23andMe is a powerful, but dangerous tool. Jan has assumed she had one father, when in fact there were two. According to her genes, Jan’s ancestry is ¼ Iberian and ¼ Cora—although they refer to themselves as Naáyarite—an indigenous tribe that lives in the mountainous region of along the Jalisco / Nayarit border of north Pacific coast Mexico—although much of Jan’s extended family has moved to the coast.
Getting in touch with her Mexican cousins, Jan discovered that instead of one full brother, she had four half brothers—still living. Jan has spent the last year exploring her new found family. One of them, Rafa, has lived only a few miles away from us for the last 25 years.
Fun Fact: In addition to an extended Mexican family, Jan has discovered that she is a third cousin of a saint—Toribio Romo González, patron saint of migrants and border crossers. Appearing in a cowboy hat and boots, he directs travelers forward to food, water, and safety or back the way they came, if it is not safe to go forward.
This year, Jan decided that she wanted tamales for Christmas, a Mexican tradition. In exploring the Cora people’s food traditions, she found that crab was a significant symbol. Jan thought that crab tamales would be the thing.
Note: The Cora were that last tribe subjugated by the Spanish, in 1723. While still being Catholic, they have retained more of their original culture than many other Mexican indigenous peoples. In Pre-Colombian Mexico, peyote played a large role in many religious rites. Among the neighboring Huichol, peyote is the symbolically represented by a deer. For the Cora, Jan found in her reading, that it is represented by the crab.
With this in mind, Jan found a recipe for Corn, Poblano and Crab Tamales. As is frequently the case, I looked at the recipe and found it far too Frenchified—way too much dairy. I found a Nayarit recipe that also looked interesting. In the end, I did my usual of taking ingredients and techniques from both recipes to make something in the same spirit, but new. To complete the meal, I though a light shrimp soup for a starter and a jicama salad would be a good idea.
Note: No one step of this recipe is particularly difficult, but there are a lot of steps. You may make the mixtures—the spice blend, the chili mixture, the corn mixture and masa—a day in advance. You do not want to add the crab until you bring the mixtures together as the filling, just before you start to assemble the tamales. When it comes to assembling the tamales, it is also good to have help—many hands makes light work.
After Dinner Note: These tamales turned out very nicely. I set up the filling and Jan, Miriam, and Eilene spent an hour around the table making tamales. The one “fly in my ointment” was that I had only bought five pounds of prepared masa and we ended up with too much left over filling. Not to worry, I used it the next day as taco filling, when Eilene brought friends over for dinner at the last minute.
Karl’s Corn, Poblano and Crab Tamales
2 dried Ancho chilies
1 Chiles de Arbol
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. coriander
3 Poblano peppers
1 Jalapeño pepper
½ red bell pepper
3 ears of corn (about 2 cups)
¼ cup shrimp broth (chicken/vegetable broth)
1+ lb. lump crabmeat (1½-2 cups)
1 Tbs. corn oil
1 medium yellow onion
¼ tsp. Kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, mashed
2 Roma tomatoes
1 tsp. orange zest
½ cup cilantro, chopped
10 pounds prepared masa
80-100 dried corn husks
A tamale pot, a very large pot with a steamer inset.
1. Put the corn husks in a large pot of water to soak.
Tip: The corn husks come tightly stacked. If you just put the whole stack into the water the center husks will not absorb the water. Separate them into 2-3 husks per bunch to allow the water soak into each husk.
Note: The husks, being a natural product, come in a variety of sizes. pick the best ones for making your tamales and use the odd sized ones to lay under and over the cooking tamales, or to rip into tamale ties.
2. Deseed the chilies and tear them into ½ inch bits.
Note: Much of the capsicum, the chemical that makes chilies “hot” is carried in the seeds. If you want to make your dish spicier, leave some or all of the seeds in.
3. Roast the chilies for 1-2 minutes in a dry hot pan, until fragrant.
Tip: Toss the chilies frequently to prevent them from burning.
Note: The thin dry chilies will go from toasted to burnt black very quickly.
4. Transfer the chili pieces to a bowl to cool when they are done.
5. Toast the cumin and coriander seeds in the dry pan and add them to the chilies.
6. Grind the chilies and spices to a fine powder and set it aside.
7. Rinse the peppers and red pepper, cut them in half and deseed them.
Tip: Many cooks roast their peppers whole and then struggle to deseed the slippery, hot chilies. Removing the seeds before broiling is much simpler. Cutting the peppers in half also makes it quicker to roast them, because you do not need to keep turning them.
8. Lay the vegetables, cut side down, on a Pam-ed baking sheet.
9. Broil the chilies 4 inches from the heat element.
10. Continue roasting the peppers until they are well charred, about 10 minutes.
11. Remove the peppers from the oven and put them in a plastic bag until they are cool enough to handle.
Tip: The plastic bag continues to steam the chilies and makes it easier to remove the tough skins.
12. Skin the peppers and dice them.
13. Place all of the peppers in a small bowl and reserve them for later.
14. Finely dice the onion and set them aside.
15. Deseed and finely dice the tomatoes and set them aside.
16. Boil the corn for 5 minutes and then douse them in water to cool them quickly.
17. Cut the kernels from cob.
Tip: Hold the cob upright and starting about halfway down, slice down to remove the niblets. Rotating the cob and continue cutting. When one end if done, flip the cob and continue removing the kernels.
Note: This method keeps the knife blade away from your fingers.
18. Process the corn into a course paste.
Tip: Use a food processor, or handheld blender, until the mixture is just chunky.
Note: When you cut the kernels free from the cob they tend to stick together in clumps. You want to break all of these up to form your corn paste, but you do not want it to be too finely pureed.
19. If you are using fresh crab, remove the meat in as large of pieces as you can manage.
20. Cover the crab and reserve it in the refrigerator until needed.
21. Add the corn oil to a large pan and sauté the onions with the salt until it has picked up more than a little color, 8-10 minutes.
22. Pull the onions to the sides of the pan and sauté the garlic in the hole in the center for one minute, until fragrant.
23. Add the tomato to the pan and continue cooking until the tomato has darkened, about five more minutes.
Tip: Scrape the bottom of the pan frequently. You want a good dark fond, but you also do not want to burn the tomato stuck to the pan.
24. Deglaze the pan with the shrimp broth and add the Poblano, Jalapeño, and red bell pepper mixture.
Tip: In preparing for this meal, I discovered that my local Mexican market carries pre-ground dried shrimp for making the broth. Put 1 teaspoon of the shrimp powder in a quarter cup of hot water, let it steep for five minutes and you have instant shrimp broth. Alternatively, you could use chick or vegetable broth as your simmering liquid.
25. Cover the pan and simmer on low for 10 minutes.
26. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the corn mixture and orange zest to quickly cool the contents of the pan.
27. Add the crab and cilantro and gently fold them in
Tip: You do not want to break up the pieces of crab.
28. Cover the pan and let the mixture cool completely.
29. Prepare the masa.
Note: I used prepared masa from Chavez market. If you are starting from scratch: 1) Mix 3 cups of masa harenia, 2 tsp. baking powder and 2 tsp. salt. 2) add two cups of water or chicken broth. 3 ) Slowly mix in 8 oz. of melted lard. 4) Knead until the masa is firm.
30. Assemble the tamales.
Tip: Jan found an abuela’s instructional video that includes making the masa and assembling the tamales.
Note: Assembling tamales tends to be a group project. We set up three assembling stations at the dinner table covered in towels—for easy clean up. Each person had easy access to the husks, masa, and fillings. Also useful are: A cutting sheet to use as a work surface; a bowl of water—wet hands makes it easier to handle the sticky masa; and a plate for the finished tamales.
a. Put a husk with the tapered end towards you.
b. Using your fingers, spread ¼ cup of masa onto the husk
Tip: Leave a small border around the edge You want a moderately thin sheet of masa 3-4 inches wide by 4-5 inches long.
c. Spoon 1+ tablespoon of filling down the center of the long axis.
Tip: How much filling you use is a technique you can only learn through doing. You want to add enough that your diners do not feel they are getting a “deaf tamale”—all masa and no filling. However, if you add too much filling the tamale will be difficult to seal. A good cross section would a 50/50 ratio, when you cut the tamale in half.
d. Fold the sides in over the filling and then the pointed end up over the seam.
e. Lay the tamale, fold side down on the plate.
Tip: Some tamales will want to unwrap. You may need to use strips of husk to tie around them to keep the husks in place.
31. Put the steamer insert into a large pot, and add water just to the level of the insert.
32. Line the top of the insert with a few husks.
Tip: The husks keeps the boiling water from making the bottom most tamales from getting soggy.
33. Place the folded tamales open side down in the pot.
Tip: You want to place your tamales so that they hold each other closed. However, you also want to pack them loosely, so that the steam can reach each tamale, and they have room to expand slightly as they cook.
34. When you have placed all of the tamales in the pot, cover them with some more husks to keep the steam in.
35. Bring the pot to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to medium low.
36. Steam the tamales for 1-1¼ hours.
Tip: If necessary, refill water in the bottom of the pot by pouring boiling water down the edge of the pot.
37. Remove one tamale and check for doneness.
Note: For this recipe, all of the filling ingredients are precooked, so you only have to be make sure that the masa is fully cooked.
38. Remove the steamer from the heat and let the tamales stand for 10-15 minutes to firm up.
39. Transfer the tamales to a serving platter and eat.
Tip: Put a bowl on the table for the used corn husk.