Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tamale time

We had a tamale party!!

Tamales are a tradition in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and they're eaten year-round but especially popular during winter holidays. They aren't technically difficult to make at all, but the preparation and steps make it a day-long project - so people in Josh's hometown know who is selling tamales and then buy them by the dozen.

Josh's family used to make them - I got to hear about the bevy of tamale tips and tricks Josh's gramps used to have up his sleeve! - but had mostly stopped doing it regularly. I was very excited when I heard rumblings that they were going to bring the tradition back at Christmas 2012. The plan was set: Sunday, the day before Christmas Eve.

When we arrived at Josh's aunt and uncle's house, the husks were already soaking in the sink. You buy corn husks at any Mexican market, I hear, and then soak them to soften them up. They eventually serve as the tamale wrapper (you don't eat them). I liked their faint smell because it reminded me of the cornfield in my backyard growing up.

And then you prepare the dough, with masa (in the Maseca bag, the same stuff Josh and I use to make corn tortillas), a dash of salt and baking powder, and lard, which in Spanish is called manteca. I will use manteca going forward because it sounds so much nicer than lard! Masa is something like a flour made of corn - not the same as cornmeal, but kind of similar.

This is Dawn, Josh's sister-in-law, kneading together the masa and manteca and liquid reserved from the pork in the crockpot.

I think this is her official Miles and Laurel debut, by the way. (Welcome, Dawn!) This is also a good time to mention that I'm kind of particular about not posting names and pictures of people here unless they know M&L and have given wildly enthusiastic consent. (Wish is exempt from this policy.) Something about "I posted this picture of you on the internet without you knowing" just doesn't garner many favors, right? Anyway, you can't totally tell this from the pictures, but there was a gaggle of us working on the tamales - seven or eight of us rotating through the kitchen - and that was a big part of the whole fun of it. Josh and I will try to make them again, but making tamales practically begs to be done with a bunch of family.

You pour in that reserved liquid and/or plain water in case the liquid is too hot, and mash that dough up. It needs to be smooth in order to spread well - in fact, our post-tamale analysis was that we kept it too thick.

If it can do this, it's definitely too thick!

(P.S. If you can't already tell from instructions like "It's too thick if you can wear it on your thumb," please don't treat this blog post as a source for an authoritative recipe!)

Next up: spreading the dough on the soft (or shiny) side of the husks. This is the test to see if the dough is the proper consistency: it should spread pretty easily along the top half of the husk. It was a little tricky for some of us - the first hint our dough was a little too thick. You leave the bottom half of the husk without dough, because that's the part you'll fold.

Toss each husk into a pile.

Now we reach for the filling! You can fill a tamale with different ingredients - I heard about jalapeno and cheese and even a sweet tamale with dessert filling - but the traditional way is with pork.You can get the pork ready in any number of ways, and for this rendition, some of our tamale chefs had prepared the pork ahead of time by cooking it in the crockpot. You shred it and then send to the stovetop to simmer with tomato sauce and chili powder. (The quantity of chili powder is how you adjust the heat level. I tried a way spicy tamale earlier in my visit - this batch was more mild.)

Drop a spoonful of the meat into the middle of the husk:

Roll it up tightly, so it's a little tube. Then fold the bottom half under the rest of the tamale and stack them up in a pan as you go.

Close up, they look like this:

And from the other side!

Sometimes little girls want to be part of the fun:

The last task is steaming the tamales, a step that can vary wildly in duration but roughly takes a couple of hours. We stacked them up in a double boiler, like this, and then covered the pan so they could steam:

Ours took longer to cook because the masa was spread thicker than usual. You don't want the masa to be mushy or undercooked - it has to be pretty sturdy.

Then we took a break for the Broncos game, and then we ate our tamales!

The funniest part about the whole project was how quickly our reviews degraded as time went on. As we were gobbling them, the consensus was that they were a little thick but overall pretty good - but by Christmas Day, the verdict was that our crew had totally, unabashedly botched the tamales. (I think this is the great kind of memory that will only get exaggerated with time, so as the years go by, the over-thickness of the masa will only get worse and worse.) It cracked me up, even though I am not yet a tamale connoisseur and thought they tasted pretty good in my book!

But if our first batch wasn't successful, Josh and I left resolved to finesse our tamale-making skills back in St. Paul, so we can bring our A-game to next year's tamale festivities. Any local taste-testers interested?


  1. I've got a husband who likes tamales in ANY guise; maybe this spring???!!!

  2. count me in! tamale party! -sj