We had a lot of rain this weekend. Add to that Rhonda being on call and you, my friend, have a recipe for trouble: me on lockdown in Lima. But then insert my genius wife, the one person on this earth that staffs the growing reference library of my quirks and craziness and their respective fixes (if they exist). No sooner had my jaw line been set and my eyes began shooting from the left…to the right…to the left…telegraphing my impending mental implosion, and here comes Rhonda with a stellar suggestion – “Hey why don’t you make tamales this weekend?”
I don’t know a lot about tamales. I eat them. I like them. I know they are time consuming to make. Food? Killing time? Did my wife just issue the perfect prescription? Tamales are interesting to me. It seems as though most of the cultures I am familiar with have their rendition of a labor intensive food that is hand made and mass produced, usually around the time of holidays. In my family it’s ravioli. In Rhonda’s, it’s these things called egg roll shang hai. Mexicans… they have tamales. And hey, I like Mexico. We’ve got a winner. (Note to future self: I am well aware that tamales are found widely in places other than Mexico).
So this entry is about tamales. The process was fun and the outputs were good so I figured, unlike most recipes, that I’d take some time and try and create a narrative of how I spent the last 36 hours of my life on the off chance that I may want to repeat it one day. I wish I kept better track of ingredient amounts and could give better, more accurate renditions of how I do (or do not) pull off certain things. But alas…that’s not how I operate.
Let’s start with meat. I decided to do two different kinds: beef and chicken. I like my meat shredded, moist and flavorful and that takes some time so getting the meat cooking was my first priority. I threw about four pounds of salt and peppered beef shoulder into a pot with a couple onions and maybe six cloves of garlic. Once I browned it, I added enough water to cover the meat and let it simmer for a few hours, waiting until it begin to fall apart (something that always takes less time if you cut the meat into smaller pieces…maybe four by four inch chunks. I used chicken quarters for the other batch, seasoning them with my favorite home-spun, quazi-Cuban mix of garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, oil, butter and lemon juice and then roasted them until they were golden brown. Then I shredded ‘em up.
In addition to doing two types of meat, I wanted to do two types of flavors. How boring would tamales be if the meats were different but they were seasoned the same way? For the red tamales I decided I would do equal parts garden variety ancho chiles and hot New Mexico reds. That’s because the anchos are pretty benign, but do add a kind of smokiness. The New Mexico reds burst with flavor, though they’re a little curious if you aren’t used to them, maybe bitter. Oh, and the ones I buy are H…O…T. After stemming and seeding about four ounces of each kind, I threw them in a pot of water with garlic, onions and a healthy teaspoon of cumin so they could hydrate and soften.
I don’t usually deal much with tomatillos, but since I didn’t have anything else to do I decided to roast a dozen and see what happened. What I didn’t want was that overly tangy reduction that most grocery store green sauces ooze of. It’s also important to me to infuse all my Latin food with New Mexico chiles. So just like I did a hybrid for the red, I did it again with the green, this time using the dozen tomatillos, 8-10 hot New Mexico greens and I even threw in four or five jalapenos (seeded). I roasted the tomatillos but that was it. Then all of it went into the blender, along with a healthy dose of garlic. Let me amend that. Everything in the green bowl went in. I cherry picked the red chiles out of their pan (using tongs).
Once pureed (and the red was strained), I cooked both sauces down. And actually, it’s worth noting that I purposely poured the green sauce into a hot pan to scald it a bit and give it a little flavor depth like the red was naturally getting from the anchos. I slightly rehydrated both sauces using the leftover chile water in the red and chicken stock in the green. Then I let them simmer. This is also the time to salt these sauces for flavor and I can’t emphasize that enough. The final product will taste very similar to how they taste at this point. After that I added the respective shredded meat to each sauce and let it all cool, mixing a handful of cilantro in with the chicken & green sauce.
Now is a natural time to reference one of my non-meal ingredients. I don’t spend a whole day – nay – a whole WEEKEND cooking because I don’t like it. I like it a lot. And I like it even more with a little beer or wine. Especially enjoyable to me is channeling the country of origin through my libations when I’m hard at work in the kitchen. This weekend it was Dos Equis Lager with a lime. I used to be a Dos Equis Amber-only kind of guy. Then, last year Rhonda and I were at a little beach dive in Playa Del Carmen. They had a deal on the green bottles and I had about six of them along with enough guacamole to blanket a Guatemalan village and it was such a pleasing experience that I started to expand my ways. Not change my ways. I don’t believe good ways need to be changed. But they can be added to.
Ok, so far everything has been pretty easy. Time consuming, yes, but easy. I am not a stranger to Mexican cooking, seasoning meats and using chiles so even though I wasn’t using a hard recipe, I wasn’t really worried about anything I was doing and I knew the outcome was going to be solid. But my comfort zone was about to end. I had decided I was going to make white corn tamales and I’ve never made masa before. It was time to do a little recipe research.
Eh, turns out making cornmeal dough is no harder than making a pre-mix batch of brownies. If you can count cups of flour, stir in lard and broth…you can make the spongy dough that surrounds the tamale filling. Actually, there is one thing worth noting that I just mentioned. For the liquid portion of the masa I planned on using the respective beef or chicken broth. Then it dawned on me that I had no interest in making two separate batches of masa. So I used beef broth in all the masa (even the chicken tamales). Made zero difference. Here’s a great point where I could indicate how much I used and it what it yielded. I used four cups of masa, four cups of (warm) broth and a cup of lard. All together that made about 30 tamales.
Also in the recipe I looked up was the necessary prep for the corn husks (purchased at a grocery store in Lima so I assume they are available worldwide). Not a lot to note here. They need to be soaked in warm water for a period long enough to make them soft and pliable. I figured that to be about one hour.
I have to admit, there were several points throughout the day when I was questioning the complexity and art form of making tamales. Not that food needs to be complex or artistic to be a cultural hallmark. But tamales are a cultural hallmark. And what the f…they aren’t that difficult. That’s what I thought… all that and more before I started to spread the masa on the husks, stuff the meat inside and wrap the final product. Holy cow. I’m not kidding – this is where the true art is. None of my first ten tries came out looking even vaguely related to the same food group as tamales. Some looked like they had bleeding lacerations and were bandaged with a handful of leaves. Some looked like dirty baby diapers.
Beyond that, my consistency was so off that I couldn’t even make the same mistake twice. What a nightmare. Dare I eternalize in print that I actually went on youtube so I could see just what in the hell the perfect technique is for making these things come out right. No help. At some point I had to do a cost/benefit analysis and realize that the amount of work I was putting into stuffing the tamales wasn’t even close to motivating me towards finishing them. That’s when I called in some allies. Perhaps unsurprising was the fact that Rhonda was naturally better than me at stuffing them. Without any practice. Hers were perfect. Bitch.
Once they were packaged and ready to be cooked, I went through a few options in my head on how best to steam these things. I considered my Chinese bamboo steamers, a two burner fish poacher that I have and a few other options. In the end I decided that any of them would have worked. Actually, probably one of those big stock pots with the pasta strainer would be optimal. However, I didn’t use any of those. That’s because I remembered I have this nifty little gadget that expands in the bottom of any pot to create a space between boiling water and food. Perfect.
Following some advice I found online, I steamed the red tamales standing up. I let them go for about an hour, thinking that was probably too long but reminding myself that I’ve never made tamales before. One thing I noticed was that when they got warm and moist, gravity seemed to get the best of a couple of tamales and the insides bunched up at the bottom. It didn’t happen to all of them though so that dynamic could have very well been related to my stuffing and wrapping technique, inconsistent as it was.
For no other reason than to see if I’d get a different outcome, I stacked the green tamales differently. You can see my scaled Abe Lincoln, log cabin design here. Guess what? It totally worked and this is how I would do it next time as well. No shifting around of the innards – these tamales were perfectly balanced. What also worked was letting all the tamales rest for awhile after they came out of the steamer. I tried to unwrap a couple right away and had way more success after they had cooled a bit and the masa had time to set up…which actually made them more texturally appealing as well.
Ok, process was the point. Taking my otherwise drab weekend and wrapping it around a time-filling activity that had something to do with one of my favorite hobbies was the purpose of making tamales, right? Right. But what if the final product sucked? Then I’d really have to take a mental inventory and figure out if, in fact, the point was spending time or if I really, perhaps secretly, hoped to create something delicious. Look, I can say quite easily that if my tamales had sucked, I would have turned my back on ever making them again, and perhaps on suggesting anyone ever visit the entire country of Mexico, ever. Mad.
But they didn’t suck. Both the reds and the greens came out delicious. I can’t stress enough how key the stuffing and packaging process is. The difficulty I had with consistency was evident; there were all shapes and sizes and some of them unwrapped much easier than others. But the taste was there, both in the filling and in the masa. I put a lot of fire power into both versions. But the heat of the green chiles and jalapenos in the chicken as well as the red chile in the beef matured into spicy, rich flavors that weren’t too hot to handle and left me wanting more. Rhonda’s dad happened to be at our house as well and he raved over them, saying they were the best tamales he’s ever had. Now I don’t know how often he eats tamales, but he did take the rest of mine home. All of them.
There you go. If you have enough time to dedicate two days to making tamales, do it. And if you can do that then you also have enough time to dedicate four pages to writing about it.