 ears makes about 10-15 tamales, depending on how big you make them.
So, in the interest of being organized, this is what you will need for tamales:
* corn – 15 ears (the following is based on this amount, multiply as needed)
* chicken or whatever meat you wish to use. 2 chicken breasts should do it
* 2-3 onions, few cloves of garlic, 1-2 green peppers or a handful of the little peppers (not hot ones), a tomato or two, pouch or small can of tomato sauce (she uses the type flavored with onion, garlic, and pepper), chicken (or beef) bullion, 2-3 leaves of culantro, and salt.
*enough leaves to wrap the tamales – plantain leaves (not banana) for the inside, and another plant that they call bijao for the outside. We didn’t have plantains the first time so we used bijao for everything.
* string to tie up the tamales
Gather the supplies and get to work
1. Cook the chicken with bullion, sliced onion, smashed garlic (use your handy kitchen rock which every Panamanian believes is require kitchen gear), half the sliced pepper, half the tomato sauce, and salt to taste.
2. Slice the corn off the cobs and put it through the grinder, making sure it is thoroughly ground.
3. Put the culantro, more onion, the rest of the tomato sauce, any solids that are cooking with the chicken (onion, pepper, etc) and enough water to blend in the blender and liquefy.
4. By now, the chicken should be cooked so take it out. Put the liquid from the blender in with the cooking water and put it on low heat. Slice some chicken which will be used for garnish later, and shred the rest.
5. Put some oil in a pan, add the sliced chicken, sliced onion and pepper, and sliced tomato and saute until soft. This will be used for garnish.
6. Put a big pot of water on the stove to boil.
7. Wash the leaves. Bundle up the plantain leaves and tie with string and put in the boiling water, turning them upside down when the bottom half is soft to soften the other end of the bundle. Put the bijao leaves over the boiling water or over the gas flame briefly to also soften them.
8. Add the shredded chicken to the corn. Then add the warm liquid to the corn a little at a time, while stirring (Cedo told me that the liquid has to be warm because this makes the corn a better, fluffier consistency). Then, add vegetable oil until it is “brilliante” (shiny). This keeps the tamale from sticking to the leaves. I’m guessing she added maybe 1/4 cup, or more? Taste and add salt as needed.
9. Assemble the tamales!
The tamale is folded, inside wrap folded up from the bottom and down from the top. Then everything is folded together by first folding in the sides, and then the top is folded down and the bottom (stem end) up. Trim off any extra stem, tie it with string like a little gift package, and it is ready to boil.
Cedo has made a million tamales in her life, having been a restaurant owner as well as a home cook, so she could fold them faster than I could tie them!
10. Boil the tamales – she says boil about 35-40 minutes, but some took longer. She wasn’t satisfied with them until the leaves looked “chocolate” with no more bright green, only dark brownish green. She says you really can’t overcook them so it is better to err on the side of cooking them a bit longer.
After they are done, of course you need to eat one. Product testing, ya know 😀
Tamales can be made ahead of time and frozen, or put in the fridge. Cedo recommends reheating them in boiling water, or maybe a little water in a frying pan with a lid if you are only heating one or two. The microwave may make them gummy (I haven’t had a problem with the microwave but I’ve been careful not to overheat them). She said you can make them up to 8 days ahead of time and put them in the fridge, but another friend told me only 1-2 days ahead of time. We still have tamales from the party on Sunday (which now was 5 days ago) and they still taste great.
I did cook the chicken ahead of time, saving the cooking liquid with the vegetable solids, and slicing / shredding the chicken before storing it in the fridge. I also cooked the veggies for garnish. I was told not to do anything with the corn ahead of time though. It must be cut off the cobs and ground on the day you plan to cook it. But, even what I did do ahead of time made it easier on the day we made the tamales.
Also, that large, wide bowl was a great help! (a loan from Cedo) If you need to mix a large quantity of anything, tamales, potato salad, etc. it works great.
If you don’t have leaves, tamales can be made in aluminum foil packets. The leaves, especially the plantain leaves, add a distinctive flavor though which is really nice. I am lucky that a couple bijao plants just came up on their own in my yard, and I let them grow thinking they might have interesting flowers (they don’t). And, my neighbor has a huge bijao plant and plantains as well, so if I need leaves all I need to do is go across the street. I was told that you can buy leaves also but they are hard to find and $.10 a leaf, a price my friends consider outrageous.
So, that is my experience with tamales. There are other methods and recipes but this is what I was taught. I think they are great and I feel honored to be included in a family tradition.
Now, after writing all this, I feel the tamales calling me so I need to go eat one!