Tuesday, December 11, 2012


 Nacatamal, a Nicaraguan Style Tamale.

These tasty packages are so much more then a regular tamale. They are a whole meal wrapped up in a big leaf and then steamed. I love Mexican style tamales and there are so many different types of tamales other then what most people who live outside of Mexico realize. From pork, beef, chicken to seafood tamales and dolce (sweet) tamales. The sweet ones are made with fruit like coconut, strawberries etc and others that are made with pumpkin and sweetened condensed milk. It seems like the varieties of tamales goes on and on. But, there is a special place in my heart and my stomach for the Nicaraguan Nacatamal. Making ths dish is not for the lazy cook that is for sure. It is labor intensive and for the beginner is best undertaken over two days. It is also wise to include the whole family in making them. It is a lot of work but it is a lot of fun and in my opinion is well worth the work. I love Latin American food and when we make these it usually will involve having guests over more then one night and the entire week will consist of Caribbean and south American cooking.

Below is how I learned to make nacatamal from The Chavaria family. They moved here from Nicaragua during the war in the eighties. Every family has a different recipe and there are all kinds of combinations that I have tried. I like this one the best. 

Ingredients for a LOT of nacatamal.  It is tough to say how many because it depends on the size one small 2-3 lb pork shoulder will  yield 10-20 nacatamal.

 Pork Shoulder
Avocado leaves (substitute bay leaf)
1 bag of masa harina
1/2 lb rendered pork lard
1 package of prepared banana leaves (You can get these at any Asian supermarket) 
2-3 Potatoes 
1 large Yucca (optional) if not use more potato.
2 large Carrots
          20 or so cured green Spanish olives pitted.  
                          (Be careful not to accidentally leave a pit, someone could break a tooth)
10 or so rasins
1 large onion diced
1 green or red pepper diced
1 large ripe tomato diced
Handful of cooked chick peas 
chopped fresh cilantro
chopped fresh spearmint
sea salt and pepper

Clean, prepare and cut all of your vegetables into manageable pieces.

 As with all tamales start with a stock. Typically nacatamals are made with pork. I use a pork shoulder and I like to get the one with the most fat and skin that I can find and preferably with the bone in. You can substituent some cut of beef, chicken, even lamb or even goat.

Put the shoulder in a large stock pot  with fresh salted water, an avocado leaf or two (substitute with bay leaf) salt and pepper. Keep the stock simple as other flavors will be added with the stuffing.You can put the onion skins and veg cut offs in the cooking stock as well. 

Bring this to a bioil then turn it down to a slow simmer. Put the lid on the pot and simmer until the meat is easily pulled away from the bone. About two or three hours. This cut of pork has a lot of connective tissue and fat. It is capable of cooking for this long without drying out as all of that stuff breaks down. If you are using chicken or some other lean cut of meat, be sure to adjust your time so to not over cook.

When the stock is cooked let it cool it down. Wash your hands really well, (make sure to clean from under your finger nails) Remove the pork shoulder and pick it clean with fingers. Put the meat into a bowl and break apart into mouth size manageable pieces. Most people throw away the cooked out skin and layer of fat. In the name of authenticity I chop them up and add it to the meat mixture. Set the meat mixture aside. 

MASA (Batter) 
Start with about two cups of masa harina flour in a large mixing bowl or pot. Then with your fingers work in the lard and add a bit of sea salt. Work it in until it cakes a biut much like you would making pie crust. When all of the lard has been incorporated add a bit of cooled stock. Mix with a wooden spoon until well blended. Now add flour and stock alternately until weel blended and about the thickness of corn bread batter or very thick cake batter. Add more masa harina if to wet add more stock if too dry. Don't worry if you run out of stock you can add some cold water. Don't run out of masa harina. Let this batter sit for an hour or so before assembly.

Clear and clean a section of counter or set up on the kitchen table and make an assembly line with your various ingredients.  Set up a metal cullender or steamer basket if you have one. With a less is more kitchen moto I make do with pots stacked inverted to one another with a metal cullender as my steamer basket.
Take out the banana leaves and cut them to fit the size nacatamal you are going to make. Banana leaves are very large and depending on how large I cut them either in half or sometimes thirds. Then I cut a few strips to use as ties if needed.

 Lay out a piece of leaf and place a good dollop of masa onto the center. Then a few pieces of meat followed by a small amount of all the filling ingredients. Then place another small dollop of masa on top. Next fold the leaf over the batter and tuck it in like an envelope. Don't get frustrated because it may take a couple to get the hang of the folding and how much to put in each leaf. If it does not stay closed very well then use a small strip of banana leaf or string to tie it closed. I find that just stacking them in the cullender close to one another helps keep them from opening.

To make some of them spicy hot I add chopped green chilis or sometimes ancho peppers in adobo sauce. 

After the your steamer basket is full put it in a large enough stock pot to have a few cups of water. Then cover with a lid or another pot. Bring to a boil and then turn down to a medium simmer, steam for at least one hour, more if they are on the larger size. The size you see here were steamed for more then two hours.

Is making nacatamal and other types of tamales a lot of work? Yes. But like so many other good things in life it is worth the extra effort. Serve them on the banana leaf for a nice presentation, a little creme fresh on top or sour cream, some chopped tomatoes, cilantro and diced onion. Nicaraguans love to have this dish with strong black coffee similar to espresso, or beer depending on the time of day. The Nacatamal is an exotic and hearty take on the tamale.