I have already mentioned that I am obsessed with tamales. I’m going to have to stop writing about them, however, because I’m running out of clever titles. Let’s face it, “tamale” really doesn’t sound that much like “tomorrow” so I’m going to have to KNOCK IT OFF.
However, last week, I actually was able to get my hands into the masa and make them myself – with a little help from my friends. Well, quite a lot of help, actually, but then it wouldn’t have been a quote from a Beatles’ song.
Four women, none of whom has a lick of Hispanic blood in her, spent most of a day working on a large batch of tamales – some with meat, some with cheese and roasted corn. I think we did a fine job if I must say so myself. Bill, a beneficiary of the resulting tamales, agrees.
My friend Andrea has made tamales before, and she led the effort. In fact, when I arrived, she had a lot of the work done. She had already prepared the masa and the meat for half the tamales. Well, to be perfectly clear, she wisely left initial masa preparation to those who have a little more time and experience – a local market with a tortilleria. Just the right amount of lard must be added to the masa – and knowing just how much comes with experience. “You can feel when it’s ready.” But she added a bit of the chili flavoring from the meat into the masa that was to be used for the meat tamales to add color and some flavoring. To the masa that would be used for the roasted corn, chili and cheese tamales she added a bit of creamed corn. Yum.
Andrea used beef because that’s what the store recommended. Actually, when she asked the butcher what kind of meat he recommended, he told her, “tamale meat.” Hmmm. Not particularly helpful. After talking to someone who spoke and understood a bit more English, she was led to what actually was labeled tamale meat (so there!), and what turned out to be beef. It worked.
Andrea prepared the meat much as it dictates in the recipe below. She used avocado oil as a wink to the Mexican culture and some ground cloves since she knew they were used in mole and it sounded good to her. It worked. Andrea used pasilla chiles and guajillo chiles.
Andrea, Bec, Sandra, and I took turns spreading the masa on the softened corn husks, filling them with meat, wrapping them much the same way that a mama wraps a baby’s bottom, and tying them up with a piece of corn husk. One tie for the corn, chili, and cheese; two ties for the meat. It helped us keep them straight.
Frankly, some of the tamales’ appearance would have made a Mexican mother weep, but overall they were magnificent. Sandra was the very best at spreading the masa like a pro. Mine were a bit lumpy. Bec was a tamale filler extraordinaire and Andrea had the tedious job of tying the knots.
Andrea had borrowed a tamale pot – an enormous pot that puts my canning pot to shame, like a bully on the playground. It has a rim near the bottom on which a rack sits. The bottom of the pot is filled with water, and the tamales are placed open side up on the rack above the water and steamed for about two hours until the masa is set.
While we waited for the tamales to steam, we ate lunch. Andrea had made a delicious Mexican soup filled with veggies, and a scrumptious avocado salad loaded with lots of fresh lime. Quesadillas completed our lunch. We talked kids, grandkids, books, cooking, and travel. The others besides myself were all teachers, so we talked a lot about educating our kids. Well, they talked; I listened and missed my grandkids, as usual.
The experience was one I won’t forget. Bill asked me if I would try it on my own. I will definitely try it, but not on my own. As Sandra put it, “I don’t think I know anyone who makes tamales alone. It is definitely a social thing.”
Isn’t it true that so much of cooking and childrearing and homemaking is done with a group of women friends? Really, women should run the world. Individually, we’re powerful; as a group, we are unbeatable.
As were these tamales.
The following recipe is verbatim from The Arizona Republic newspaper. The comments are not Nana’s.
Red Chile-Beef Tamales
Cook’s tip: Making tamales is a slow, tedious process. Spread the making of the tamales, the center of Southwestern holiday celebrations since Aztec times, over two days. Make the red-chile beef one day and assemble tamales the next. If you prefer pork, substitute a shoulder roast for beef chuck.
For red-chile beef or pork:
2 pounds beef chuck or pork shoulder roast
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 onions, peeled and sliced
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
4 ounces dried New Mexico chiles
2 ounces pasilla chiles
2 tablespoons cumin seed
1 tablespoon salt
Season meat with salt and pepper. Heat a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add oil, then brown meat on all sides. Once browned, add water to cover the roast. Add one slice of onion and 6 cloves of garlic. Cook until meat is tender and falls apart easily, about 2 hours. Remove meat and shred by hand. Reserve the broth.
To prepare the sauce, place New Mexico and pasilla chiles in a large stockpot and cover with water. Add cumin seed and remaining onion slices and garlic cloves. Boil 20 minutes, until the chiles are very soft. Drain mixture (reserving cooking water) and allow to cool. Mash the chile mixture and place in a large mixing bowl. Slowly pour in about 1/4 cup of chile cooking water. Use a blender or food processor to puree the chiles until smooth. Pour pureed chiles through cheesecloth to strain out the seeds and skins. Pour the sauce into a large bowl and add salt. Add the shredded meat and mix thoroughly.
3 dozen corn husks
4 cups masa
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
2/3 cup lard
To make three dozen tamales, soften the corn husks by soaking 3 dozen in water. Next, combine masa, available at most grocery stores, with the baking powder, salt and lard. Mix, adding more lard if necessary to form a paste the consistency of peanut butter. Then add half a cup of juices from the cooked meat.
Drain the corn husks and select the largest ones. Place the husks, smooth side up, on a flat surface or in your hand. Use a tablespoon to spread the masa almost all the way to the sides of a husk, and near the top where it will be tied or folded. Leave a portion at the bottom half of the husk uncovered.
Spoon a tablespoon or two of meat in a narrow band across the masa. Leave at least a 1-1/2-inch border on the pointed end of the husk, and a 3/4-inch border along the other sides.
To fold, begin by tucking one edge of the husk, then roll. Then fold the empty bottom half of the husk up against the rest of the roll. Tie tamales with a string of corn husk, or use the masa to “glue” the tamale to prevent it from coming undone.
Place the tamale, flap side down, in a steamer basket or tamale cooker. Fill the bottom of the pan with water. The water level should be below the rack. Stack tamales on top of one another. Steam the tamales for 2 hours or until the masa seems fairly firm inside the husk. Replenish boiling water if necessary.
Tamales are done when the husk peels away easily. Serve immediately, or freeze and then reheat in a steamer pan or microwave.
Makes 36 servings.
Nana’s Notes: Andrea didn’t soak her corn husks; she boiled them until they were soft and pliable. We kept the husks in the hot water as we worked so they wouldn’t dry out and become unworkable. She also said she tried the whole squeezing the pureed chiles through cheesecloth and it was really, really messy. She elected to leave out that step, and the result was just fine.