tamale time

so once, a long, long time ago, i was a dorky kid who liked nothing better than to sit around in weird places (think trees, etc) and read. that is literally all i wanted to do. when mom shlepped me and my brother to the local library, i would check out the maximum number they would allow me (something like 15 books, if i remember correctly), take them home, and hole myself up somewhere to read. these days, there’s still nothing i love better than books – my husband and i could open our own library with the books we collectively own – but along with that there also is my love for food and cooking. but i didn’t start out loving cooking. when i was about 8, my mother started pulling me into the kitchen with her at dinner time to help her cook. i would grumble and moan and complain, but i’d help her chop vegetables, watch her cook meat, let her teach me how to make from scratch gravy while gazing longingly and poutingly at my neglected books the entire time. the point of this story is, that i am extremely glad that she made me help her and learn because if she hadn’t, i wouldn’t love cooking and food as much as i do… and we probably wouldn’t eat as well as we do, either. anyway, about that same time, my mom, who, it should be noted was not Mexican, started making tamales. she learned to make a lot of things that my dad, who is, it should be noted, a Mexico-born and raised Mexican, was used to eating. she did it by watching my grandmother. and since she was such a good cook and a smart, smart lady, she learned really REALLY quickly how to make excellent Mexican rice, homemade tortillas, salsas, and of course, tamales. eventually, she got so good at the christmas-time tamale, that she started selling them at her place of employment to make christmas money for mine and my brother’s gifts. and she sold A LOT of tamales during the course of our childhood. I mean she made something like a couple thousand dollars every christmas. and since age 8 or so, i’ve been helping her make them. suffice to say, i could make these in my sleep, blindfolded, with one arm tied behind my back. they’re that ingrained in my cooking system. even though my mom is gone now and i don’t have to sell tamales to make money for Christmas gifts, i just don’t think i would feel right not making them. so i do, without fail, every holiday time. i’ve always enjoyed what my mother could do in the kitchen but especially the way that she made typical Mexican recipes entirely her own without offending the palates of any Mexicans. you know how sometimes you get Mexican food not made by someone who isn’t entirely familiar with the cuisine and it just plain sucks and doesn’t resemble anything any Mexican would make? My mom never did food like that. so her tamales (and her enchiladas, and her salsas, etc) were pretty different than what my grandma made. her tamales, for one thing, have spices in the masa. she didn’t just spread plain masa onto the husks. and i think that’s wonderful. i know that personally, when i eat tamales that don’t have flavored masa, i don’t like them as well. so while these are pretty time consuming (think, literally an all day project) they are pretty worth it. and even if you’ve been making/eating them for 20 years, like i have, you find they never get old. so i hope my instructions are clear, and i hope you give these a try.and i hope you round up some friends to help you, because it goes a lot faster with some help. my mom and i made a day of it and those are probably some of the nicest memories i have of her …

Annetta’s Tamales

You Need:

1 pork roast – bone in, boneless, whatever.
garlic powder
chili powder
a bag or so of dried ancho chili peppers
salt and pepper
1 block of lard (also called manteca. i say a block because they’re sold in the little square boxes, wrapped in white waxy paper)
corn husks (for one roast, we use about 2 packages)
cold water
1 bag of masa harina (you can use the one that’s specified for tamales, but i never like to. i just use plain, regular masa)

you can pre-make the pork roast: i salt and pepper and garlic powder mine, place it right in the slow cooker, cover it with water, and cook it for 6-8 hours until it literally falls apart when you poke it with a fork. Note: do NOT throw out the pork’s cooking water. keep it.

place your ancho chilis in a large pot. cover the peppers with water. cover with a lid and turn the heat onto medium. watch this so that nothing boils over, but let these simmer for about 30 minutes. shut off the heat and let it sit for awhile. i find that these float and that i need to turn the peppers over in the water during its simmering time.

when the peppers look sufficiently softened, remove the stems and seeds, place them in a blender or food processor along with a ladle full of the red chili water from its steeping. puree, adding more chile water as needed until you get a nice, pureed pile of peppers. It doesn’t need to be watery, by the way, just add enough to make pureeing them easier.

in another pot, shred your pork. make sure you pick any pieces of fat and gristle off the pork roast. taste to see if you need more salt and pepper. if you do, add it. pour the pureed ancho chili mixture into the pork. cook this on low heat until everything comes together.

meanwhile, start soaking your corn husks. you’ll have to weight these down. when my mom and i made these en masse, we literally filled buckets with water, placed the corn husks inside, and weighted them down with her molcajete stones. any way you choose to do this, just soften those husks in some cold water. all told, it takes about 30 minutes to an hour to get them sufficiently soft enough. (see what i meant about this being an all day affair? i wasn’t kidding).

while those are soaking, heat up that block of lard in a small pot. melt this completely.

empty your bag of masa – the whole bag – into a very large bowl. for one bag of masa, we used half a bottle of garlic powder and whole bottle of chili powder. eyeball your salt and pepper, and add this to the masa, too.

stir in the melted lard. stir in the saved pork roast water, as well. mix altogether well. you will need to add warm water to get the right consistency. it should be spreadable, but not runny, nor too dry. you’ll definitely know when it’s too dry.

when this is done, drain the water out of your husks and make sure you squeeze the excess water out.

set up a tamale spreading station, like this:

i like to have my sheet pan, where i’ll stack the completed tamales, a cup of water to add to the masa in case it starts to get dry, a bowl of masa (i dish out bowlfuls at a time, because the contents of one masa bag makes A LOT of masa), and then the pot of meat.

now, let’s start spreading. first, lay out your corn husk flat on your surface. since the corn husks come in different sizes and conditions, you’ll find that sometimes you’ll have to tear the husk in half, or tear off an end that is kind of squicky. i don’t have any specific size husk that’s necessary. all i can say is, you should be able to figure out when it’s too large and when it’s too small. by the time we got to be real experts at making these things, mom was able to splice together pieces of same or similar sized husks using masa as glue and it made a perfectly fine tamale. me, i like the husks to be about this big:

so dollop your masa onto the husk (the non-ridged, smooth side of the husk) and start spreading it out like so:

some people like a much thicker spread of masa on the husk. the only reason we never had inches-thick masa on ours, is because when you steam them, it takes FOREVER and two days to cook. i think that if you spread it out like this, you cover more surface area. but if you want to make it thicker, go for it.

next, spoon some meat along the inside of the tamale:

next, fold one side in:

now roll that sucker up.

eventually, you end up with stacks like this

one bag of a masa and a substantially sized pork roast will make a lot of tamales. in this run, i got about 10 dozen out of my masa bag and roast, and still had some masa leftover that i didn’t need. the amount leftover wasn’t enough to do anything with so i pitch it.

if you’re not going to cook them right away, i place them in freezer bags and freeze them. i’ve found they freeze exceptionally well. i have also steamed them, them packed them in foil, placed them in freezer bags, and frozen them and they’ve warmed up just fine.

to cook tamales, you need to use some sort of steamer basket. my mom used to have a HUMONGOUS tamale pot – it had a draining thingy that was removable for the bottom of the pot. mom would line the pot with pieces of corn husks that she couldn’t use, misshapen, ugly stepchild type cornhusks, fill the pot with water only up to barely touching the drainy thing. you’re steaming, remember, so you don’t want the water to touch the tamales. set the tamales in, standing upright. you can pack in a lot of them, depending on the type of pot you use. but the point is to make sure they don’t fall over and unfold. so however you pack them, make sure they’re tight enough not to fall. you’re going to steam these for about 2 hours, checking the water in the bottom of the pot often. because if the bottom of the pot burns, the tamales will taste burnt. and yes, i speak from experience :/ when you unwrap the tamales after their cooking time, they should be firm with no runny masa.

they should look like this:

you have to add the diced up fresh veggies that go on top of it though. they dont come out of the pot like that. we usually eat these on christmas eve, but since i make so many to give to family and friends for the holidays, we had them early this year. i hope these directions were clear enough. i know i didn’t use amounts but i don’t think i have ever measured anything when making a tamale. if you do try them, i hope you have a good time and feel free to comment me any questions you have … happy tamale making

Cooking music: Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA, Rolling Stones, Get Your Ya Ya’s Out, Bob Dylan, Desire and Hard Rain



Filed under Tastes Like Home, Uncategorized

8 responses to “tamale time

  1. Sarah

    This is awesome, I’ve been dying to try to make these. Maybe this weekend while I have lots of foodie-family in town to help? 🙂

    And I didn’t know your mom’s name was Annetta – my mom is Annette.

    Happy Thanksgiving, dearheart!

  2. rebekah

    YES. do it while there is willing help in town. it will be much easier, go quicker, and it will be a lot of fun especially if it’s something new for you guys.

    that is a cool coincidence. i didn’t know your mom’s name, either. how neato.

    happy thanksgiving to you too. i hope you have lots and lots of great food and family going on 🙂

  3. Joy

    Thanks for sharing this story and recipe with us. I LOVE tamales. Well, I LOVE my grandma’s tamales. She always makes bean tamales for us now

  4. rebekah

    Joy – you guys are the only ones who like my boring stories 🙂 i’m so glad about that and i haven’t had a bean tamale in FOREVER. a lady used to bring those, sweet ones, and ones made with ground beef to sell at my high school and they were really good …

  5. Joy

    To be completely honest, this story made me tear up

  6. rebekah

    it did to me too. it’s been over 3 years and when i think about things i find the wound is still pretty fresh. and i know you know what i mean by that.

  7. Joy

    I know EXACTLY what you mean by that. It’s been over 3 years for me too. There are times when it’s not even close to being on my mind and then other days when I just want to curl into a ball and cry and it feel like someone just stabbed me in the heart.

  8. rebekah

    Exactly like that, yes.


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