As you may have noticed, my blog tends to feature recipes inspired by Mexican and/or southwest cuisine. My partiality toward these flavors can be attributed to my growing up in Colorado, where these dishes were a staple of my childhood. In addition to frequenting the many excellent and local Mexican restaurants, I was regularly invited to enjoy home cooked meals with my Hispanic friends and their families over the years. These meals would include everything from Menudo and Pozolé to more mainstream nosh such as tacos, burritos and enchiladas.
But today we are going to talk about Tamales! I always think about Tamales during the holidays. In modern-day Mexico, Tamales are eaten during festivities, such as Christmas, the Day of the Dead and Mexican Independence Day. So this Christmas, I promised my family I’d make homemade tamales for Christmas Eve dinner. No pressure, right?
So….What is a Tamale exactly?
I’m so glad you asked!
In Mexico, tamales begin with dough made of masa mix, such as Maseca, and lard or vegetable shortening (I use Crisco). Tamales are generally wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves before being steamed, depending on the region from which they come. They usually have a sweet or savory filling and are steamed until firm. Tamales can be made a day or two in advance if you are entertaining, or if you are making a big batch to keep on hand, they hold up well in the freezer.
I’ve made tamales once before- a few years back- and remember them turning out ok. So I decided it was time to try again. I think enough time had passed since I last made tamales that my brain forgot just how time consuming and tedious the process can be. Not that it’s an entirely fair comparison, but this “tamale amnesia” can likely be attributed to the same mechanism in the brain that is able to help a mother forget the trauma of childbirth, thus enabling her to birth even more children. And so I birthed more Tamales. For Christmas, I chose to make pork Tamales in a red chile sauce, but the pork can be substituted for chicken or veggies if you’re so inclined.
Ingredients (makes 24 Tamales):
There are three main components to my pork tamales:
- The Pork
- 2 ½- 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder
- Kosher salt
- 1 onion, quartered
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
- 2 bay leaves
- 12 black peppercorns
- The Chile Sauce
- 2-3 dried Ancho chiles
- 2-3 cloves fresh garlic
- 1 Tsp. ground cumin
- 2 cups water (stock saved from boiling the Ancho Chiles or the reserved pork liquid)
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable shortening
- 2 Tbsp. salt
- The Dough
- 1 cup solid vegetable shortening
- 1 Tbs. kosher salt
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 3 ½ cups masa harina for tamales with 2 ¼ cups warm water or more as needed
- 2 Tbs. dried Mexican oregano
- 1 Tbs. dried thyme
- Zest of 1 lime
- 24 dried corn husks
Make the filling:
Put the pork in a deep saucepan and cover with cold water (about 6 cups). Add 2 teaspoons salt, the onion, thyme, oregano, bay leaves and peppercorns; cover and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the pork is tender, 1 hour, 30 minutes to 2 hours. Transfer the pork to a plate and shred. Strain and reserve the cooking liquid; keep warm.
In a large saucepan, boil the ancho chiles for about 15 minutes or until softened. Drain the chiles and reserve the water. Rinse the seeds out of the boiled chiles. Put the chiles, garlic and cumin in a blender and blend well. Add the 2 cups of reserved water. In a heavy, large-size saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening over medium high heat. Add the drained chile puree very carefully because it will splatter. Reduce the heat to low. Cook over low heat for about 10-15 minutes. Take sauce off the heat. Combine the pork with the chile sauce.
Meanwhile, soak the corn husks in a bowl of hot water, using a plate to keep them submerged, until pliable, at least 1 hour.
Make the dough:
Place the masa in a large mixing bowl. Pour water and add the baking powder over the masa evenly. Add salt and begin mixing the masa with your hands. Add the shortening and the thyme, oregano and lime zest. Knead the masa once more. masa is ready when it starts to feel thick and compact. The dough should not be too dry or crumbly.
Before you roll up your sleeves and get to work, pour yourself a big glass of wine, enlist the help of an amigo or two and crank up your favorite Spotify play list. You’ll need some good jams and conversation to get you through the lengthy tamale assembly process! Drain the husks well; pat dry with paper towels. For each tamale spread about 2 tablespoons of the masa mixture on each corn husk. You do not want to make the masa too thick. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the pork filling lengthwise down the center. Fold husk and secure with strips of corn husk. Place the tamales standing up inside the steamer pot.
Steam the tamales:
At this point, the tamales are ready to be steamed. Use a stock pot with wire lining or steamer insert. I used this steamer pot from Amazon. Add enough water as to keep it below the steamer. Add a few husks to prevent the tamales from getting wet. Tamales must be placed open side up along the inside perimeter of the stock pot. Place extra husks or a wet towel or paper towels on top the tamales and cover the pot. Steam for about an hour or until the husk peels away from the masa easily.
NOMS- You earned this one!!