“Like awesome! Oh, wow! Like totally freak me out. I mean, right on! Tamales sure are number one!”
Oh come on. I know that every single one of you use cheers from Bring It On in your daily life.
But we have more important things to discuss than Kirsten Dunst’s witty, razor-sharp cheer-snark. We have tamales.
This is going to be a long post. If you need to use the bathroom, I suggest taking your laptop with you.
THIS GOT STARTED BECAUSE…
…I’m not really sure why. At some point months ago, Chase and I were discussing tamales, probably as part of a larger discussion about Pilar’s tamale cart and street food in general. We decided, “You know what? We should totally make our own tamales sometime!” It was just like that, only pretend we sound more sophisticated about it. Flash forward to a short time later and I brought up the idea to Paul, who was like, “Yeah, I used to do that with my grandmother.” Light bulb! The three of us agreed, yes, we would have to do this. We’d use Paul’s experience and his grandmother’s recipe and my kitchen and an entire Saturday and just get. it. done!
FOUR OR FIVE MONTHS LATER…
“We should probably schedule that tamale thing.”
“Ok let’s just pick a date.”
(Insert various technical difficulties in establishing an online group chat, followed by a lengthy, somewhat coherent discussion about dates and availability and the impending holiday season here.)
THREE WEEKS LATER
“Hey, isn’t TamaleFest this weekend?”
“Oh, s***, yeah! We should probably get on that. What do we need again? Everything?”
TamaleFest was going to be reasonably small—there were 6 of us involved. I say “reasonably small” because our last food festival, BBQFest, in September, had about 40 attendees. Paul was going to be the band director in the great tamale symphony, being the only one of us who actually knew what he was doing. The rest of us–Chase, Brian, Rita, Josh and I– were there to work and learn.
We’d decided we’d do two types of tamales: pork (because it’s easy to find pork shoulder for cheap at Costco and because it’s delicious), and bean and cheese (Paul’s a vegetarian). If you’ve never made tamales before, they rather intensive and there’s a lot of components to put in place. It really is a group effort and you want to make a big batch to make all the effort worth it. We split up the gathering of the essentials:
- Paul got the corn husks and chihuahua cheese, and made the beans and the masa (Yes, Paul did most of the work.)
- Brian and I each bought, slow-cooked and shredded a little over 10 pounds of pork (total).
- Chase brought the really important items: alcohol. And food to nibble on.
- Rita made the mimosas. And then proceeded to kick everyone’s ass at whipping out those tamales.
The pork cooked all day Friday (or all night, in Brian’s case), simmering slowly in a spice blend of ancho, hot chile powder, cumin, salt, pepper and cocoa. Paul fried the beans, then slow-cooked them and we later added a blend of cumin, chile and ancho powder. He also mixed several large pots worth of masa, which is the cornmeal mixture that wraps around the filling in a tamale (recipe below).
Paul got to our place bright and early, and we immediately….went out to breakfast. At Beezy’s. You should always eat breakfast, kids, it’s the most important meal of the day. Then we got back to the house, let the masa and pork sit out and come up to room temperature and waited for everyone else to arrive.
So here’s what had to happen:
- Mimosas had to be made.
- The corn husks come in giant bundles. That’s a lot of corn husks. They had to be separated, any debris cleared off and then soaked, so that they’d be pliable and easy to fold. We did that in batches, so they wouldn’t get too waterlogged or dry out after being pulled from the bath.
- The masa had to be mixed up, spiced and ready to spread.
- A steamer had to be created. Tamales are steamed in batches. We were hoping to make around 15 dozen tamales. The thing about making tamales is that how many you make and how much of the raw components you need really depends on your preferences and how large you want the tamales to be. When they’re assembled and folded, they get put in a large, heavy pot and steamed until the masa and filling have sealed together and the masa is no longer dough-y and begins to pull away from the cornhusks on its own. We were using this 7 gallon pot Josh and Jeff use for brewing beer; it’s massive. The tamales shouldn’t touch the water or the pan, and because we had so many, they were sort of piled on top of each other in an awesome tamale teepee, but that meant that Josh had to devise an internal structure for the tamales to rest on, above and away from the water. He accomplished that with 1)the steamer pan from his steam canner, 2)a colander and 3) a tinfoil cylinder made from using a champagne bottle as a mold (and you thought the champagne was just for drinking).
- We had to set up an assembly station. We used our dining room table, so we could sit down and have plenty of room.
After getting everything ready for the first batch, which was gonna be pork, Paul gave us all a rundown of what had to happen and how to do it, including spreading the masa on the cornhusks, which isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. He also showed us how to properly fold a tamale and mentioned we shouldn’t bother trying to “tie” them because it was a lot of extra work and if they were folded and placed properly, it wouldn’t matter. After that, we manned our stations.
Rita, Brian, Chase and Josh were “spreaders,” meaning they got out the just-soaked cornhusks, laid them flat on the table and spread a good cover of masa across the husk, which is the difficult, more time-consuming job as the masa is a bit hard to spread. Then it went to me and Paul, who spooned in the filling, folded the tamales and placed them fold-down in the magnificent steamer scupture.
It was an interesting process. Some corn husks were really big and needed to be cut down. Some were too small to be useful. The masa didn’t want to spread, or got stuck to the spoons, or your fingers. We ate a lot of masa; it was really good and well spiced. You had to figure out just how much pork to add in, how tightly to roll the tamale, how to keep them from falling over in the pot. The average tamale is, I think, 3 or 4 ounces. Ours were um….quite a bit bigger than that on average. Maybe 5-7 ounces on average. And then there was Big Bertha, Chase’s tamale, which weight in at a burrito-sized thirteen ounces. No, seriously. It was like the Arnold Schwarzenegger of tamales.
When we filled the pot, Josh and Paul carried it to the stove and, using a funnel, gingerly poured water into the bottom of the pan thanks to the tinfoil cylinder Josh had made. Then the steaming began. It took about 4 hours for that batch to properly steam, with Paul and Josh keeping an eye on it to make sure there was enough water in the pot. When a batch finished, the tamales were pulled out of the pot with tongs, set aside to cool and bagged in freezer gallon bags, with the exception of a couple “test ones,” which we ate.
Then we took a break. We watched an episode of Glee and drank homemade hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps or coffee liqueur. Hey, gotta keep your strength up!
THE REST OF IT
While the pork tamales steamed, we repeated the same procedure for the bean ones. All in all, we went through 3 bowls, I think, of masa, 10 pounds of meat, Lord knows how many beans, two pounds of cheese and two giant packs of corn husks, plus two rounds of mimosas, one round of spiked cocoa, one round of pizza and wine and fourteen hours later.
And that was just from the time we started on Saturday to the time when we pulled the last bean tamale of out the pot. Yeah, that’s right. It took about 3-4 hours to steam each pot of tamales, and we did about 3 pots. We ended up with just over 15 dozen tamales, hitting our target perfectly. Of course, some of our tamales were really the size of 2 or 3 normal ones but hey…they were all delicious and that’s what matters.
WHAT WE LEARNED
- Tamale making is hard and it takes a long time. You should be prepared, and start early. I have so much respect for people who make them for a living now.
- Tamale making is fun, though, and we’re gonna do TamaleFest again next year, with more people, maybe in shifts. It’s a great way to spend a day where the weather is kind of crappy, just indoors, rolling tamales, hanging out with your friends.
- Mimosas and spiked cocoa=necessary.
- Tamales are pretty easy to customize. You need to have the basic things–corn husks, masa and some filling. The filling can be any kind of meat, beans, veggies, even fruit. You just keep rolling until you run out of someting. You can put in your own flavors, your own spices, your own anything.
- Don’t let the water run out while steaming. Things will start to burn. That is a bad. thing.
- Your finished tamales will be good for a few days, but after that can be frozen. To reheat, just steam them again, or pan-fry them until the husks start to pull away from the filling.
- You can buy masa, you don’t have to make it. But making it lets you customize it. You can find a lot of things at some place like Meijer, but you should explore your area and try shopping at a Mexican market instead.
- You should try it. Really.
Now, to help you try it, I’ve compiled the following resources:
- The Crepes of Wrath blog has an awesome write up of tamale making that was posted just as I was writing this!
- How to Make Tamales from About
- Making Tamales
- More about Tamales from AllRecipes
- Tamales in video!
Paul’s Grandma’s Tamale Recipe:
6 cups masa
5 cups warm water or chicken broth or Veg Stock or Pork Stock (also can use left over stock from your meat)
2 1/3 cups lard or shortening (2 2/3 Cup if using Veg stock or water)
1 tablespoon of backing power
Spice to taste with (or anything else you would like): onion powder, cumin, chile powder, salt
You can mix with a mixer, but it’s best to do it by hand. Add more stock or masa to get the best consistency–should be similar to peanut butter. If you store it overnight, add warm stock when you’re ready to get started and mix it again until you reach a good consistency.