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Feature Thu Jan 08 2009

Tamales, a Sometimes Food

Every cuisine, every culture, and every family has different holiday dishes that just seem to make the holidays special.

I crave my mom's dressing and fruitcake. Andrew craves his Italian family's seafood pasta and stuffed artichokes. Another friend looks longingly forward to the dozens and dozens of thinly-rolled cookies. And several people I know eagerly await holiday tamales. Sure, you can buy them from The Tamale Guy on any random night at several bars in Chicago, or get them from restaurants, or even purchase them in a jar at the grocery store (although I really, really don't recommend it). But making dozens, if not hundreds, of tamales is a holiday tradition for many families with ties to Mexico. And, honestly, it's a tradition that I've benefited from.

A little bit of my history. I spent the first five years of my life living in Southern California. Lunch was just as likely to get served in a tortilla as it was between two slices of bread. My mom's philosophy, and that of several neighbors, was "If it tastes good with cheese, turn it into a quesadllla." My godmother's name is San Juana, the nuns who watched me for the short time I was in day care were mostly Latina, and the woman next door who babysat me taught me how to roll my r's and say "chicana." She also taught me how to tie knots for her while she was making tamales. I remember sitting on a phone book at her linoleum-topped dining table with a pile of tamales, a pile of strings, and an empty plate. She was hoping I could tie bows, but it required more dexterity and practice than either one of us had the patience for, so we compromised on double-knots. I remember sitting still for hours and tying knot after knot. (Now that I've been around a few five-year-olds, I probably sat still for about 20 minutes and tied a handful of knots.)

And after she'd steamed a batch, and my mom came to pick me up, I remember sitting at the table with my mom and adopted tîa who drank coffee and ate a couple of tamales. And I swear to you that I remember that first bite. I remember closing my eyes and seeing starbursts of bright colors on my eyelids as I chewed. A couple of days later, I remember sitting in the garage with my father and several friends eating tamales and drinking Kool-Aid while they drank beer and smoked and laughed. I remembered that flavor.

Flash forward 30 years and a coworker brings in a couple dozen tamales that his mother had made along with two different salsas. We all gathered in the kitchen with our plastic forks and paper plates and eagerly awaited the batches of tamales to get warmed up in the microwave. I knew they'd be better than what I'd grown used to eating, but I wasn't prepared to be taken back to a time when my feet didn't touch the floor. With one bite I was five-years-old again. With one delicious mouthful, I was overcome with nostalgia and almost brought to tears. That first tamale of Señora Garcia's erased every memory of every tamale I'd had between the ages of 5 and 35. And I knew wanted to make them myself. I begged my coworker to ask his mother if she'd let me take a cooking class from her. For two years I asked, and finally she agreed.

Just after last Christmas, I woke up early on a Saturday morning and drove to her home. As soon as I walked in the door I smelled the pork cooking and knew I was in the best place possible to learn how to make tamales. Not only was Señora Garcia a patient and encouraging teacher, she had no problem sharing her generations-old family recipe with me. I told her it would likely end up on Gapers Block once I felt confident enough in my ability to make tamales and instead of carefully guarding her secret, she said she was grateful to share it with someone else who could extend the lifespan of this skill.

And that's what is most important to stress about most special-occasion dishes, especially tamales. The recipe, the list of ingredients and steps, is but a small part of making this dish.The truly important part is practice at getting the chilis and meat cooked and flavored perfectly, practice at sizing and shaping the corn husks so they are the perfect and consistent size, practice at spreading the masa on evenly, practice at putting the right amount of meat and the right amount of sauce in the tamale, and practice at knowing when the tamales are perfectly done and ready to eat. And I've only done this by myself three times, so I'm not an expert. But I have gotten better with each attempt.

With that caveat, I'll now begin sharing with you the recipe and steps that I was taught by a loving and generous woman.

Pork Tamale Filling*
3 1/2 to 3 3/4 pound pork roast
Water to cover
3 cups of cooking liquid
22 dried New Mexico peppers **
1 teaspoon of salt
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 teaspoon of cumin
1 teaspoon of garlic powder

Place the pork in a slow-cooker and add just enough water until it is covered. Turn it to high and let it cook for three hours. Once it has cooked, slice the pork, against the grain, in 1-inch slices. This is now ready for the next step. You'll want to defat the remaining liquid. You can either try to skim off the liquid fat, or you can transfer the liquid to a jar and place it in your refrigerator to chill. Once it is cold, the fat will rise to the surface and you should be able to easily scoop it off with a spoon. Once you have defatted broth, you're ready to complete the cooking of the filling.

Place 3 cups of the cooking liquid into a medium-sized pot. (Save the remainder of the cooking broth for soup or beans.) Use a pair of scissors to cut the stem off each dried pepper and shake out the seeds. Place the pepper into the pot. The seeds and veins holding the seeds to the pepper are what makes it spicy. If you don't like it spicy, remove all the seeds. If you prefer some spice, leave the seeds from 4-5 peppers in the liquid. Place the pot over medium-high heat and let it cook for about 45 minutes. This should be enough time to have turned your broth a dark-ruby red and softened the peppers. Pour the mixture into your blender. (If you have a plastic carafe on your blender, let the peppers and liquid cool to the touch to prevent a mess.) Blend the peppers for several minutes until you get a red and frothy liquid. You're done blending when you no longer see bits of peppers floating past the glass. Pour this mixture over the sliced pork in a pan over medium heat. Add the spices and stir till everything is combined. Use a heat-proof spoon to break up the pork which should fall apart easily. You should now have what looks like pulled pork in sauce. This liquid is necessary so don't boil it off or discard it.

Now that you have your filling prepared, its time to discuss what needs to happen to the corn husks and masa before you can begin spreading. The corn husks usually come in a large bag near the produce section of the grocery store. You may also check near where the Mexican-specific cookware is stored. One large bag should be enough for 10 pounds of masa as long as the husks haven't grown moldy or dried out so badly that they've cracked. I've come across both. Unfortunately, aside from opening the sealed bag, and rifling through the husks, there's no way of knowing what condition the husks are in.

Masa is cornmeal mixed with salt and lard and occasionally preservatives or coloring. If you're really lucky, you'll see white, yellow, and pink masa. The white is "salt" flavored, which is what is used for savory tamales. The yellow is pineapple flavored and the pink is strawberry flavored. Check the ingredient list if you're not sure what the flavor is.

I've only seen masa come in a 5-pound tub in the refrigerator section. If it contains lard (which they all seem to) you definitely don't want to buy room-temperature masa. If you're lucky to have an independent grocery near you with a butcher and deli counter, you may be able to get masa made on site which is likely to be better than what you can get in the pre-packaged tub. If stored in a tightly-sealed container, it can be kept in the freezer for many months. It will also keep in your refrigerator for a week or two. Keep it refrigerated until about two hours before you're ready to start filling and then take it out to warm up. When it is cold, the lard will be very hard to spread, but when it is at room temperature it will be much easier, and if you're making tamales during a heat-wave, it will be even looser.

The night before you are going to make the tamales, find a large bowl or bucket and place the husks in it. Go through the husks and discard any that are shorter than about 8 inches, skinnier than about 5 inches, full of large holes, or moldy to save you time while you're spreading the following day. Fill the bucket with water and place something on top that will keep the husks from floating to the top, but it shouldn't be so heavy that it squishes them. Let them soak overnight. Shortly before you're ready to use them, you'll drain them. If the water is cloudy, feel free to rinse them with another blast of cold water. This should also hopefully remove any remaining corn silk.

You're now ready to begin prepping your husks for wrapping. The ideal length for husks is between 10-12" and just as wide as your palm for this particular style of wrapping. There are many different types of wrapping, but this is the easiest wrap I've seen. It also perfectly encloses the meat and provides an optimum ratio of meat to masa. The ideal width for my palm is about 4 1/2 - 5". Feel free to measure out 5" in one husk. To make it the right size all you have to do is tear down the husk vertically. They tear vertically very easily, but if you want them shorter, you'll have to cut them with scissors. Place the husk on the palm of your hand with the natural curve-side up. It should fill the palm of your hand without hanging over significantly on either side. I wouldn't suggest making them less than 4" wide because then you won't have enough husk to permit proper folding so all the filling is enclosed.

Place one husk that is the proper width in front of you and use it as your guide. Now pull each husk out one-by-one and tear it so it is about the same width. 5 pounds of masa will make about 50 - 70 tamales so I would count out at least 75 husks. Once you've got a pile of husks and your meat mixture is ready, then all you have to do is knead the masa to get it ready for spreading. Dump your masa into a very large bowl. It's been packed into the tub so tightly that you want to aerate it a bit by kneading. This will also help warm up the masa and make it easier to spread. And, it's also kinda fun. Just plunge your hands into the masa and squeeze it between your fingers. You should start to feel the texture changing and the squeezability become greater after a few minutes. Once you can scoop a small amount with one hand and spread it lightly and evenly on the other palm, then you know you're ready to begin.

There is actually a masa spreader you can purchase to make the spreading go easier. But it's been most common to use a large spoon to spread the masa on the tamales. And since I hate having tools cluttering up my drawers that I rarely use, I decided to check out a variety of different spoons I had to see what was best. A large wooden serving spoon worked pretty well, but I also had an ice cream spade that doesn't get used enough that worked even better. I was able to use the back of the spoon to scoop up about 1/4 cup of masa and spread it on the husk in 2-3 strokes.

Here are the instructions to follow along with the pictures.
Place the husk on the palm of your hand with your fingers slightly spread and your palm matching the curve of the husk.

Scoop up about 1/4 cup of masa on the back of the spoon. Starting in the middle of the wrapper and about 5 inches from the edge closest to you, place the spoon on the husk and spread the masa until you get to the top edge. Shift the wrapper slightly so one edge is now closer to the center of your hand, and spread up again. Repeat on the other side and lightly fill in any holes or smooth out any extra-thick spots.

If you get too much masa on the husk, it won't cook all the way through. If you get too little masa on the husk, the tamales won't hold together when they're unwrapped. The goal is to get the masa spread evenly and imagine you're putting a thick layer of peanut butter on a piece of toast. If you're the more exact type, I measured about 1.5 ounces of masa per husk, which equals about 3 tablespoons of masa per husk. By putting 1/4 cup, or 4 tablespoons of masa, on your spoon you'll have a better chance of spreading it evenly and not leaving holes.

This is the part that is the hardest to get right and the part that you will need the most practice at. It's probably better to err a little on the heavy side. And if you're just having a hard time getting the masa to spread evenly on a certain husk, scrape off as much as you can and set the wrapper aside and move on to the next one. After about 45 minutes of spreading masa onto husks, its a good idea to stop spreading and start filling so the corn doesn't begin to dry out.

Before you can begin filling, you have to get your steamer ready. Ideally you have a vaporera, or steamer, that you've purchased specifically for this purpose. This large pan often has a lip about 3-4 inches from the bottom of the pan and comes with a disc that has a lot of holes in it so you can place it in the pan and rest it on the lip. This will give you enough room in the bottom of your pan so you can steam it non-stop for at least an hour without having to worry about running out of water. If you're investing in a pan, I suggest getting an aluminum pan with an enameled surface. This will permit you to use the pan for making other things that might be acidic, like a gigantic batch of tomato sauce. My pan cost about $20 at a small, local grocery. Look above the vegetable displays in the produce section to see what they might have available. Once you have your pan filled with water, you're ready to start filling the wrappers that have been slathered in masa.

Scoop up about two tablespoons, or one heaping tablespoon of shredded meat and broth and spread it down the middle of your masa, being sure to go from top edge to bottom edge. Fold one side of the masa toward the middle, and then fold the other side of the masa toward the middle. Firmly, but not tightly, hold the body of the tamale together as you fold up the bottom half of the husk. Place the tamale seam-side down in your pan with the open end pointed toward the center of the pan and the folded-over edge against the side of the pan. You'll want there to be a little space between each tamale so when you put the second layer on top, there is room for steam to move so the cook evenly.

Fill all your prepared wrappers and then prepare the next batch. Repeat until you run out of masa or prepared meat. Hopefully the ratio works out so that you have a little leftover filling (which will go nicely in a tortilla or two). Once your pan is filled, cover your pan and place it over high heat. The steam from the water in the pan, combined with the steam created by the juice from the pork, will slowly cook the masa until done. It should take about one hour per 5-pound tub of masa. You know your tamales are finished when the masa separates easily from the wrapper. Some will stick, especially if there are deep grooves, but the bulk of the masa should separate easily from the wrapper.

The next step should be obvious. You eat them. How you eat them, is up to you. Plain, sprinkled with a tasty (homemade salsa, a squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkle of freshly chopped cilantro, or even with a dash of sour cream and cheese. But this is the moment you've been looking forward to, and working toward for hours now. And you've got that huge pan full of them, even after you've leaned back in your chair and sighed with relief. Unless you've got a large, hungry family sitting around the table with you, chance are you've got at least a couple dozen tamales left over. And unless you plan on eating a half-dozen every day for the next week or so, you're likely going to be looking for alternative storage methods. Luckily for you, once tamales are cooked, they last for several months in your freezer.

I highly suggest investing in some quart-sized freezer bags. You'll want to look for the bags that are freezer-specific, not just sandwich bags. You should be able to pack between 9 and 12 per bag, and while you don't want to bust the bags, you do want them to be as full as possible to prevent freezer burn. Don't remove the husks before storing since they'll also help prevent freezer burn, and they'll make warming them up in the microwave a lot easier.

If you have leftover masa, you can also put it in a zipper bag or tightly sealed bowl and store it in the freezer for a few months. Leftover husks? Spread them out on a towel and let them air dry. Pile them up, roll them tightly together and wrap them in foil before putting in your freezer where you can keep them for up to a year. Leftover meat? Well, you could freeze it for up to three months as well, or you can use it as taco or burrito filling. Or you could also fry up an egg, put it on a tortilla, and spoon the warm filling across the top.

I feel the need to emphasize my earlier caveat. I'm not an expert tamale maker. I'm barely an amateur tamale maker. There are at least dozens of basic tamale recipes and methods. What I've described is not the only way to make these. And I feel like a bit of a poser as I try to convince others to learn to make them. But I'm convinced, and based on what several expert-level tamale makers have told me, getting good at this just involves practice. If the meat mix tastes good before you put it in the wrapper, it'll taste good afterward. And getting the perfect spread of masa on the wrapper, adding in the right ratio of meat and juice to the wrapper, and steaming it till done are all things that just take practice. I've made tamales three times now and they've gotten better each time. And its gotten faster, which is nice. The first time I made tamales, it took about 4 hours to get everything spread, wrapped, and ready for steaming. This last time? It took me 20 songs on iTunes. From 4 hours to about 1.5 hours. Not too bad. Of course this doesn't count the time it took to prepare the meat, or steam the tamales themselves, but, as with so many things, practice may not make you perfect, but it does make things easier and better. Even with an uneven first batch, the tamales were wonderful. Making tamales was one of those things I'd been intimidated by, one of those things I didn't think I had the skills to make. And I'm fortunate for, and immensely grateful to, Señora Garcia for taking me into her home and showing me how to make her family recipe. I'm also delighted to be able to share the basics with you and sincerely hope that someone may get the urge to try their hand at making these delicious bundles of lovingly-made food.

Muchas gracias, Señora Garcia. Thank you very, very much.

* Señora Garcia traditionally makes a green sauce when cooking chicken tamales. But if you don't dig the pig, you can substitute 4.5 pounds of bone-in whole chicken legs or thighs for the pork. It won't be the same, but I can verify that it will still be pretty good.

** You're likely to see at least a handful of dried pepper varieties, especially if you're at a grocery stored geared to a Mexican clientele. Señora Garcia uses New Mexico peppers. In case you can't find them, Guajillo chiles or Pasilla chiles can be substituted. They're all mild peppers with a more subtle flavor than some of the other pepper varieties you'll find.

Shawna / December 10, 2009 11:45 AM

Just as I was getting the Christmas tamale craving (not an easy one to satisfy for a SoCal to Alabama transplant!) I came across your article! So I'll use Senora Garcia's recipe and have officially declared it Tamale Saturday in our house this week- wish me luck!

elena / July 20, 2010 12:12 PM

Skip the stale store-bought masa - go down to Pilsen and buy it fresh at a tortilla factory for about 49 cents/ pound. (make sure you get the kind for tamales, not tortillas.) Mix w/ lard and chicken broth; let sit for a while in the fridge.

GregoryRoderick / March 25, 2011 8:50 AM

As a pork lover it is obvious that I love tamales. I used to buy them from a restaurant supplies service. I have been searching for recipes on the internet but I never had the courage to make them. Now I think I'll give a try.

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