Sunday, May 30, 2010


Today we made and ate tamales.

This is, apparently, a big thing.  Making tamales is apparently an all-day affair; a family activity; a festival-like atmosphere should permeate the kitchen as the little cornhusk-wrapped bundles steam their way to goodness.

Well, maybe in Mexico...not necessarily in northern Michigan.  Then again, we had three more children than anticipated today, a total of nine people in our small-ish house, so things were more than a little bit crazy.  The adventure has a happy ending, though.

Actually, the work started Friday night.  When I got home a pork was simmering in the crock pot, and somewhere after 11pm, Angel pulled it out and shredded it, and started a pot of corn husks soaking over night.

Today, after lunch, Angel started making the masa for the tamale shells while I started stemming and de-seeding chili pods.  After hydrating the chilis, they were blended into a sauce and the pork was started simmering.  At this point we made our real concession to the children who'd be eating the finished products -- we used eight chili peppers instead of the 18 that the recipe called for.  The cookbook advised that I should wear rubber gloves for the stemming and de-seeding, but they were dried and aside from a little oily residue, I didn't notice anything on my fingers.  I just washed my hands and kept going...until the first time I rubbed my nose, 10 minutes later, and it burned a lot more than I expected.

When the meat was ready, we started the tedious-ness of assembling the tamales.  A layer of masa is spread on a cornhusk, a gob of meat is spooned on it, and the whole thing is rolled up and the ends folded over, except for when the husk decides that it wants to remain flat and unfolded...frequently, whereupon they need to be tied with strips of cornhusks...that would really rather rip their ends off so they're not long enough to tie, or that would prefer to remain straight and not form knots at all.

 As I said before, the family event...wasn't.  Angel and I did everything while the kids did whatever kids do, and it made the process tiresome, tedious and unpleasant -- rather solidifying the opinion that whatever the tamales turned out wouldn't be worth it to ever make them again.

Next, the tamale bundles needed to be steamed for an hour...standing on end.  We experimented with different options for making a large enough steamer involving colanders, mixing bowls and plates, but settled on an overturned cake pan on the bottom of the pot, with an ovenproof plate on top of that.  We packed in the bundles, poured in water, and turned up the heat.

Tamales in Process

An hour later we had tamales.  Angel brought the first one over -- as I was typing yesterday's Eating Like The World entry, actually -- unwrapped it and broke off a piece.  She popped it expectantly in her mouth and I watched as she made an expression of...disgust.  "Are they supposed to taste like that?" she asked.

At this point, let me say that I made the mistake of saying that I'd eaten tamales before -- Hormel tamales, in a can.  Really, they're more like extruded beef and masa that get blown out of a machine into parchment wraps and canned.  Angel kept asking, during the entire day, "Is this how you remember them?" and "Is this how they're supposed to look," and I kept saying.... "I ate Hormel tamales, from a can!!"  Oh, it was fun, I tell you!


And in reality, the only one of us (the nine of us yesterday) that didn't like them was Angel.  I thought they were bland almost to the point of being flavorless...but only in comparison to what we've been having all week, and the port was at least moist and palatable.  The masa coating was just as it should be, and once we heated up some mild enchilada sauce we had from earlier this week, the tamales soaked it up and were close to wonderful.  Our earlier concession on the amount of peppers we used paid off, and the kids (and I) went nuts on 'em and polished off an impressive pile of tamales.  Angel gave it a valiant effort, trying sauce and sour cream, but in the end, she just couldn't get past the slightly gritty texture of the masa and the mostly flavorless meat and pronounced them "disgusting."


Tamale Dough
2 cups Instant Corn Masa Mix
2 cups lukewarm broth or water
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup lard or vegetable shortening

Combine masa, baking powder and salt in a bowl, work broth or water with your fingers to make a soft, moist dough.  In a small bowl, beat lard or shortening until fluffy, add mas and beat until dough has a spongy texture.  Prepare tamales with desired filling.  Makes enough dough for about 16 small tamales.

Tamales (makes about 16 tamales)
1 1/4 lbs boneless pork loin or shoulder (or chicken or beef)
1 1/2 oz chile pasilla or California pods
1/8 cup cooking oil
3/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt
16 corn husks
2 1/2 lbs prepared masa (above)

Cover meat with water, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer until done, about two hours.  Lightly saute clean chile pods (removing stems and seeds) in cooking oil.  Place in blender, add water and blend until smooth.  Cut meat into small pieces, and cook in cooking oil until browned.  Add chile mixture and slat to meat, cook for approx. 7 minutes.  Soak corn husks for a few minutes and rinse well.  Spread masa evenly over corn husks, place a Tbs of meat mixture in the center.  Fold all sides to the center, place in steamer.  Cover with a wet cloth and steam, approx. 1 hour.

Notes:  We upped the recipe to make 60 to 80 tamales.  We made several batches of the masa dough, rather than one large one.  We simmered a 5-1/2lb pork roast.  We actually had enough to make 120 tamales, but we reached a point where we threw up our hands and said "check please," and were done -- our largest pot was packed at that point anyway.

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