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Thursday, November 25, 2010

How to Make Real Tamales

Part of yesterday and all of today (so far) was given over to making tamales. From actual scratch. It's something I've always wanted to learn to do, and now my mother-in-law has taught me. Here is how we did it, step by step, start to finish. This pictorial recipe is as detailed as I can make it - I do believe that if you want to make tamales from scratch, this post will show you how. It's not easy, but it is fun if you have lots of help and the tamales are incredibly delicious. This is for real!

I can break the recipe up into three parts: the masa, the filling, and the process. Here we go.

1) The Masa

Buy three kilos of dried Mexican corn - available at Mexican groceries. Hopefully. We had to use "posole" corn, which Senora Maura said wasn't right, but which worked in the absence of the right corn. Also buy at least 1 cup of "cal." Cal is lime, and is a white powder. It looks like baking soda. Be careful with it, as it is actually a mild form of sodium hydroxide and will burn you if you aren't careful. Mix the cal with a quart or so of water. Use a spoon to blend and make a slurry. Set aside. Put 2 gallons of water to boil in a large kettle. When water is hot, add corn. Now take the bowl of cal-slurry and start pouring it slowly into the kettle of corn. Most of the cal will have settled to the bottom - this is good. Pour only the water off the top, do not add the semi-solid slurry from the bottom. That is too strong.

Now comes the first part that calls for judgment - judgment that you will not have if, like me, you have never done this before. Nevermind - resolve to go boldly where you have not been before. Taste the water from the kettle. It should "bite." That means, to my mind, that it is bitter and you can taste the cal, but it should NOT burn. Bring the kettle to a boil and simmer for about one hour. The hulls of the corn will turn yellow and they will rub off with your finger.

Let the kettle sit overnight. In the morning, test the corn. It should be soft enough to pierce with a fingernail, but still very much "al dente." The outside should be butter yellow and the inside chalky white. Rinse some and taste it - now you should barely be able to taste the cal - if it tastes strong, rinse the corn and let sit in fresh water for a while. Rinse and rub off the corn skins. They are very delicate and sometimes barely visible. Don't worry about getting every little bit.

Run the corn through your grinder. I used a meat grinder with the finest disk.
After the first grinding, the masa was still too textured for mama, so we added the other ingredients and ran it through again.

The other ingredients are a) a liter more or less of melted lard - in this case from our own pig. I'm afraid that if you don't have access to lard from a pasture raised pig, your tamales will suffer. The lard you can buy in the store is snow white and almost entirely flavorless. Good lard is golden yellow to light brown and has a rich, porky, unctuous flavor. Add your lard to the ground corn in a large kettle. Also add a biggish pint or so of strong pork broth (this comes from boiling the pork for the filling - see next section), and about 2 tablespoons of salt. Use your clean hands to mix and mash everything together. Run through the grinder again. More judgment is called for here - the masa should be thick and should easily hold it's shape when squeezed. It should not be dry or crumbly. It should be spreadable, like peanut butter. It will feel slightly gritty but not chunky. If you have a very fine disk or a different kind of grinder, you may be able to skip the second grinding.

While the corn is boiling, or whenever it makes sense, make the filling (2) thusly:

put 5-7 pounds pork roast (shoulder, butt, whatever you have that isn't too fatty or boney) into a large pot. Cover with water. Add an onion, roughly chopped, a pinch of cumin, and a few cloves of garlic. Boil at a fast simmer until very tender, about two and a half to three hours. Remove meat from broth. Broth will be used in making the masa. Meat, when cooled, should be shredded more or less finely. Set aside.

Make salsas. We made green and red salsa. Green salsa is made by:
simmering together 1 kilo husked, rinsed tomatillos, 5-10 whole serrano chiles, 2 cloves garlic, and a pinch salt. When tomatillos are quite soft, strain and put everything into a blender. Blend until smooth. Remove to refrigerator until ready to use.

Red salsa: Heat a few quarts water in a large pot. When hot, add 25-40 guajillo chiles and a small handful chiles de arbol (these are dried red chiles, available in most groceries and in Mexican stores. If you don't want it too spicy, omit the chile de arbol). Add two cloves garlic and a pinch salt. Keep hot but not boiling until chiles are soft - about one hour. Remove chiles to blender and blend on high until as smooth as possible. Pour result into a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and use a spoon to force as much paste as possible through the sieve.

Bring red sauce to a simmer and heat until somewhat reduced. It should coat a spoon. Meanwhile, put a few packages of dried corn husks to soften in warm water. When soft, and when all the components are ready (masa, salsas, and meat), bring everything to the table and call all your friends to help out forming the tamales.

The process (3):

You should have laid out in front of you a big crock of masa, a bowl of each kind of salsa, and a plate of shredded pork. You really ought to have, at a minimum, two people. The first person takes one of the corn husks and turns it smooth side up (it will curl upwards like a boat). Use a spoon to put a blob of masa on the husk - the size of the blob depends on the size of the husk. Use the edge of the spoon to spread the masa out in a thin layer, leaving a space at the thin end.

Now put a blob of salsa on the husk, and a little bit of shredded meat. Fold the husk in thirds - each side over the middle and the tip folded up. Place the folded tamal in a kettle fitted with a steamer basket. Put it in standing up with the folded side down and facing out toward the edge of the kettle (this is so that as you go along you don't accidentally start putting tamales inside of each other and opening up the husks.). When all the tamales are in the basket, remove the basket and put three or four quarts of water in the kettle. Bring to a boil. Then replace the steamer basket and cover tightly. Steam tamales for about two hours.

After a couple of hours, open up a tamale and check it (well, okay, a couple of times during the steaming you should make sure you aren't running out of water and add a little if needed.). The masa should be firm and kind of "sproingy" to the touch. It should not stick to your fingers.
Call everyone to the table and open a whole bunch of cold beers. Eat until you feel just the tiniest bit sick and wholly satisfied. Turn on a movie and relax on the couch with another beer.

My notes

The table after assembling the tamales. I put down a sheet to protect everything from salsa and hot lard. Good plan.


The Idiot said...

Great post - but way too much work. Mind you, there will soon be winter days with precious little to do but cook!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I don't know how to actually eat a tamale. Do you eat the whole thing, including the corn husk? Or do you remove the husk and just eat the filling? How do you remove the husk?

Aimee said...

anonymous - dont eat the corn husk! You just unwrap it like a christmas present. It opens right up.

IG - no kidding! I told my husband I would do it once a year, he could pick christmas or his birthday

The Agrarian said...

Jeepers! Tamales are A LOT of work! Don't think I could master that art (and it is an art!)...

Amazing job! Thanks for sharing.


P.S. I have been reading your blog - your WHOLE blog for several days now. I think I am somewhere back in 2008. I've loved reading all about your homestead!

Rosa said...

Maybe we can visit you and just skip to the beer & a movie step :)

I usually buy tamales, but but we can buy pre-limed, pre-ground masa at the grocery store. If the masa's premade it's no more work than rolling out filled pasta or folding gyoza (which I do, very rarely - I need an Italian and a Japanese grandma to move onto my block so I can buy *their* handicraft too!)

sunset pines farm said...

I had no idea it took so much time and talent to produce a real made from scratch tamale. Our local Catholic church has a group of cooking ladies who set up "shop" at every local festival and sell all kinds of goodies-always the best tamales in town. And tacos with cilantro and lime and onion and steak. And roasted corn. Well, all of it, really.

Dr24Hours said...

Way easier way:

Go to Aimee's house after she's done this. Ideally, after she's also cleaned up.

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