December means different things to different people. One of my holiday memories from childhood is making tamales. Every year, during the week before Christmas, back when my grandparents were alive and four generations of my dad’s family still lived in my Colorado home town, the whole noisy, crazy bunch of us gathered in my grandma’s big kitchen to put together thirty or forty dozen tamales. No, I didn’t stutter; that was as many as 500 at a time. There would be heaps of tamales everywhere–so many we’d all wonder in our exhaustion at the end of the day if they’d ever get eaten. And every year, the tamales would be gone by early January, and all of us would pledge to make more next time.
Grandma stirred the chili at the stove while a few sons and grandsons stood around, spoons ready, waiting for her to ask if the chili was as hot as it had been the year before. Daughters and granddaughters shredded pork. Younger children soaked corn husks and spread them on the work surfaces, older ones flattened handfuls of masa onto the husks, adults spooned meat and chili onto the masa and closed the corn husks around the meat. Those family members with the best finger dexterity or the least arthritis in their hands folded the husks and pressed them closed. Then the corn husk bundles were steamed on wire racks in electric roasters, the kind turkeys get cooked in for Thanksgiving, and man! The house–the entire street–smelled like heaven!
These days, my extended family doesn’t have the time or the cohesiveness for marathon tamale-making sessions. We buy our everyday tamales from street vendors–little old ladies and young men whose aunts and cousins and grandchildren probably still get together in big kitchens full of love and laughter, some stirring the chili, some spreading the masa, and all making money together. We place our large Christmas orders at neighborhood shops–hole-in-the-wall places run by traditional Mexican families who still know how to cook from scratch.
Tamale-making is best done in a large group, and in a large quantity. This recipe makes about six dozen (72) tamales. To me it seems hardly worth doing if you make fewer than that, but maybe that’s just my perspective as someone who grew up making them by the hundreds. You can try this recipe alone, but you’ll put in a long day of hard work. It’ll be more fun if you get together with friends or family and share the effort. Enjoy a meal afterward with Spanish rice, refried beans, and margaritas. I’ll be right over!
Tamales freeze well. To freeze, leave in the husks and place in freezer bags. To reheat, thaw and wrap in wet paper towels. Reheat in microwave or re-steam just until hot.
3-1/2 pounds boneless pork butt or shoulder, trimmed of fat
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
10 pounds masa (cornmeal flour)
4 cups pork lard (okay, use shortening if lard makes you cringe but don’t skimp more than that)
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons baking powder
2 oz. Chile Ancho to color masa
1 tablespoon salt
6 dozen dried cornhusks
Ingredients for Chile:
1/2 pound Chile Ancho
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cups water stock saved from boiling Chile Ancho
2 tablespoons pork lard (or shortening if you must)
1. SOAKING HUSKS: In deep pan or container, soak corn husks in warm water for a few hours till pliable. Husks may need to be weighted down so they won’t float.
2. COOKING PORK: Place pork in large pot with garlic, salt, and pepper. Add water to cover meat in pot, bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer on medium-low for about two hours, partly covered. When meat is cooked, remove from pot and cool; shred into fine threads.
3. CHILE: In large saucepan, boil chili ancho for ten to twelve minutes or till softened. Drain chilies and reserve water. Rinse seeds out of boiled chilies. Blend chilies, garlic, and cumin in blender or food processor with two cups reserved water till smooth.
4. CHILE, PART TWO: In large, heavy saucepan, heat two tablespoons pork lard or shortening. Add chilie puree carefully to avoid splattering. Cook over low heat fifteen minutes. Take sauce off heat. Tip: Make extra sauce for serving over tamales if you like, although I prefer green chili on top. (Reserve about a quarter cup sauce to color masa). Combine pork with remaining chili sauce.
5. MASA: To prepare masa, Pour ten pounds of masa flour into large kettle or mixing bowl. If you don’t have a large enough bowl, mix half at a time in smaller bowls. Sprinkle baking powder and salt evenly over masa in bowl, then pour water slowly over masa, around edges, as liquid will work itself toward middle. Begin mixing masa with hands. Add pork lard or shortening and two ounces of Chile Ancho sauce (this adds color to masa) and knead masa once more. Masa is ready when it starts to feel thick and compact, not sticky or goopy. Pad it down in bowl and set aside.
6. ASSEMBLY: Pat husks dry with paper towels. For each tamale, lay a corn husk flat on work surface. Each husk should be roughly eight inches wide and six inches long at the big end. If husks are smaller, put two together. If large, tear a strip off one side. Flatten about 2 tablespoons of masa mixture on cornhusk, then add about a tablespoon of meat and chili. Fold in sides of husk and fold up bottom. This will seal masa around meat and chili and keep everything from running out of husks during steaming.
7. STEAM: At this point, tamales are ready to be steamed. Use pot with steamer insert or roaster with wire rack. Basically, you need a way for tamales to be steamed without getting wet. Add enough water to vessel so water does not touch tamales. Place tamales open side up so meat and masa will not run out of husks before it cooks. Place leftover odds and ends of husks on top of tamales and cover cooking pot to keep in steam. Steam for about an hour or until husks peel away from tamales easily. Serve warm or freeze after cooling. (Tip: Tamales are also good cold for breakfast or tucked in lunch boxes.) Enjoy!
About the Author
Jo Elizabeth Pinto was among the first blind students to integrate the public schools in the 1970’s. In 1992, she received a degree in Human Services from the University of Northern Colorado. While teaching students how to use adaptive technology, she earned a second degree in 2004 from the Metropolitan State College of Denver in Nonprofit Management. She freelances as an editor and a braille proofreader and is a contributor of The Writer’s Grapevine Magazine where more articles like this may be found.
As an author, Pinto entertains her readers while giving them food for thought. In her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she draws on personal experience to illustrate that hope is always an action away.
Pinto lives in Colorado with her husband, her teenage daughter, her guide dog Spreckles, and an aging family cat named Sam-I-Am.
Her website is: http://www.brightsideauthor.com.