Saturday, January 1, 2011


I had planned to make tamales the day before Christmas Eve., but didn't get to it because I got a brand-new Kitchen-Aid mixer for Christmas and spent the entire day feverishly baking cookies for our neighbors to keep with tradition. Totally pulled it off, too, thanks to my new toy :).

As I had all the ingredients, I just needed to wait for a day when I could do it- like when my husband would be home to be with the kids while I worked. Ta-da! New Year's Day!
I braised the meat in the oven for hours yesterday while I did other things in the kitchen. Last night before bed, I shredded it and stuck it in the fridge for today.
Right before I began, I thought, "hmmm, tamales aren't something everyone knows how to make, maybe I'll just take pictures along the way so I can explain it".
Sooooo... here goes!
Veteran tamale makers will tell you that you need at least two days to make your tamales. They aren't kidding. I did it in one day once and that was ALL I did. By the time I was done, I was too tired to even enjoy my efforts. So... definitely plan on doing it over the course of a couple of days.
I've also experimented with several different methods of cooking the meat for the filling. I've finally decided on a long, slow braise in the oven. Sort of the Ron Popeil school of tamale-making. "Fix it and forget it". I typically use chicken. You can use whatever. Beef, pork, chicken... . My great-grandmother always used pork and I remember them being incredible, but my husband prefers chicken, so, chicken it is.
First, a list of ingredients:
*2 1/2 lb.s boneless pork butt, trimmed of all but a little fat
*six large chicken breasts ( I almost always find the bone-in on sale, so I use those)
fresh garlic cloves ( about one and a half heads)

*Mexican oregano ( hard to find, but worth it)
*cumin ( very common, not hard to find at all. I've recently discovered a roasted cumin by
McCormick that has a great smoky flavor)
*garlic powder
*chili powder
*salt ( I use sea salt)
*black pepper
*dried corn husks ( hard to find around here. I've found them at Wegman's, but they don't seem to know where to put them and keep moving them around. Usually in produce UNDER a display)
*Masa harina flour. NOT cornmeal. I used to use Maseca brand, but all I can find around here is Goya. I'm pretty brand-loyal ( Maseca is what my grandmother used), but the Goya works just fine. Since I don't have a source for fresh masa dough locally, I mix the dough from the masa harina. It's what my grandmother did, so it's good enough for me, but I've heard if you can get it, the fresh is *much* better.
*dried peppers- all I can find around here are the ancho. They're super-mild and don't give any heat, just flavor. My grandmother used to bring back her dried peppers from Chicago when she would go on a yearly trip. I still don't know what they were, but she used to warn me to not even get near them while she cut and seeded them. I touched one once. My fingers burned for a day. Her tamales had *great* heat and flavor. I have to supplement the heat with Cholula hot sauce.
*lard, vegetable shortening, butter, or a mixture of any of the three. My grandmother used lard. I *know* that's why mine don't taste quite like hers, but I don't use it. I usually use vegetable shortening, but I ran short this time and had to sub butter for half the fat- it added a nice flavor and softness, I was pleasantly surprised.
*chicken broth
First, I place the meat in half of a roasting pan and cover with spices and garlic cloves. I can't give measurements. I don't measure. I just eyeball it and know what we like. We like flavor. Lots and lots of flavor.
After that, I cover the meat over with chicken broth, cover with foil, stick it in a 300 degree oven and let it go until it's cooked through and falling apart. I check and turn the meat a couple of times to make sure it doesn't dry out. When it's done, I let it cool in the oven until I can handle it and then I quickly shred it and add the peppers. Since they are dry, they need to be de-stemmed, de-seeded and reconstituted in hot water ( I do it in a pan on the stove).

When they are soft, I dump them, soaking water and all into a blender and puree' them. It's okay if a couple of seeds get in, they won't hurt anything. Whatever you do, ignore the impulse to be dumb and sniff the puree. The peppers might not be very hot, but I can promise the steam will clear your sinuses no problem. I'm sure you can guess how I know this. This then gets added to the shredded meat and mixed in.

Then, it goes into the fridge overnight. It not only splits up the work, but the flavor deepens while the meat sits.
The next day, the husks need to be soaked in warm water. They will float, so they have to be weighted down.

I let them soak for at least a couple of hours to make them nice and pliable.
When I'm getting ready to use them, I dump out the soaking water and stand them on end to drain- otherwise, rolling the tamales will be a drippy, soggy, unpleasant task.
To prepare the masa, I measure out six cups of the Masa Harina, four cups of warm chicken broth, one and a half cups of shortening/lard/butter and about a tablespoon of salt and add garlic powder, cumin, chili powder and a little black pepper ( again, I eyeball it. The goal is to give the dough some more flavor). It all gets mixed with an electric mixer (more liquid may need to be added- the flour soaks up liquid like a sponge). The goal is to beat lots of air into the dough. You can't overmix. When mixed, it should be a spreading consistency of about peanut butter.
Now is the time to assemble whatever you'll use to steam the tamales. I used to have an actual tamale steaming pot my husband bought me at a Mexican food products store in Indy, but since it was such a nice, big pot, it got used as the stock pot I *didn't* have (often) and I eventually wore out. I loved it, though.
One can easily be rigged out of a large pot or stock pot. I used my canner, an overturned glass loaf pan and a couple of balls of aluminum foil on which to place the rack the tamales will sit on.
Like this:

Add water to just under the rack ( the tamales are cooked by steaming, not by the water itself. If they come into contact with water, they'll be ruined). I like to place some extra husks on the rack to offer splash protection from the water. Turn the heat to high to get the water boiling and prepare to assemble the tamales. You'll need your masa dough, the meat filling, the soaked corn husks and a nice, large spatula of some sort for spreading. A butter knife works fine. Something larger would be nice to cover more area quickly, but if that's all you've got, it works.
Begin by spreading a thin layer of masa dough on one side of the corn husk in about halfway.
Then, spread a thin strip of filling, roll the tamal so that dough meets dough and the filling is nestled inside. Continue rolling all the way over and then tuck the bottom under ( I always see pictures of beautiful tamales tied with a strip of corn husk. It's cute, and makes a nice presentation in a magazine, but it's A. time consuming and B. totally unnecessary. They'll sit upright in the steamer on the edge of the fold and the dough will hold its shape). The only time I tie my tamales is when I'm doing more than one kind and I need to be able to tell them apart.

Keep going until you've used up either all your husks, all your dough, all your filling, etc. Any leftover filling could be frozen for later use, or it would be good the next day in homemade tortillas or on nachos :). The ones you see with ties on them in the picture are mine. I made some vegetarian tamales with black beans and cilantro-lime rice left over from our nacho bar last night.

Once you've got all your tamales rolled, you can turn down the burner to med-low ( to a simmer), and place all your tamales into the steamer, standing upright, like this:

Then, I like to cover them with a layer of corn husks ( there are always some that are torn, too small or otherwise unusable) to help trap the steam inside to cook them and then cover them with a lid. Ideally, I like to steam them for two hours. Check the water from time to time. If the pot goes dry, you. will. know. it. I have never smelled anything like the smell of a scorched pot with burnt tamale water. Ever. It's a smell you don't soon forget and one time will be enough to make sure you remember to check your water level. When the two hours are up, take one out, let it sit for about five minutes and carefully unroll. If the dough is firm and comes away from the husk, it is ready. This is the "test" tamale ( sort of like the first pancake) and usually goes to the cook, but since they're usually meat tamales and I don't eat meat ( insert My Big Fat Greek Wedding quote here: "he don't eat no MEAT?!?!"), it goes to whoever happens to be hanging around. Usually my husband :).

My grandmother served her tamales with beans and rice ( real Mexican rice, not that horrid stuff in a box. I don't know how anyone eats that stuff! ). Since beans take forever and a day to soak here ( I think it's the minerals in our well water) and my husband doesn't really care for them, I don't often do the beans. I LOVE them, but it's a lot of hassle for just me, so... I'll just share the rice recipe ( which I double) :
3 TBSP vegetable oil
1 c. uncooked long-grain rice ( my grandmother SWORE you had to use Uncle Ben's converted rice in the orange box. I tried several times with cheaper brands- it just does. not. work. unless you have the Uncle Ben's converted. Fork over the money for it or you'll end up with a gluey, disgusting mess.
2 tsp. chopped, fresh garlic
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt ( I use sea salt) and black pepper to taste
1/4 c. chopped onion
1.2 c. tomato sauce
2 C. chicken broth
BEFORE YOU BEGIN: This is one of those times you need everything pre-measured and at the ready. It goes quickly and rice only takes a few seconds to burn while you're messing around trying to find the chicken broth.
Heat the oil in a large skillet ( I use my cast iron) over med. high heat and add rice. The goal here is to coat the rice with the oil, toasting it to a nice, golden color. If you look and listen closely, you'll notice some of the grains popping and puffing up, almost like popcorn- this is good:

When most of the rice is puffed up and golden, add the chopped onion, turn the heat down a bit and cook until soft. While onion is cooking, sprinkle with the cumin and garlic powder. Then, stir in black pepper, tomato sauce and the chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 25 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

Oh, while I'm in this vein, I also documented making taco meat and guacamole yesterday ( we had a nacho bar for dinner last night on New Year's). First, taco meat does not come from an envelope. It's so simple and cheap to make, there's no reason to ever use "taco seasoning".
First, brown about a pound of meat ( I used ground turkey last night). Then, add one small onion, chopped. Cook until the onion is soft. Add cumin, salt, pepper, chili powder and either chopped garlic or garlic powder to taste. Simple, easy and it tastes WAY better.

Now, guacamole. I have seen so many recipes for guacamole. Made traditionally, it's actually pretty healthy for you. How many condiments are actually healthy for you?? Made the way most people do, it's a crime against avocados. There is no reason to ever foul guacamole with sour cream or :::shudder::: mayonnaise.
All you need are a few simple ingredients:
ripe avocados ( they're usually a deep purple as opposed to the green of unripe)
fresh lime juice ( I couldn't find any when I was at the grocery store- I'm guessing all the alchies got to them first for their New Year's celebrations)
salt and pepper to taste
a handful of fresh cilantro, rinsed and chopped ( hit and miss in the grocery stores. Usually placed next to the fresh parsley. They look similar, so read the tags carefully. If you can't find fresh, don't substitute dried. It has NO flavor at all. Some larger grocery stores carry frozen herbs in tubes- it's worth a look.
fresh chopped garlic or garlic powder
about two TBSP chopped, fresh onion
optional: fresh chopped tomato or jalepeno
If your avocados are nice and ripe, mashing them with a fork will do. If not ( mine weren't totally ripe), you can run them through a food processor on pulse. You want some chunks of avocado left, you don't want it pureed.
Basically, make it according to taste. We prefer lots of cilantro, garlic and lime juice.
We LOVE guacamole in this house and look for reasons to make it :).

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