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Finally, A New Life For Turkey Leftovers-Tamales

Tamales are a weird thing, for me. Over the years, I have eaten tamales that have made my heart sing and I have eaten tamales that have sunk like a lead ball to the bottom of my stomach.They can be dry as dust requiring an ample dousing of salsa to make them go down so I have gotten to the point where I just don't order them anymore because I never know what I am going to get. You know, just like there are real, live Italian grandmothers out there who use ragu and the green container of "parmesan", there are bad Mexican cooks too. I also realize that there are different styles of tamale, according to the region out there. In some areas of mexico, they are giant blobs of masa dough with a tiny dot of filling and even though they might be authentic,  that is not my jam at all. Traversing the  sea of tamales feels like a minefield sometimes people.

Then there is the fact that some tamales are wrapped in banana leaves or plaintain leaves but I like those that are steamed in a corn husk - I just prefer the flavour that the corn husk imparts to the finished tamale. Most south american countries have their own take on this little masa bundle but I am the most familiar with Mexican style tamales so that is what I set out to make.

By now you are probably wondering why I haven't just made my own tamales by this point, since I seem to have pretty definite ideas about what I like but it's just been too overwhelming. I have spent years reading recipes and techniques. Some people will convince me that you have to whip the lard first and then, just when I think that is the only way to go, someone else will swear that you mix the masa harina with the warm stock and let it sit for a while, whip the lard and add it in after. Most the of the video tutorials will show them smearing the dough on the husk and then others roll it into balls and smash them flat with their palms.

Life was just easier when I avoided them altogether, to be honest until I saw that there was going to be a tamale making workshop at The Depanneur and it was not too expensive. Hmmm, maybe I should check that out, I thought. When I posted about it on facebook, my blogger buddy, Heather/ The Tasty Gardener, said she was going to sign up too. Finally, Jen from Picannte Dolce, the woman who encouraged me to start blogging in the first place, signed up and we were off. I was going to go and see what Paola, from Santo Pecado Catering, had to share, preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.

She did a few things differently that made the whole process less intimidating to me and, happily, the resulting tamales were light and moist with a nice, thin coating of masa. I am still going to experiement with these things - I really want to try whipping the lard before adding in the masa in my kitchen aid the next time, for instance, but this is a very simple method and the results were really good.

Paola encouraged us to use our imagination and to replace some or all of the lard with things like duck fat, use spices in the masa if we want and to even try a sweet tamale to serve as a dessert. She said that one of her favourite ways to incorporate her Canadian life into her tamales was to make them with the turkey dinner leftovers - turkey fat and stock in the dough and shredded turkey as a filling.
I thought of nothing else adter taking the class. I was distracted by my impending batch of turkey tamales that I could barely concentrate on our Easter turkey dinner. As always, I skimmed the fact off of the drippings when it was gravy time but instead of throwing them out,  I saved them. That night, I hauled out both crock pots and made turkey stock over night. After 24 hrs cooling in the fridge, I scraped off the layer of fat that had congealed on the top of the stock and, again, kept it instead of turfing it. I had to supplement the turkey fat with a couple of tablespoons of manteca to bring the final amount up to 1/2 cup but the resulting masa had a very distinctive turkey flavour.

As far as the cheese goes, I was going to use a softer cheese but my panela seemed like it was past it's prime so I used cojita instead but any soft, mexican cheese would be great. You can get queso fresco at any latin american store (in the east end of Toronto you can get it at Meating on Queen so you don't need to make a trip to Kensington market for fresh Mexican cheeses or corn tortillas anymore).

If you don't have a tortilla press, I highly recommend picking one up. It's so easy to make your own tortillas with one, they aren't expensive and I think it's a really handy gadget to have around if you like to cook Mexican food. If you can't get your hands on one, you can always flatten the masa balls using something with a flat bottom, like a pot as long as you remember to flatten it between a couple pieces of parchment or plastic wrap.

Lastly, these things freeze beautifully and you have a few choices in regards to reheating them. The two most popular ways seem to be popping them in the microwave but my favourite was to pop them out of the husk and fry them in a bit of oil in a covered pan, flipping them a few times, for about 8 minutes. They make a great lunch treat to pop into The Kid's hot food bento or if you have access to a microwave at work or at school, you can heat them up in a couple of minutes.

Turkey Tamales

makes approx 20 tamales

Ingredients:for filling:
2 dried ancho chilis
1/2 cup turkey stock
1/2 cup soaking liquid
1 tbls cumin
1 tbls chili powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp honey
1 big handful of cilantro, chopped
about 800g shredded leftover turkey
for the masa:
2 cups of masa harina
2 cups warm turkey stock
1/2 cup turkey fat from leftover turkey (sub lard or veg oil if you must)
1/2 tsp baking powder
about 1 tsp salt
a few grinds black pepper
dried corn husks
hot water
about 1/2 cup crumbled cojita cheese (you can use any mexican cheese you like or none)

Directions:You will need to pre soak the corn husks for at least 2 hours and even overnight (or all day) if you can. Put them in a deep bowl, cover with very hot water and then put something in there to weigh them down and ensure they will all remain submerged. I used an upturned shallow bowl but a pot lid will work too.
For the filling, you want to heat a dry, heavy skillet over med heat (I use cast iron) and then fry the dried chilis for a minute per side until fragrant and you see a bit of blistering occurring. I just flip them every 30 seconds, pressing them down with a spatula, for a couple of minutes.
Remove the chilis, split them open and discard the seeds and stem. Now put them in a pot with about a cup of water, bring to a boil and then remove from heat and let sit for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, shred your turkey (this makes enough filling to make about three batches so either make them all at once, or, like me, freeze the rest of your filling in two bags so you can make more later) and put in a big bowl.
When the chilis have soaked for 20 minutes, remove them from the water, chop roughly and put them in a blender or food processor. Add the turkey stock, soaking liquid, cumin, chili powder, salt and honey and whiz until it's smooth and totally pureed. Pour this over the turkey, add in a big handful of cilantro and mix well. Set aside.
Now, to make the masa, mix the turkey fat and the masa harina in a big bowl until its mixed in and crumbly - think cutting lard into pastry dough but just use your hands. Now start pouring the warm stock in and continue to mix until its all incorporated. If it seems like it's still to runny, add a bit more masa harina and if it's too dry, add a bit more liquid. You want to end up with a soft dough that is about the consistency of cookie dough. You are now going to roll it into little balls and they shouldn't stick to your hands- if they do, the dough is too damp so work in a tiny bit more masa. Cover the bowl of masa balls (like a golf ball) with a damp tea towel while you get your work area together.
Now, take your husks out of the water, dry them off with a tea towel.
Have your filling, your cheese , your husks and your masa balls all layed out in front of you. This is the part where you might want to enlist a tamale buddy to help (I did them alone which is why I only made one batch lol)

I used a tortilla press lined with parchment to press my little balls out into circles about 1/4 thick because that is how I was taught and I do like the tamales with a thinner layer of masa. If you don't have one, you can totally just flatten the ball out on your hand , put some filling down the middle and close the dough around filling in a torpedo shape. You can also lay the ball onto the husk and flatten it down right on the husk, fill it and use the sides to fold the dough over the filling.
So, now that you know that there are options about how to deal with the masa balls, proceed.
Take a husk, smoother side up, and put the masa on the husk in the manner you have chosen. Put a line of filling down the middle, put a bit of cheese on there if you are using cheese,  close the side over, wrap up and fold over the bottom part, like so:

Watch Heather show you how it's done
Continue doing this until you have used up all of your masa.
You are going to put them in your stainless steel steamer, standing up with the open end facing up. Put a couple of pennies in the bottom of the pot so that you can monitor the simmering water by sound.
Wrap the top with a clean, cotton cloth, cover the steamer with it's lid, bring the water to a boil, then turn it down to medium so it can simmer lightly, steaming the tamales for about an hour. They are ready when the

Serve them with any salsa you like and maybe a bit of crema or sour cream.

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