The Great Tamale Caper

Prior to moving to Texas 10 years ago, I had never even tasted a tamale, much less developed an appreciate for how sublime a good tamale really is.  And prior to getting the idea to make my own tamales, I had not developed an appreciation for how much work goes into producing these tiny little packets of corn and love.  For some reason I got it into my fool head that I wanted to make tamales.  By myself.  Because I am crazy.

If you don’t live in an area with a large Hispanic population, the foolhardiness of this venture might not be readily apparent, so I’ll explain.  Tamales are made of a meat or cheese filing wrapped inside a little pocket of corn dough, called masa, and then wrapped inside a corn husk.  Then the little package is steamed for a couple hours before being devoured.  Tamales are traditionally served on Christmas in Central and South America, but they’re made year round for special occasions.  Each region has their own spin on tamales, with different wrappings, fillings, and cooking methods.  One does not simply “make tamales.”  Tamales are an event.  People come over for the process of making tamales.  Extra card tables are brought out for the tamales.  You wake up very early and stay up late for tamales.  Tamales are work.

Around this time of year, tamale equipment and ingredients start appearing in the grocery stores of central Texas.  Ready-made tamales also show up everywhere – gas stations, grocery stores, street corners, restaurant menus.  I happened to be eating a plate of ready-made tamales at lunch one day when I began to contemplate making them.  I mused aloud as I picked at the masa of a pork tamale in my office lunchroom “I bet I could make tamales.”  BAD MOVE.  I happen to work with an extremely diverse and international staff.  For some reason these words escaped my mouth while I was surrounded by 2 colleagues from Mexico, one from Nicaragua, and one for Paraguay.  “Oh, you should make some!” shouted Maria.  “And bring them in!” chimed in Antonio.  Then a heated debate over whose abuelita made the best tamales ensued.  Then the conversation became entirely in Spanish and I skittered away wondering what chain of events I had just set off.

Well, the short answer is that I ended up getting Maria’s mother’s tamale recipe, and by “recipe” I mean very loose and general instructions on how to make these things.  I borrowed an Asian fish steamer pot and devoted four days to making my own tamales.  It was a blast, I have to admit.  And the tamales are delicious.  I produced somewhere around 60-70 of them by myself, working in the evenings after my daughter was in bed.  They’re in the freezer, slowly coming out for quick dinners and lunches.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.  Only next time it’s going to be a team effort – many hands will lighten this load.

The method of this experiment is outlined below, but it was an experience, not so much a recipe, so take it for what it is.

The recipe falls into a few different parts.  First, the meat.  I used 3 lbs of pork shoulder.  Place the meat in a dutch oven with 4 cloves of garlic, 2 t cumin, and 1 t salt.  Cover the meat with water and cook, covered, over low heat until it falls apart – 2 or 3 hours.

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This was the meat about 1 hour into the cooking. By the end, it was butter smooth and fell apart at the slightest touch.

Meanwhile, gather together 20 dried chilies and 10 tomatillos.  I had a huge stash of random hot peppers stored up from the CSA box.  I decided instead of using all dried chilies, I would use 10 dried chilies and that big batch of fresh green chilies instead.  Using a grapefruit spoon, I scraped out the seeds, veins, and stems from all these chilies.  Roughly chop the chilies and add to a stock pot.  Remove the husks from the tomatillos, roughly chop them, and add to the stock pot.  Add 2c water and simmer the mixture over medium low heat for about 20 minutes.  Then transfer to the food processor and process until smooth.  Set aside until the meat is ready.

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It’s a good time now to put about 8 oz of dried corn husks into a large bowl of warm water, submerging them with some sort of weight.  They need to soak for 30-60 minutes prior to rolling.

Once the meat is cooked, drain off any excess fat and shred it with a fork.  Then add the chili mixture and simmer for about 30 minutes.  Allow to cool then get ready for some fireworks.

So at this point, I had my meat and chili mixture, my husks, my big steamer, and my masa.  A quick tour around the internet will reveal a ton of masa recipes.  I used exactly none of them.  My office happens to be exactly 4 blocks away from a real life tortilla factory that sells some of the best masa money can buy.  I’m usually pretty big on the whole “make it, don’t buy it” thing, but this time it just made more sense for me to buy a bucket of masa.  If you don’t have a tortilla factory within walking distance, feel free to make your own.

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Time to get to work.  The method sounds simple enough.  Spread about 1/4 c of masa evenly over the center of a corn husk.  Put about a tablespoon of meat filling in the center.  Fold the corn husk around the meat so the masa completely encases the meat without getting the corn husk itself trapped inside the masa.  Fold the husk sides in and the bottom up so it’s a neat little package.  Either tie the husk closed or place it seam side down in the steamer.  Steam for 2 hours, or until the masa is firm and does not stick to the husk when you try to open it.  Simple, right?

Yeah, not so much.  I watched several YouTube videos on how to roll tamales.  I found step by step pictures online.  Finally, I just had to figure out my own method.  I discovered that the best tool for the job was right at the end of my wrists.  The best thing to do was scoop the masa with my dampened hands, slap it on the husk, pat it a bit, scoop on the filling, then roll it all up.  By the end, I was a tamale machine, but I produced a lot of ugly tamales to get there.

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The finished product is peeking in on the right side of that picture.  We ate a lot of “test” tamales.  Long after the time to test was passed, we were still “testing” which is why it’s hard to get an accurate count of how many I made.  I ended up using 10 pounds of masa for the 3 pounds of meat.  I packaged the cooled tamales by the dozen and put them in the freezer.  It was a blast, the tamales are delicious, and I’m richer for the experience.  I took some tamales in to the coworkers who were there at the start and they raved for days, so apparently I did something right.  As the days get colder and you look for fun family kitchen projects that could keep older children busy, I’d encourage anybody to give tamales a try.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Tamale Caper

  1. Tamales are sooo good! I had a similar day-long tamale-making adventure last December– so I could totally identify with eating one to many “test” tamales!– and we’re still trying to schedule a date to do it all over again this year… 🙂

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