Monday, May 12, 2008

Tamale Making on Mother's Day

For years, my mother-in-law and I have been making tamales around Christmas time; just the two of us would spend a whole day making hundreds of them. Friends always expressed interest in learning how to make them but the timing of doing them in the midst of the holidays was always bad. Last year I decided to see if Mother's Day might be a better time and it was so successful that we decided to make it an annual event.

A few weeks in advance I send out an Evite so that I can get a sense of how many people will be able to attend and then estimate how much of the ingredients need to be purchased. Gathering all the ingredients is a big project but living in San Francisco makes life a bit easier. La Palma Mexicatessen is a great source for masa (the primary ingredient) and the corn husks that we use to wrap our tamales. You can purchase masa that has been pre-mixed with lard, broth and baking powder but we prefer to mix these ingredients in ourselves. In the past we have purchased the pre-mixed masa and still spent a lot of time working the masa with our hands to get it aerated enough. The secret to light and fluffy tamales is aerating the dough until a small lump floats in a glass of water.

I spent over a week gathering ingredients; first for the green mole which will be used to flavor the meat fillings and gradually gathering other items that will be needed. I would prefer to stick to one type of meat - pork - but over the years there have been requests for other fillings and even for sweet tamales. La Palma sells a sweet tamale dough; it is fully mixed with all the ingredients as well as raisins and flecks of cinnamon. Unfortunately, I have been spoiled by strawberry and pineapple tamales we found during our travels in Mexico and don't find this sweet mix to be up to par at all. Trinidad, my mother-in-law, has tried jam and even dried fruit or candy but I still have dreams about perfectly flavored, light and fluffy strawberry tamales.

This year I have made it my mission to achieve that sweet tamale as well as make seven other fillings: red and green chicken; red and green pork (carnitas); beef; picadillo; grilled corn and cheese; and rajas (poblano chili and cheese). It will be quite a feat but I have 20 estimated helpers and I am going to cheat - I purchase three roasted chickens from Costco and six packages of Pork Carnitas from Trader Joe's - this saves significant time on cooking meat fillings. I purchase 70 pounds of masa quebrada simple (that is rough ground hominy and unmixed), 4 pounds of lard (you can substitute solid vegetable shortening), 2 cups of baking powder, six bags of pre-washed corn husks, a flat of strawberries, two pineapples, and 4 pounds of ground beef.

My reference for ingredient measurements is Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless. His recipe for tamales using 1 pound (approximately 2 cups) of masa, 1/2 cup lard, 2/3 cup broth, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and about 1/2 teaspoon of salt (depending how salty the broth is). This recipe estimates it will make 16 medium-sized tamales; therefore 70 pounds of masa should yield over 1,100 tamales and each helper will leave with over 50 tamales each. This is exactly why this is a full, day; fully staffed function.

Before the event, I set most of the corn husks in a large pan full of hot water and weigh the lid down to keep the husks fully submerged. (Unfortunately, I will have to do this in two or even three batches because I don't have a large enough pan to accommodate all the corn husks). I cook the picadillo and make sure all my ingredients are handy and ready.

When everyone arrives, I give them a moment to grab a bagel, some coffee and even champagne before I set them up kneading masa. We separate the 70 pounds of masa dough into four, 20 quart bowls and add the requisite amounts of shortening/lard and baking powder. Kneading the masa is the longest part of this process so the bulk of the work will be there.

My first helper, Danielle gets to work cutting up some pineapple and strawberries. The fruit tamales require the addition of a cup of fruit puree per pound of masa rather than broth. I plan to set aside about 10 pounds of the masa (five pounds per flavor) and for the moment I am going to add sugar and shortening to this 10 pounds then separate it again to add the respective purees.

When I have enough people working on the masa, I set the next batch of helpers to shredding the meat. Since both the chickens and pork carnitas are pre-cooked the meat just needs to be shredded and seasoned to be ready as a filling for tamales. When all the meat is shredded, I separate it into batches and season some of the pork and chicken with green mole and the rest I season with a bit of mole poblano and a can of spicy tomato sauce (El Pato Sauce). Additionally, I add a lot of salt - you want the flavoring to be pretty intense (spicy, flavorful and/or salty) to offset the blandness of the masa dough.

Rajas are a "vegetarian" tamale (fully vegetarian if you use solid vegetable shortening and vegetable broth). It is made by placing thin strips of slightly grilled, poblano chilis and queso fresco on the bed of masa. The cheese melts when the tamales get steamed and it is a really delicious filling - especially if you are a fan of chili rellenos (poblanos stuffed with cheese; battered; fried and covered with light tomato sauce), which is one of my favorite dishes. Another vegetarian tamale we created last year was to use a bag of frozen, roasted corn - a Trader Joe's item - and mixing it with shredded cheese; approximately two cups.

I spend the whole day funneling ingredients to the workers and checking the masa for float worthy status, plus setting up the tamales to cook. I have a large, 30 quart pan which I placed a steamer at the bottom with about 2 inches of water. I then take some of the wet corn husks and made a bed in which to place the tamales. I place enough tamales in the pan so that they can stand up so that the open part of the husk is pointing toward the lid of the pan. At around 6:00 pm (we started at 11:00 am) the first batch of tamales is fully cooked.

The tamales that are taken home will be uncooked and I tell everyone to freeze them when they get home. By freezing the tamales uncooked, you get a much fresher tasting tamal. You can remove tamales right from the freezer and steam for about 90 minutes. (If they are unfrozen or fresh they only take about 60 minutes.) It is easy to tell if a tamal is fully cooked because the masa goes from a soft mush to a spongy dough. You can just open the corn husk to confirm doneness.

Everyone worked tirelessly to knead the masa and fill tamales. Luis kept the workers hydrated by refreshing champagne, beers, sodas, agua frescas, etc. He also took the vacuum out numerous times to clean up masa from the floor. His justification is he wanted us all to impress any random arrival with our ability to keep the floor clean during such a massive project.

So next year, I will purchase masa fina, mixta (finely ground, masa mixed with everything) and just knead it to aerate it better. We spent too long kneading the masa again and it wasn't salty enough. Unfortunately, I totally forgot that the puree replaced the broth in the sweet tamales so my quest for the perfect sweet tamal is as yet unfulfilled.


Beth Richardson said...

Hi Jennie,
I love reading your blog.

Tamales are definitely a labor of love! Is there a way to make a heart healthy tamale - one without lard or vegetable shortening or lots of salt and still have it taste good, hold together and have the right texture?

Everyday Good Eats said...

Wish you could have been here!

EarthBalance has a vegan, heart healthy shortening -

You need the solid shortening to really work into the dough. Liquid oils aren't going to work.



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