My Dad spent a good amount of his early life in California, and when I was a child, still waxed reminiscent about the food he ate as a little kid. Tamales figured highly.
But, I grew up in the mountains of Eastern Oregon, where authentic Mexican food was not prevalent, and the only tamales I’d seen were the production sort… in a can. Flabby and damp, with an insipid reddish sauce. Not something you’d really consider *food*. Sort of the Mexican equivalent of comparing Chef Boyardee to real Italian, I think. In other words, along with honey ham and fake “krab”, a minor abomination to the Lords of Cuisine.
When we moved to south-eastern Idaho, one of the first things we discovered was that a fairly visible Mexican population made for Really Spectacular Mexican Food. You can actually see and taste the different regions of Mexico in the various restaurants and taco trucks. You can even buy quite lovely fresh tamales from individual families, and have them home-delivered. Once I discovered fresh tamales, I understood why my Dad waxed reminiscent.
As with most other things in my life, I like to learn to do for myself, to make things at home, if only to free myself from budget constraints when it comes to really good food.
So, this week, I learned to make tamales. As with a lot of really good food, it’s less about difficult and more about slightly tedious, and I can entirely understand why our former neighbors had Tamale Parties, and made kettles-full at a time! I’m giving serious consideration to getting three or four friends together and having a Not Molly Tamale Party quite soon.
Even with just little old me working on them, it took about 40 minutes to form and stack about 36 tamales. Roasting the pork for the filling was double-duty time (I did other stuff while the pork… roasted itself), and the masa mixed up in moments thanks to my Kitchenaid; it took about 1 minute to make up a second batch mid-way through. Steaming didn’t take as long as I anticipated, either, about 20-30 minutes in my pressure cooker with the lid set on, but not slid ’round and latched, so I could add more boiling water as needed to keep the steam action from boiling dry. I can only imagine the mess that exploding tamales would make in a latched pressure cooker. Yikes.
Now that I’ve done a basic pork, I want to try spicier pork, and green-chile pork, and green-chile chicken, and green-chile beef (can you sense that I kind of like green chile?), and perhaps even a veggie version, though I’m not sure how to go about that just now.
The recipe does need a few specialty items from the Mexican section of the grocery. If you’re lucky enough to have a Mexican grocery near you, they’ll absolutely have the stuff. If your grocery’s Mexican section leans toward Pace picante sauce and Taco Bell brand refried beans, you may be out of luck. Move west, or south, or both.
Here’s a link to a video of an awfully cute little girl helping make tamales with her family. I love the “Sesame Street Adventure” aspect of it, as well as the idea that whole families can and should make food together!
And, here’s the recipe and process I used:
Wimpy-Gringo Shredded Roast Pork
I like to use pork shoulder for this recipe. The marbling gives is great flavor, and doesn’t get dry, which is vital. Cut about 3 pounds of pork shoulder into small-fist sized chunks, and toss it in a dutch oven (all naked and alone!) at 325* for several hours. There’s enough moisture in the pork that it doesn’t burn dry, but check after an hour, then every 30-40 minutes thereafter, to make sure it’s getting browned without getting dry.
After the first hour and a half, get a really large pot or lasagna pan out, put in a package of dried tamale wrappers (corn husk bundles, sold in 8 oz packages, for under $2 each quite often! I used one package for this recipe, and if you can find them, get the sort that are relatively flat and stacked, rather than curled up) and fill the container with hot water to cover the husks. They have to soften a LOT in order to get them apart and flexible enough to make the tamales in. Change the water for fresh hot water as needed.
When the roast is completely shredding tender, pull it out and let it sit on the counter, with the lid on, to cool off a bit (about 20 minutes). It is perfectly permissible to sneak little forks-full, sprinkle them with salt, and roll your eyes back in bliss. Pork shoulder can stand all by itself, really! (But you’re going to add some seasonings in just a minute.) Then, start shredding! I like to use two forks, but you can shred with your hands, too, once it’s cool enough. (Doing so brings back memories for me: shredding about 50 pit-roasted pork shoulders for a Hawaiian friend’s wedding reception. My hands were soft for weeks.)
Your shredded meat needs to be nicely seasoned and a bit moist in order to stand up to the masa (the dough that will contain it.) The masa cooks by pulling moisture from both the filling mixture, and from the steam in the cooking pot, so too little in the filling can make for dry insides, and even a crumbly masa. That’s not nice.
Into the shredded meat, I blend:
- 1 cube of Mexican chicken bouillon with tomato. Do check the Mexican foods aisle or section for this. Maggai and Knorr both make bouillons specifically for the Mexican market, and the flavor is a lot better than the Franken-Celery of bouillon intended for American audiences. It’s still all manner of chemical stuff, but it tastes nice.
- 1 cup hot water. It has to be hot, or the bouillon will not dissolve.
- 2-3 teaspoons granulated garlic (you could skip this if you wanted to roast the pork with fresh paste garlic rubbed all over it. I just didn’t feel like making a garlic paste this last time.) Be sure to use plain granulated or powdered garlic, and NOT garlic salt.
- 2-3 tablespoons Chalula hot sauce, or your favorite pepper sauce. This is largely to taste. Don’t be afraid to go a little bold, as the masa tones down the heat. Three tablespoons to this much meat is quite moderate, and doesn’t taste spicy, just flavorful.
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Just mix it all up, and try not to eat too many bites of it during your “flavor balancing” quest, or you won’t have room for the tamales.
In a lot of the videos and instructions I read on-line, families just buy prepared masa dough from a specialty store or restaurant. I didn’t do that. Making the dough was extremely simple!
I bought a small, 5-pound bag of “Instant Masa Harina por Tamales” Maseca brand masa flour on the Mexican aisle of our local WinCo. This is a really fine-textured corn flour, the corn having been treated with lime. The “instant” part must relate to the fine grind, because there are no other contents listed, and you do have to add things to make the dough. “Instant” means about 5 minutes, apparently.
- 4 cups masa
- 2 cups hot water with 1 Mexican chicken bouillon with tomato cube dissolved in it, and allowed to cool to blood warm
- 2 teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
- just over 1 cup lard or shortening, melted a bit. Don’t sub oil; the shortening sets back up for a nicer texture to the dough.
Beat all this together, adding a dash more warm water to get a spreadable, smooth batter, about the consistency of decent frosting. It should hold a shape when “blopped”, but be nice and soft.
Forming the Tamales
Carefully separate the corn husks one from another, and keep them soaking for maximum flexibility. You can blot them dry with a kitchen towel just before each one is used. You may have to return a bundle to soak more in order to separate them all. Some will be imperfect: less than 4″ wide at the biggest point, for instance, or with holes in them. Go ahead and discard those. The others, even if they look slightly “stained” or spotty, are fine. Pat them dry, but keep them covered with a damp cloth, or all your hard soaking work will be undone.
I don’t have large enough hands, or perhaps I’m just not terribly well-coordinated, so I don’t hold the wrapper; I set it on the table or counter instead. Use a spatula or off-set frosting knife to “frost” the wide end of the husk, leaving the narrow end naked, and a small margin (1/2″) down one side and the widest end. Aim for a smooth thickness of about 1/8″ or a smidge more. (If your masa set up too stiff, add a bit more bouillon broth or plain broth to loosen it up a tad; you can also add a dash of hot sauce to the dough if you like.)
Top the “frosted” husk with a few tablespoons (or generous forks-full) of shredded meat, right down the middle, leaving 1/2″ of plain masa at the top and bottom.
Start rolling the tamale on the “non-border” side. Roll it all the way up, then fold the narrow end up toward the wide end to seal the bottom. A gentle “squish” at the top will seal the meat filling inside the masa. Set the formed tamales aside on a cookie sheet, folded-up tail downward, and keep forming tamales.
The tamales need to be steamed, rather than baked; the moist heat allows the moisture in the masa to cook the dough to a creamy consistency. If you have a steamer rack, use one. You don’t want the bases of the tamales sitting in liquid. If you don’t have a steamer rack, improvise like I do. Set a disposable pie tin, poked through a bunch of times with a pencil, on top of small bowls upside down in the pot. This lets the water boil below the tin, so you can steam tamales without an official steamer rack.
I’m putting a steamer rack on my list, though. It would be easier.
I use my pressure cooker, with the lid set on but not slid over or latched. It seems that the gasket on the cooker makes for a faster cooking time. However, if you lack a pressure cooker, use a large pot, and put a dishtowel between the pot and lid to give a more complete seal.
Simply load the tamales in vertically, with the sealed bottoms down. Steam for 25-35 minutes or so, making sure to keep the pot from boiling dry. Test the tamales by unwrapping one slightly; when the tamale is cooked, the masa will come easily away from the husk.
They’ll also stay hot for quite a while out of the steamer, so if you’re headed off somewhere in the cold weather, tamales make a great take-along food.
You can! It’s the best way to take advantage of the tedium: make a huge batch, and freeze the extras for another night, or a party, etc.
Do it one of two ways:
- Steam the tamales first, then cool, wrap in foil in pairs or individually, and bag for the freezer. Be sure to mark what kind are in the bag. Tamale surprise is not always nice. To re-heat them, microwave.
- Form, wrap, and freeze them uncooked. To cook and heat, steam them as if they were fresh, but add 10 minutes to the time.
- Popper Tamales: beat 8 oz cream cheese or neuf chatal cheese with a can of mild green chiles (plus some of the juice), or 8-9 fine-chopped pepperoncini. Load the cheese mixture into a zip-loc style plastic bag, cut one corner off, and pipe a fat bead of cheese down the middle of the masa. Form and steam. These taste like really good cream cheese-stuffed peppers. (Use a half-batch of the masa proportions above.)
- Shredded Beef & Cheese: 1.5 pounds shredded beef roast, garlic and red pepper flakes to taste, about 1 tsp cumin, 2 oz sharp cheddar cheese (shredded), 3 oz manchego cheese (shredded). Assemble and steam as for the pork tamales.
- Chicken & Cheese: use thighs for the best flavor
- Meat and Green Chile: Mix your favorite shredded meat with canned green chiles, and a bit of sour cream if you like, plus spices as desired. I like cumin, my Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal husband does not. I occasionally cater to him.
- Meat and mole: Mix your favorite shredded meat with your favorite mole sauce, assemble and steam.
- Dessert: I’ve not tried it yet, but I’d like to make the masa with apple juice and a bit of cinnamon and citrus rind, then fill the middles with sauteed apples or pears, for a dessert tamale.
- Mini Males: Your favorite version, made half-size for tasty party nibbles. We love nibbles.
On-line searches will find dozens of different tamale filling ideas. We may work our way through them all over the course of the winter.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re eating tamales for dinner tonight.