Making Tamales · Jan 7, 08:14 AM

Several months ago, our friend Sabine had the idea of making Mexican-style tamales from scratch. I was intrigued: most tamales contain lard, and it would be cool to make some that were healthier, i.e. lower-cholesterol/saturated fat and lower-salt; and it would be a challenge!

However, I knew it would take mucho, mucho time (almost any made-from-scratch Mexican food that’s really authentic, like mole poblano, does), so we put it off until the holidays. The postponement gave our activities an added authenticity: making tamales is a Mexican holiday tradition. So a week ago, on New Year’s Eve, Sabine and I were in my kitchen, assembling tamale ingredients, tools and recipes.

Tamales are a multi-stage production. They can be sweet or savory, tho’ the savory ones are more commonly known in the US. There are plenty of descriptions and recipes out there, so I’ll just review the basics.

They consist of, from outside in:

  • A dried and then rehydrated corn husk
  • Corn flour (masa harina) or freshly ground corn mixed with hot broth, spices and a fat such as lard, shortening, butter or oil, to make the masa (dough)
  • Sauce
  • Meat (or beans or other filling)

The process is:

  • Cook the meat or other filling
  • Make the sauce
  • Mix the masa
  • Rehydrate the corn husks
  • Smear some masa on a corn husk and top it with filling and sauce
  • Fold up the corn husks and if desired, tie them
  • Set up a pot for steaming
  • Stack the tamales in the pot
  • Steam the tamales until they are done (which could be several hours if you have lots of tamales in a big pot)

I will spare everyone the gory details, but the highlights of our experience were:

  • The masa recipe was too large for Kitchenaid stand mixer we’d borrowed, so it was flinging broth and masa harina around the kitchen until we figured out that we really needed to mix it one-half at a time
  • Only after Sabine mentioned the burning smell did we realize that a pot had boiled dry. (It really was ruined; but I’d been wanting to get rid of that pot anyway.)
  • Sending Christian downstairs to borrow a big pot and vegetable steamer from our saintly neighbor Rose because we had too many tamales and too few pots to cook them in!
  • Sabine going home at 11 pm and Christian and I staying up until until the wee hours baby-sitting the ?%^@! tamales, until I declared that I didn’t care whether the damned things were actually cooked, as of 2 am they were done

The bright side is that by the end of the ordeal we had made 100, yes, 100 tamales. About 2/3 were chicken and tomatillo sauce and the rest were pork in red chile sauce. Mostly they’re in the freezer (they freeze and microwave well, thank God), but Christian and I had some for dinner Thursday night, with black beans and avocado, tomato & green onion salsa. Yum!