Sunday, December 23, 2012

tamales 101

Whoo friends, you are in for a TREAT!

‘Twas 12 days before Christmas, and all through the casa,

Chef-types were digging their hands into masa.

We went to my family friend Carolyn’s house. Her house is RIDIC. Her husband Michael is one of those I Know How To Make Anything types, so they have, oh, a PIZZA OVEN IN THEIR BACKYARD WHAT?! Living the life of Gwyneth Paltrow, these two.


Our mission for the day (Carolyn, myself, my boyfriend and I, with the occasional support via alcoholic beverages from Michael) was to make tamales. Some back story: Carolyn and I started talking about cooking (as I am wont to do with everyone) and she mentioned that she made tamales, via a family recipe from her Mexican heritage, the previous Christmas. Being a tamale lover (duh), I grilled her for information and learned a lot, and then she just said, “I’ll call you around Christmas. We’ll make tamales.” Imagine my surprise when that actually happened.

So perhaps in the past you thought of a tamale as a self contained packet of deliciousness. Yes, yes it is.


It is so much more.

The meat.

The broth in which the meat was cooked.

The chiles that infuse the broth in which the meat was cooked (which then is used to make the masa dough)

The sauce made with the chiles that flavors the meat.

The masa dough that encloses the meat mixed with the sauce which is flavored with the broth in which the meat was cooked that is flavored by the chiles.

The husks that enclose the masa dough that encloses the meat mixed with the sauce which is flavored with the broth in which the meat was cooked that is flavored by the chiles (okay okay I’m done.)

Blessedly, Carolyn had done some things in advance. Corn husks were soaking. And more critically, the meat was cooked. Carolyn cooked FOUR roasts- three pork, one beef- nice fatty ones, in big stock pots with garlic and onions for eight hours or so the previous day. She then took excess fat off the meat, shredded it, and let the broth hang out overnight.


We used that broth to rehydrate some dried chiles. We used ancho- Carolyn said don’t use anything too spicy or the tamales won’t be good!

My first task was to take the chiles, decapitate them (take off their stems :D), and scrape out their seeds, leaving a big pile of soft chiles ready for the using.



Then she had me puree the broth to blend in the onions and garlic and make it nice and smooth, ready to use both for the chile sauce that went into the meat and the dough.


We were all set to make the chile sauce for the dough. We pureed the peppers with our newly smooth stock.  

That puree got poured into a big pot with various seasonings, some seen below, in large quantities.

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And rosemary and oregano and salt. It got all thick and lovely.


And it was ready for MEAT! In that went, getting thicker and thicker and awesomer and awesomer!

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Elbow grease needed!


But, it smelled like heaven.


I just want to mention that for every step in this process, I’m describing the events that took place in a sentence but they were taking up a LOT of time.

We felt like Maddie the dog. Tired but oh-so-festively attired.


(Who would, bless her heart,  perk up considerably if she thought she could get a taste of what was going down).


So as I mentioned, the dry corn husks had already been soaked (incidentally, you can buy those corn husks, as well as the masa flour we used, at any respectable Latin supermarket.)


Once we removed them from the water, we had to pat them dry to ensure that the filling would adhere to the dough.

We made a big old pile of husks that were ready (which paled in comparison for the number of husks Carolyn had bought! Girl makes a LOT of tamales!)


The dough was a combination of masa flour, Crisco (yeuuurgh. They’re traditionally prepared with lard and I definitely prefer saturated fat to trans fat), and the flavorful broth that’d had some chiles soaked in it- it gave the dough a wonderful pink color!



Nothing like Crisco floating around.

The goal for consistency with the dough is to get it to make a nice self-contained ball. It reached that phase and then Carolyn demonstrated how one went about patting out the dough into the husk.

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You want a niiiiiiice thiiiiiiin layer. She said her Mexican grandmother could just pat it out with a spoon, but she’d never mastered the skill. I was happy to get in there with my fingers.

Then the meat went atop (note that the top was left uncovered by dough or meat).

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And a folding operation…

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At last complete. And into the pan. To be joined by many tamale hermanos.


Rolling the empanadas was by far the most time-consuming part of the process. We attempted an assembly line and I decided to focus all of my efforts on adhering the dough to the husks.

Steve gave up at a certain point and did the dishes.


Michael perked up morale with Manhattans. I tried a sip but blecccch- I am not old enough for Manhattans, Martinis, or Mad Men drinks.


Hours upon hours upon hours upon hours later, we’d amassed a sizeable stack of tamales.


And so they were ready to steam. Tamale steamers exist, but Carolyn’s clever method is simply to place a mug in the center of a big stock pot- so as to surround the tamales around it.


She said 20 minutes butttt…. it was more. Partly I was having a charming hypoglycemic moment since I hadn’t eaten anything for many hours except various selections from the box of See’s Candy I brought as a hostess gift.

But anyway, we chatted and admired the festive table. Michael and Carolyn are classy.


And the tamales emerged from the steamer. Extra meat in chile sauce was heated up, to spoon atop the completed tamales for an extra burst of flavor.

We dug in.


A few parting notes:

- Carolyn found this recipe to be helpful in recreating her family’s tamales. She copied their proportions of masa and fat for the tamale dough.
- That being said, Carolyn’s tamales I’m sure OWNED the ones from that recipe, since they involved homemade broth and real chiles, not chili powder. She also soaked the dried chiles in the broth used for the masa dough, which gave the dough more flavor AND a pretty pink color.
- Carolyn used ancho chiles for this recipe, but there was another kind she said she thought she preferred, after tasting these. Carolyn, comment on this post and tell me which!

Feliz Navidad, friends.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I prefer to use chile pasilla for the tamal sauce, lots of flavor and not hot, hot hot. Thanks for coming over, we enjoyed your visit. Let's get together and make pizzas this spring/summer.