Tamales are kind of a big deal down here. I never had a (real) tamale back in the NJ but Jaysus HELP you if you move to SWTX and refuse to eat tamales during the holiday season. From Thanksgiving all the way through New Years you can find tamales.
They’re one of those labor-intensive food products that takes so long to make that you (should) invite a ton of family (and friends) over to help and you make a TON. Kinda like homemade tortellini.
Plan for TWO DAYS.
Thankfully, as is often the case with forays into this specific pocket of Hispanic culture, I was invited to learn by a generous local gal and her more than generous family. Two years in a row I joined them in their all-day tamale-fest and, both times, went home with some deliciousness. (Fun fact: tamales freeze well.)
This year my friend lives at some distance from me and we weren’t able to coordinate tamale-makin’ togetherness. So I took the plunge and made my own. And I gotta’ say – it was a LOT of work and it was TOTALLY worth it.
Today, an overview. Tomorrow, the chili sauce. The following day, detailed notes on assembly.
- Lard (this is big)
- other seasonings (I used oregano and parsley)
- corn husks
- masa harina (masa flour)
First off, pop the husks into some warm-hot water.
Now, fill a huge stockpot about halfway with water.
Then cut a lot of meat.
We, in a stroke of amazingly fabulous luck and glorious goodness, live near a real live butcher shop. Thus, we get pork and beef carved directly from the source.
Believe me when I say: it makes a difference.
It’s also fun to break down because they aren’t filled with fluids and they haven’t been sitting around for days. Notice the lower right hand corner of that collage above. The giant chunk of fat on the chuck unfurled into this crazy awesome sheet of … fat I guess.
I found myself wishing I had some lean meat to wrap it in. Like elk.
Add the meat to the onion pot.
While you’re waiting, make real chili sauce.
(Save the broth from cooking the chilies. They’ll add a lot of depth and some nice heat to the masa mix on day two.)
When the meat is done, take it out of the pot and reserve all that broth (or most of it, anyway).
Shred the meat. Pop the onions in a blender and blend down to a sauce.
Add the meat back into the (now dry) stockpot. Toss in the chili sauce and the onion sauce and then add tons of spices. Cumin, salt, pepper, and then some oregano if you’re so inclined. And other seasonings.
You must add lard.
Turn on the heat and cook that meat mix up. Add meat broth (so useful) as needed to make it delicious and to make the consistency perfect. You’re looking for something much more firm than stew and looser than solid meat cubes. I think the best words I could use to describe it are almost goopy.
Go for almost goopy. Goopy and delicious. Taste early and often.
Put it in a container and refrigerate overnight.
Evening and morning. The first day.
On day two, prepare your battle station.
Start day two off by making your masa. This is fairly simple – 1/2 cup of lard for every two cups of masa harina (I used Maseca). Then add broths (see?! SEE?!) – both meat broth and chili broth to get the dough to a smooth, spreadable consistency.
I used my stand mixer to make all that happen. You’re going to want to keep it covered with wet towels while you work – the masa dries out quickly.
Break out those husks, the meat mixture, and your dough. Set it all up in a nice assembly line (see above). The towel was for wiping excess moisture from the corn husks so they weren’t dripping all over everything.
As you assemble, start to stack.
By the way, you should have your pot on hand by the time you get a decent pile of tamales assembled. You’ll want to start plopping them right in the pot.
You need a stockpot that can handle steaming. In my neck of the woods they sell them special (see above?) but a veggie strainer (one that sits at the bottom of the pot) will work nicely. Just make sure your tamales sit above the waterline.
In a true pinch, you can use balls of aluminum foil placed on the bottom of the pot to lift the tamales away from the water. Just make sure you place a layer of husks over the foil base.
But don’t put water in yet. Because you want that pot sideways so you can stack a ton of tamales.
Once you have a good little pile, lay the pot on its side and get going on the stack. (I wait until I have a few made before I do this because then I have enough angles to tuck new tamales into so they’ll stay closed. I don’t do all that tying stuff.)
When the pot is almost full, THEN turn it upright and add water.
If you don’t have enough tamales to fill the whole pot fill in the extra space with foil.
Then cover the whole deal with too-small corn husks to keep that steam circling around those amazing tamales.
Most traditional peeps say an hour. I feel like an hour is a good idea. Those traditional peeps know what they’re doing.
Eat. Die happy.
Overall, it went well. They are delicious. I’m proud of me.
One thing I’m firmly convinced of is that it’s definitely a job for a group. I do like watching many seasons of Doctor Who as I work. However, I was spoiled by the big family production the first two times I was exposed to tamale-making. This time around, while successful, took sooooo long.
Next year: tamale party!