Tis The Season For…Tamales!

21 12 2009

Northern California agriculture gets tremendous support from farm laborers of Mexican heritage.  Migrant and not-so-migrant Mexican farm workers are people who hold fast to their religious and family traditions.  They celebrate Christmas for it’s purpose, the birth of Christ, and so  Christmas is time for celebration,  celebration means fiesta, and that means tamales!  In the weeks before Christmas, pork prices drop, and masa preparada is available in the markets.  Families get together for tamalitas, but I pretty much go it alone.

This year I came home with 15 pounds of pork blade roast.  I really got more than I needed. I’ll be freezing a bunch for tacos and quesadillas.  For 15 pounds of pork I pulled out my biggest kettle, and it barely fit!  I prefer to work with one big piece of meat, but this time we worked with hunks.  I had 3 roasts about 5# each, and cut them into manageable “hunks.” We’re just going to simmer this, so the kettle can be pretty full.  In with the meat…for every 5# add 1 tablespoon coriander seed and 1 tablespoon cumin seed.  I toast my seeds before I add them to the pot to help release the aroma and flavors.  I tossed in several large cloves of garlic, smashed, and 1 onion for each of the 3 roasts.  I added 1 dried ancho chile per roast, and 1 guajillo per roast to the simmering water, along with a small palm-full of Mexican Oregano.  I threw in a little salt, but not much at this point.  The pork needs to simmer a few hours until it’s tender, but not necessarily fall-apart tender yet.  When it’s fork-tender, remove it from the braising kettle (strain, skim fat and retain broth for later) and roast it at 200° until the surface caramelizes and the meat is now fall-apart tender. Shred with two forks.

It took a powerful lot of seasoning for this much meat.  I have no idea how much salt I added in the end, but I think it was in the neighborhood of 1/4 cup.  I added some now, some later, more after that… Just salt to taste, a little at a time.  We started with a very large can of diced green chiles.  I’m thinking it was in the neighborhood of 20 oz. or more.  I pureed an entire can of chipotles in adobo and added it very judiciously, worried that the heat would be overwhelming.  Ha. That’s a lot of meat.  For 5# of meat, you might want to add them one at a time.  I also added ladles of the cooking liquid to the pork for moisture. There was already an underlying teeny-tiny flavor of cumin, but not a lot, so I resorted to ground cumin…about a tablespoon and mixed it all well.  Still not quite the flavor I want.  At that point, I tossed everything into the fridge because I needed to do some research.  I wanted a good chile flavor, but I didn’t want a lot of heat.  It was time to get familiar with flavors and Scoville levels!

Bless the folks at Marx Foods!  They have a Scoville chart on their website, as well as a description of the chile’s flavor.  It was just what I was looking for!  A lot of recipes call for Ancho chiles or pasilla chiles, but I see so many others in the little Mexican market…what are they for?  I’ve particularly seen Guajillo chiles being used more and more in recipes…what are they?  It makes me wonder if we’re getting better about identifying the particular chiles that are really used, rather than the “catch-all” chile powder, which is a conglomeration of chiles, oregano and other things.  While I was researching I heard Bobby Flay over my shoulder talking about Cascabel chiles being very mild, but full of chile flavor.  Coincidence? You tell me!  So, it was off to the market for some more chiles and the remaining things we needed anyway…masa, lard and corn husks!

I used an entire bag of Cascabel chiles (1 oz.), and half a bag (1.5 oz. of 3 oz.) of Guajillo chiles, seeded and stems removed, then torn into strips and covered with boiling water and left to sit overnight with 1 tablespoon cumin seeds in the water. The next morning I sauteed 2 onions and a head of garlic and tossed them in the blender with the chiles.

I added just enough of the soaking liquid to blend the ingredients into a slurry, and poured that into the meat.  Finally!! The cascabels added a depth of flavor that was what I was looking for, and while there’s a bit of heat, it’s there, then gone. It doesn’t escalate. It slips quietly away.  There’s one thing you could do that I didn’t do…strain the chile sauce before you add it to the meat.  Some of those larger pieces of chile skin aren’t that much fun.  I missed that step.

Ok, that’s part 1 finished…now on to part 2…the masa!  But first…open the bag of corn husks and put them in a container full of hot water.  Turn them over now and then so they’re all wet.

The first thing you have to learn is that the bag of masa you buy in the store is NOT tamale ready!  I know that translates to Prepared Masa, and that’s what it means…prepared masa…not masa ready for tamales!  I’m blessed to possess one of the best Mexican cookbooks I’ve ever found: Adventures in Mexican Cooking, published by Ortho in the late 1970’s.  It can still be found, but be wary…I’ve seen times that the only version available was $75.  Wait a bit…a lower priced edition will come around.  It’s fabulous, but…come on…

The “recipe in Adventures” says (paraphrased), to 5# of masa preparada, add 1# lard whipped with as much liquid as it will absorb, then stir in the masa. That sounds easy enough.  And it is.  Cream the lard and whip it with your paddle or beaters.  Beat as much liquid (one recipe calls for water, another calls for broth, yet another calls for the liquid you used to soak the chiles) into the lard as it will take without leaving droplets on the surface.  Don’t worry if you realize you’ve already gone too far, it’s not going to matter.  Start working the masa into the lard and water mixture.  Little chunks at a time.  If you don’t have a heavy duty mixer, you may have to beat by hand the last half.  Just use a big bowl, and it will work out fine.  When you are done, you should have a really soft dough, almost the consistency of thick cake icing.

Spread on husks, add meat, fold, fill steamer and steam for 1 and 1/2 hours, or until masa pulls away from husks cleanly. Huh?  How did we get there from that pile of stuff?  Let me introduce you to my friend, the Masa Spreader.  It does make this go somewhat easier!  While all kinds of other things were going on in the background, we’ve had corn husks soaking in hot water.  It’s time to drain them and shake off the excess water.  Stand them on end and let the excess water drain off, but don’t let them dry out completely.  We want them to be pliable.

Spreading the masa onto the corn husks has traditionally been done with the back of a spoon, and that works great.  I saw these masa spreaders on line and decided there couldn’t be any easier way to do this…and I was right.  It takes just a few minutes to get the hang of it, and it’s much easier to manage than the spoon technique!  You scoop up a bit on the spreader, spread it onto the corn husk, then spread it across the husk.

Lift the husk away, and use the spreader to remove the excess material left on the work surface, and go again.  You can either make up several husks at a time, or spread, fill and fold as you go.  There’s no right or wrong way to go about it.  This is where team work comes in handy.  One person can spread, another fill, another fold and load the steamer.

To fill the tamale, spoon in 1 to  2 tablespoons of your meat mixture.  Some husks are more narrow and can only accommodate 1 tablespoon, others are nice and wide and can easily take 2 tablespoons.  Spread the meat in a line down the center of the masa as shown, so there’s some masa on all sides.  The masa is going to seal the meat mixture in on all sides.  Next fold the upper side down, and then the lower side up over the upper side and pinch the narrow and wide ends.

You’ll end up with a tamale in the raw that looks like this:

I’ve loaded my tamale steamer any number of ways.  I have to admit that I get a better fill and prettier tamales by laying down corn husks and then laying the tamales down in a cross hatch pattern – several front to back, then another layer side to side, followed by a layer of corn husks.  Last night I did them standing up and I had a lot of “slumping” – the tamale slid down inside the husk and collected at the bottom of the husk. Not pretty, however, still fully edible.

Here they are…all 43 – 5 of them!  That’s 38 left…  I confess…there were some that were sooooo ugly….  Ok, there were a couple that were that ugly, but the truth is after they’d steamed for 90 minutes, we were dying for tamales. I didn’t hesitate.  I plated up a few for us to dive right into.  We had to know if they were going to be ok, right??

Tasting Notes:
We love the smokiness the chipotles add to the pork!  The heat is just about perfect too.  It’s not too much.  It’s there, but it’s not overly there.  I’m not at all sorry I’ve got the better part of 15 # of meat mixed up this way.  I’ll do the other 5# of masa up as tamales, then freeze the remaining meat as pork filling for quesadillas, taquitos, or whatever.   It will be great to reheat it for any number of Mexican dishes.  Feliz Navidad!!




2 responses

2 01 2010

This tutorial is excellent as I don’t know anything about Mexican cooking at all…all those packages of peppers and the spicing and the corn husks (ok, I am from Iowa, I do know about corn husks), and how to make the masa and fill the corn husk and steam them…wow…that was some education…thanks! They look delicious. I have never had one, but I sure would like to try one now.

23 12 2009
Maria Paray

Oh my goodness! How lucky your friends are to be receiving the fruits of all your labor 🙂 Thank you for the beautifully illustrated step-by-step.

. . . and Feliz Navidad to you also!

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