I have never experienced as weighty a heat as the late afternoon I tasted my first dzotobichay in Merida. There were twenty-something of us (it was our yearly staff trip to Mexico) huddled in Dona Lupita's 98-degree kitchen around a steaming steamer of tamales, watching her cooly pat out the dough and form the packages; she must have been drawing on a personal reserve of internal refreshment that I'd long since exhausted. We were ushered into Dona Lupita's living room, where she'd set up tables and chairs, plus a fan to help shoulder the heavy air. And then she poured a round of her renowned hot chocolate. Honest. To a group whose collective dehydrated daydream was only for bottles of icy water, she served hot chocolate. And, of course, the hot tamales.
Today, away from all but the memory of that momentary discomfort, I know that these Yucatecan tamales are real gems. They're studded with greens (chaya there, a leaf that looks a little like grape leaf and has a chardlike taste), so they have a lovely balance of flavors. With Simmered Tomato-Habanero Sauce, these tamales are as delicious as Merida is hot in July.
- Prepare the pumpkin seeds and eggs. Heat a medium-size (8- to 9-inch) skillet over medium-low for several minutes, then pour in the pumpkinseeds. When the first one pops, stir them constantly for 4 to 5 minutes, until all have toasted and popped from flat to oval (don't let them brown too much or they'll be bitter). Cool completely. In a food processor, coarsely grind the seeds. Put the eggs into a small saucepan filled with cold, salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so the water simmers gently for 11 minutes. Drain, set the pan under cold running water for a minute or so, then let the eggs cool in the water. Peel and coarsely chop.
- Prepare the leaves. Unfold the banana leaves and cut off the long, hard side of the leaf (where it was attached to the central vein). Look for holes or rips, then cut the leaves into unbroken 10- to 12-inch segments (you will need 12 of these). Either steam the segments for 20 minutes to make them soft and pliable, or one at a time slowly run them over an open flame or hot electric burner until the oils rise to the top (the leaves will look glossy) and they soften; if they spend too long over the heat, they'll be crispy rather than soft--definitely not what you're looking for. Cut 12 long strips from the leftover leaves to use for tying the tamales.
- Prepare the batter. If the masa is stiff, work in tablespoons of cool water to give it the consistency of rather soft cookie dough. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, combine the masa, lard and salt. Beat until combined, then mix in the chopped chaya or chard.
- Form and steam the tamales. Using a rubber spatula, spread out 1/4 cup of the masa over the center of 1 banana-leaf segment into a 4- to 5-inch circle. Sprinkle with about 2 teaspoons of the ground pumpkinseeds and a generous teaspoon of the chopped egg. Using the leaf, fold the right 1/3 of the masa circle over the center third, gingerly peel back the leaf (leaving that 1/3 of the circle folded over), then fold the left 1/3 over so the masa completely encloses the pumpkinseed and egg filling. Fold in all the sides of the banana leaf even with the enclosed masa and tie the with one of the banana leaf strips. Continue spreading, filling and folding until all 12 tamales are made. Set up a large steamer (a Mexican tamal steamer or Chinese steamer gives the greatest surface over which to distribute the tamales) with 2 inches of water and spread half of the remaining banana-leaf scraps over the bottom. Arrange the tamales in the steamer folded side down, stacking when necessary (but not more than 2 high). Cover with the remaining banana-leaf scraps. Bring the water to a boil, cover tightly and steam over medium heat for about 1 hour (tamales made from reconstituted masa may take a little longer). Remove a tamal, open it and see if the leaf pulls away--the sign it is done. Let the tamales stand in the steamer off the heat for a few minutes, to firm up.
- Serve the tamales. Remove ties from tamales. For a decorative presentation, open out each banana leaf, gather one end together and tie with another banana-leaf strip to make a "shell". Spoon on a little sauce and sprinkle with ground pumpkinseed.
Advance Preparation-- Though most tender when first made, these can be done several days ahead, covered, refrigerated, then reheated in the steamer.
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