The other day she asked me if I could make some tamales. I had mumbled something about tamales a few weeks back while we were shopping, and I guess it stuck in her ear.
The same guy who taught me how to make gumbo and jambalaya showed me one day how to make tamales. I was only nineteen years old and should have listened to him better. He was in Boston by way of New York (The City), but had grown up in Mississippi and Louisiana with a father who was a camp cook. He was over six and a half feet tall and about the size of a door. I was a skinny farm kid from North Carolina, and at first glance we had nothing in common. But we both liked to cook, so he taught me about some things he knew while I taught him how to make fried sweet potato pies, quail, and crème puffs. Just thinking about all this brings back memories. I had never seen anyone make gumbo at all, never mind from just vegetables, and it had a lot of greens in it. My recent kale eating (along with some other greens) might just inspire me to mix up a pot of gumbo some day, but at the time I did not have a good appreciation for what was in front of me.
After reminiscing and mumbling to myself some more, I dug in and updated myself with some tamale research. I have tried to stick to the core of what I learned back then. Apparently what I learned to make is something commonly called Delta-style tamales, i.e., one in which the liquid comes higher up the pan than just for steaming, and is a combination of water, broth, juices from cooking the meat, and about as much seasoning as you actually put in the tamale itself. We picked up some masa harina before I remembered that he used to use white cornmeal, along with a bag of corn husks. I already have the peppers, herbs, and spices and we had a nice boston butt in the freezer.
Prepare the meat:
I smeared the butt with sesame oil, seared it in my electric skillet, and threw in a big sweet onion, some red and green bell pepper, a large stalk of celery, about 6 crushed garlic cloves, and some of our home-dried oregano and black pepper and a bit of salt. After putting the butt into the crock pot, I deglazed the pan with 2 cups of chicken broth, and then poured the whole thing over the butt, closed the crock pot, and turned it on low.
Wait. While waiting, I started this post and I started working backwards from when dinner needs to be served. I backed off at least one hour for cooking the tamales, another hour for making the dough and another 30 minutes for taking 1.5 hours to soak the husks. Back up another hour to have time to make some of my own adobo sauce to have on the side, and I don’t have to start until mid-afternoon. It turns out I should have started an hour earlier. Since the sauce I made to go with it can be made earlier I’ll make it the day before next time.
Prepare the Husks: Bring water to a boil and immerse the husks in it. I put a bowl on them to hold them down under the water. Let soak for 1 hour to 1.5 hours, at which point they should be supple and much easier to handle without cracking. I put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in water with the husks, because I was told to 30 years ago.
Adobo sauce. See link here.
The adobo sauce is one of several which go well with tamales. Some folks like to eat them dry, some with Tabasco, some with a ladle of juice from the pot, which is called “pot-licker” (liquor) where I come from.
When the pork is done (8-9 hours in the crock pot on low), take it out and strain the liquid away from the veggies into a large heavy metal pot. Chop the pork with the veggies, removing any bone or gristle.
Spice Mix: I made double this recipe and added half to the meat, because you need the other half for the cooking in the pot.
1 tsp powdered gaujillo chili powder
1 tsp powdered pasilla chili powder
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp salt
2 tablespoons black pepper
2 tsp sweet paprika (not smoked)
1 tsp hot paprika
2 teaspoons of toasted and ground cumin seeds (I use seeds and toast them instead of pre-ground cumin. Then I grind them in our spice grinder and measure out the 2 teaspoons).
Add half the spice mix to the meat and stir it in well.
Masa filling: In the stand mixer, I combine 3 cups of masa harina (finely ground white cornmeal works just as well) with 8 tablespoons of frozen chopped lard, mix until mealy and combined. Then I add 1 cup of the broth from cooking the meat, mix and combine, adding up to ½ cup more of the broth if needed to get the dough to clump. It may be a bit sticky, but shouldn’t be wet and gloppy. As it turned out, I ran out of this, and had to make another recipe of it for the amount of pork on hand (a bit over 2 pounds, the rest being put aside for another meal).
When you are ready, build the tamale. There are plenty of instructions on the net to show you how to roll and wrap tamales. I like to use nearly as much meat as masa dough, spreading the meat over the dough completely and rolling it up like a jelly roll, rather than having solid filling surrounded by masa. Seal the seam and pinch the ends. Wrap in the corn husk. I was taught to tie them individually, but this time I am tying 3 together as a bundle instead, because it seems that a lot of recipes recommend this.
Open a fold-up steamer in the bottom of the large pot, and stack the tamales with the top up until it is full. I added 3 cups of broth (vegetable or chicken) and the rest water until the water comes up 1 inch from the top of the tamales. Add the same spice mixture you added to the meat to the liquid. Put on the lid and bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for 1 hour.
Clearly I did not remember how much time and effort it takes to wrap the tamales. In retrospect, I remember that there were a couple more folks around who helped the last time I made these. Even wrapping the 22 tamales that this made seemed like a snapshot from some timeless hell and I felt clumsy and graceless during the process.
The eating of them was very good however. We served them with condiments of adobo sauce and Tabasco sauce and had a light salad with our own lettuces, radishes, snow peas, and sugar snap peas, as well as avocado and beet slices. And to drink we had a hard cider, since tamales cry out for a cold beer or a cold hard cider.