Well, three days of the tamale, to be exact.
A good friend of ours hosts a themed Christmas dinner every year. It started out as a “cats and dogs” gathering decades ago, when those who weren’t migrating home elsewhere for the holiday pooled resources and cheer. Over the years it has become a second-family type event, deeply enjoyed by all.
This year’s theme (announced last year) is Mexican food. And in a moment of ebullience and generosity some time after my third egg nog last year, I promised to make tamales for the 2006 crowd. Since tamales freeze well, I decided to do them this weekend. That way should the batch prove unsuccessful, I’d have plenty of time to recover.
Living here in Massachusetts, finding the ingredients can be a challenge. I’ve been collecting corn husks for a couple of years now, buying a bag when I can find them. Fresh peppers, or at least a small selection thereof, can be found here now. Dried peppers are tougher although in some neighborhoods they can be found, too. My own stock is hand-imported from New Mexico and Arizona, either by me during business trips, or through the kindness of another good friend in Albuquerque. And masa flour I can get locally in the local natural/organic food supermarket, or in the same neighborhoods where decent peppers can be found.
So this weekend I spent pretty much in the kitchen. Saturday was cooking the meat filling – in my case pork. Sunday was making the flour, stuffing the tamales and steaming them. And Monday after dinner was assembling and steaming the last few that I ran out of time to complete on Sunday.
I don’t claim to be an expert in making these (I am after all, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, and Mexican only by marriage). My experience is largely a matter of reverse engineering, trying to make tamales that look, feel, and most of all – taste – as close as possible to the ones my father-in-law’s family sends to him. I’m narrowing in on the optimal product now, but I still have a few tricks to learn. Still, these do come out better than any I have had in any Mexican restaurant this side of the Mississippi. So as a mutant multicultural Hannukah/Christmas/Solstice/New Year’s present I share the recipe here.
Please note that these tamales are one of the 365 things you should only eat once per year. Luckily the amount of labor involved limits their appearance to special occasions. This recipe makes enough for a large party or family gathering (recommended), or at 4-5 per serving, enough to freeze for several months of tamale-accompanied meals (see caution on those 365 things).
One Gringa’s Tamales
Makes about 150-165
Special equipment: A huge mixing bowl. A large steamer pot (big aluminum Chinese steamers, large spaghetti pots with steamer inserts, lobster or crab pots with a colander inside all work). Optional: An electric mixer, an immersion blender. One or more helpers for husk-washing and tamale assembly (this is A LOT of hand work for one person)
6 pounds of pork shoulder or another fatty, stringy cut, hacked into roughly inch thick slices and gobbets. Plus any bones and skin.
About a dozen assorted fresh hot peppers of various types (Fresnos, Serranos, Tepins, yellows, Mirabels, Jalapenos, Mirasols, Cayennes, I use a mix of anything I can find – except habaneros which can overwhelm the dish)
About 10 dried New Mexico dried chile pepper pods (use dried California Anaheim peppers if you can’t find the slightly more flavorful and hotter New Mexican ones)
About 15-25 other hotter dried peppers (tiny pequins, cascabels, or arbols, again whatever I can find)
2 medium or one large onion, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic
1 Tbs salt
1 can of beer (or equivalent in water)
More water to cover
1.5-2 tsp dried cumin (comino)
2 tsp dried oregano
Day 1: Clean and de-seed dried peppers, soak in beer to rehydrate for at least a half hour. Char and peel fresh peppers. The delicate might want to wear gloves for both of these operations. Finely chop fresh peppers. Crush or mince garlic. Mince or chop rehydrated peppers, saving juice (I cheat by sticking an immersion blender into my beer or water plus peppers and turning the whole thing into a slurry). Toss meat and bones in large stew pot along with all other ingredients, add water just to cover. Simmer for at least two hours, preferably until mean is falling apart, and all the vegetables have denatured into the broth. Taste if you’re brave. The meat should be quite hot because it’s the primary flavoring in the tamale, but is used quite sparingly. Set aside to cool, preferably overnight in the fridge. If you’ve used skin-on shoulder, the broth will set up as gelatin in the fridge. That’s good.
Day 2: The fastidious might want to skim the fat off the top of the cooked meat. I will say as shocking as it sounds – don’t bother. The biggest enemy of tamales is dryness. This is a recipe that I’d rather have full fat once a year, than as a reduced fat shadow of its true self. While the meat is still cool, remove it from the pan (keep the jelled juice and fat – don’t wash the pot yet). Using two forks, shred the meat into strings. Use this opportunity to remove bones and any tough bits. Return meat to the pot and heat it just enough to melt the thickened juice. Pour off as much as is convenient. You’ll probably have between 2 and 4 cups of liquid inclusive of both broth and fat. The meat should be moist, but not dripping. Reserve the liquid and set the meat aside. Fridge both until you assemble the tamales.
Dough and Assembly
One 5-lb bag of Masa Harina instant corn flour (to be accurate, the bags are actually 4.4 pounds, I make up the difference from the cupboard)
1 pound of lard. Yes lard. This actually makes a tastier and less greasy tamale than the equivalent in vegetable shortening.
1 cup of Crisco shortening (reduce this by half if you are only using one 4.5 pound bag of masa). I use this only because I rarely use lard, and I don’t want to buy a second pound and have the remainder sit around forever.
2 Tbs salt
The reserved liquid from the meat
Water or broth. You’ll probably need between 4 and 6 additional cups of liquid, depending on how much you got from your meat and how dry your masa mix is.
2 bags dried corn husks
Start by immersing the corn husks in a pot of warm water to cover (you’ll need to weight them down with another pot on top to keep them submerged). Soak for at least two hours. They will almost certainly be a bit dirty, with clumps of dried corn silk in the centers of each bundle. Separate the husk leaves gently, taking care not to split them. Rinse well under running water. Stack them between dishtowels as you clean them. They need to be moist and pliable but not dripping wet when the tamales are assembled.
In a huge bowl (and I mean huge) using an electric mixer, beat the lard and shortening until soft and uniformly creamy. Add all masa and salt and mix by hand until all the fat is incorporated. The dough will look crumbly at this point. Add the liquid from meat – broth, fat and all. Knead to incorporate. Continue adding water (or broth) and kneading by hand until the mixture is just a bit softer than PlayDoh in consistency, sort of like a very stiff peanut butter.
By now your meat should be cool (it’s easier to handle cold). Your corn husks should be softened and clean. Your dough should be ready. It’s time to assemble. Assembly is where my lack of skill really shows. The tamales I’ve had made by my Mexican inlaws’ families are not fat and floppy masa cakes with an open end, like the packaged ones found at Trader Joes supermarkets. Instead they are stogie-thin, with both ends of the husk neatly tucked away to completely encase the filling. I’ve never managed to figure out that second end tuck, so I use a small tie to secure each tamale.
Start by taking roughly a cigar-sized lump of masa and squishing or spreading it onto one of the larger corn husks. Aim for an area slightly right of the center line. You want to make a patch about the width of a pack of playing cards that extends from about an inch from the pointy end of the husk to within about an inch of the wide end, and that is about a quarter inch thick.
Using a fork lay a thin stripe of meat mix down the center of the masa – depending on the size of the corn husk, this can be about a teaspoon or two. Remember – most of the hotness in this recipe is in the meat. The more meat, the hotter the tamale is. Even the hottest meat can be tamed by upping the masa:meat ratio.
Begin rolling the husk and masa tightly to encase the meat.
When you’ve got it mostly enclosed, stop rolling and fold the pointy end of the husk in over the growing roll.
Continue rolling to make a little log with one end tucked neatly away. Now take one of the substandard corn husks (there will be some too shredded or narrow to be useful). Rip off a thin strip and use it to tie the open end securely closed.
Put all your tamales into a the upper part of a steamer pot with the folded side down. They should be packed tightly enough to stay upright, but not so tightly that they don’t wobble a bit (otherwise they will take longer to steam).
Set the tamales to steam for about two hours. At the end of two hours pull a sacrificial tamale from the center of the batch. Unwrap it. If it’s done the filling will be moist but not sticky, and will separate cleanly from the husk. For the record, my large spaghetti pot/steamer basket can hold about 40 tamales at a time. I steam them as I complete them, and did three batches on Sunday and one Monday night. Unsteamed tamales should be returned to the fridge if they have to wait their turn to be steamed. Cooked tamales should be packed into zip-lock plastic bags or plastic containers and frozen as soon as they are cool enough to handle. It’s worth the time to freeze them in meal-sized units rather than all together.
To serve tamales, I thaw them quickly in the microwave or using a steamer. You can serve them just like that. But best of all once they have been thawed is to finish them by baking them in the oven until the husks are dry, or tossing them into a dry skillet or on a griddle to the same ends. Serve as an accompaniment with any Mexican meal, or as a snack or appetizer. Salsa Verde or any other condiment you wish can round out tamales to make a meal.