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February 2011

Pork Tamales 101

This is how we begin (always).


And a superb Tamales Chef. We were pretty lucky to have someone around willing to spend almost six hours in a HOT & tiny shoebox of a kitchen, making something as complicated & time consuming as tamales. She absolutely rocks, and no, we are not sharing her with anyone else.


My initial phone instructions were "add a 3.5 lb pork shoulder (butt) to a pot (after trimming fat); cover it with water plus about 2 inches, add some peppercorns, oregano, bay leaves, one onion & 4-5 peeled whole garlic cloves, & 1/2 tsp salt". Ok, I think I can do that.

Cover, and let it putter on the stove until meat shreds easily (2.5 hours at least). It will smell good in your kitchen. Really good.


Meanwhile, go to your local Mexican market (we're lucky to have lots of those in California, I know), and get some chiles, lard, corn husks & masa.


For flavor we had 7 guajillo & 3 california chiles, and 5 pasilla chiles for spice. Remove the top of the peppers, and scrape out the seeds. Put them in a dry frying pan and toast them. Hint: use tongs to turn them around, they are CHILES after all. Your fingers WILL burn.


Soak the peppers for about 10 minutes in a little bit of water, it will clear out the rest of the seeds. Put them in another pot, fill with fresh water to cover chiles, add 1/4 onion & a garlic clove. (Onions & garlic make everything taste better!) Let it putter for about 10-15 minutes on the stove. The glossy chiles look gorgeous!


While chiles putter, soak your corn husks in some warm water. They should soak for an hour at least.


Make your masa filling. We followed the recipe on the bag of cornmeal flour. Sort of. 6 cups of masa, 3 cups of lard, 1.5 tsp salt, 3 tsp baking powder, 3 cups of pork stock (yes, directly out of the pot, just make sure it's cooled off.)


Mix until dough is "sproingy". I find that to be a very descriptive & scientific term. Add more salt if needed. Yes, you should taste it to make sure it's right.


In the mean time, when the peppers have boiled for the required time, dump the contents of the pot into a blender and whizz it up. Does that not look lovely? I was told this could be used for Enchilada sauce, or really, anything. It is practically pure gold.

Have you noticed Tamale making is a very multitaskey cooking process? Lots of things to keep track of, I would not be surprised if I missed details here and there with our expert Tamales Chef whizzing around in the kitchen. I tried to keep up, it wasn't easy. And with a smile on her face! (make sure you strain the chile mix even if you blend it well, just to make sure there are no chunks left.)


I was pretty annoying with the camera, and by extension, a lousy Sous Chef. See, I almost missed an important step. Boil 2 large potatoes (you can dump them in with the pork), but only for about 5-10 minutes, just to make them a little soft. Cut them up like french fries, along with one bell pepper (not cooked). This is part of the filling.


I did some "rudimentary research" online about tamale making, where someone complained about a recipe with potatoes in it. We got it Straight From The Source, so we're sticking with what we've been taught, and maybe feeling a little smug about knowing better. Besides, potatoes are good in everything.


Add about 3 tbsp of your gold (a.k.a chile spice mix) to your masa mix.I'm not sure I could mix that with my bare hands, but it does look YUMMY!


Right about now the pork should be done. Shred the pork, but remove any fat you find. We just want the meat here. Saute the pork in a little bit of vegetable oil, then add the chile sauce mix, add a clove of garlic and some pork stock, if it's too dry, and let it putter.


To quote our Tamales Chef, the longer you let it putter, the more the flavors blend & the yummier it is, add salt if needed. I think I was too busy "tasting" the mix, as opposed to taking pictures, at this point. Sorry.

Ok, now we are ready to set up a Tamales-making-station. Masa mix, meat, bell peppers, potatoes, pliable corn husks.


Start by spreading your masa mix on the corn husk; on the side that feels smooth and almost "plasticy". Spread it about 1/4" from the top, fully to your left side, and to about 1/4" to your right, and not all the way down. See below. Seriously, that is SO not my hand. My sad attempts were really not photography worthy.


Add a dollop of meat mixture, one piece of potato & bell pepper, roll up the tamale, clockwise, and fold up the bottom to seal.


Stack the tamales, standing up, on a steamer insert in a stockpot with a cup of water on the bottom. Cover and let them simmer & steam at low heat for 1 -1.5 hours. You can check the tamales after an hour to see if the masa mix pulls away from the husk, then they're done. Add more water if you run dry. Freeze them as is, and steam them straight out of the freezer (do NOT microwave!)

I loosely calculated that she made about 3-4 tamales while I struggled to finish one. Which was barely acceptable anyway.


But it was SO much fun, practise makes perfect, and I feel so honored she spent time with us to pass on all this knowledge, and I wish they didn't live so far away. That part still really sucks.


But we have almost 40 tamales to drown our sorrows in. Ok, we're probably down to about twenty now, but still.




P.S. On my wish list; a large stock pot & a metal steamer insert. We had to wrap our tamales, six at a time in foil and stacked them in my pot & steamer setup, added some foil on top, and clamped down the lid tightly. Thankfully, a little cooking engineering still accomplished the task. Also, below is a quick cheat sheet of the measurements for:

the Most Awesomest Tamales Ever

Boil Pork:
3 lb pork butt.
1 tsp pepper corns
3 bay leaves
4-5 cloves garlic
1 onion
1/2 tsp salt

7 guajillo (flavor)
5 pasilla (spicy)
3 california (flavor)
1/4 onion
1 garlic clove

Masa Mix:
6 cups masa
1.5 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
3 cups lard/shortening
3 cups pork stock (or water)