Tamales are a very traditional food in South America. Tamales were an early form of convenience food - they can be made ahead, they're pre-packaged, and they travel well. Since the arrival of the European conquistadores, tamales have changed slightly and now include more elaborate ingredients, but they remain an important part of the Latin American cuisine.
Most tamales are made with masa harina corn meal, but some are prepared with fresh corn. These savory sweet potato tamales are filled with fall flavor and are perfect for Thanksgiving. I like to make them into small appetizer-size packages, but they can be any size. If you like spicy tamales, add some minced chile pepper to the onions as you cook them, or add some canned chile pepper (like canned green chiles) to the masa.
Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Yield: About 25 appetizer-size tamales
- 4 pounds sweet potatoes
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
- 6-8 pieces of bacon
- 2 1/4 cups masa harina
- 1/2 cup melted butter or lard (or reserved bacon fat)
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 cup golden raisins
- Salt and pepper to taste
- About 30 dried corn husks for wrapping tamales
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet. Place corn husks in a bowl and cover with warm water to soften them.
- Slice the sweet potatoes in half lengthwise. Melt the 4 tablespoons butter. Stir 4 tablespoons (half) of the brown sugar into the melted butter. Stir in the cinnamon (optional).
- Place the sweet potato halves on the baking sheet with the cut sides facing upwards. Brush the cut halves of the sweet potatoes with the melter butter and sugar mixture.
- Bake sweet potatoes until they are very soft when pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from the oven and let cool.
- While the potatoes are baking, cook the bacon: Place the bacon slices (working in batches if necessary) in a heavy skillet and heat over medium heat. Cook until bacon is browned and crispy, turning at least once. Drain bacon slices on paper towels, then finely chop.
- Pour excess bacon fat out of the skillet and strain into a heat proof glass or bowl. Reserve bacon fat for tamale dough, if desired. (I prefer to use butter because the bacon fat gives a lot of bacon flavor).
- Slice the onion into thin slices and add to the skillet with a bit of the bacon fat. Cook onions over slowly over low heat, until they are browned and sweet (see How to Caramelize Onions). Remove onions to a bowl, and stir in the raisins and the chopped bacon.
- Prepare the masa: Add the masa harina to a large bowl. Once the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop out the inside of the potatoes (discarding the skins) and add to the bowl. Mix well with a potato masher. Add the melted butter or lard (or reserved bacon fat) and the chicken stock, mixing well. Stir in the remaining brown sugar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Drain the corn husks and pat dry. Tear a few of the corn husks lengthwise into strips.
- Place a corn husk down on a flat surface. Spread 1-2 tablespoons of the masa into a 2 1/2 inch square in the middle of the corn husk. Add some of the onion mixture to the middle of the masa. Fold the sides of the corn husk in slightly to close the filling over the onions, then unfold them. Fold the pointed end of the husk up over the filling. Fold in the sides, one over the other. Tie at the top with a strip of corn husk. Repeat until masa and/or filling run out (I can never manage to use them up equally).
- Place a steaming basket or colander inside of a large pot. Fill the colander with the tamales. Fill the pot with water, keeping the water level below the tamales. Cover the tamales with a towel and then the pot lid. Heat the water to boiling, and steam the tamales for 45 minutes to an hour. Check the water level from time to time and add more water as needed.
- Let tamales cool for 10 minutes or so before serving. Tamales can be reheated in the microwave, or briefly re-steamed.
Makes about 25-30 appetizer-size tamales.