I will admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of tamales in general until like 2 weeks ago. I had some amazing ones at the farmer’s market here in Brentwood. Usually, when I get them at other places it’s always same story… dry, boring, bland, like what’s the point of all this. I thought they were hopeless and could never understand their popularity… well, until the farmers market incident. That there changed my whole view on tamales. There was definitely hope! I went from “f-off tamales”… to… “I love tamales” in one bite. I also went straight to the groceries store and got a beautiful pork shoulder which I roasted in preparation for the tamale feast that was about to take place only a few days after.
I’m not Mexican but I’m no stranger to corn masa flour either. I’m from Venezuela, corn masa is the Venezuelan equivalent of bread. We eat corn masa 7 days a week with pretty much every meal… although I still prefer bread personally (sorry guys! I do)..hmm bread…I love gluten too btw.
I’m also no stranger to pork. If you’ve been reading this blog for some time you know piggies definitely go on the menu pretty often, and stuffing anything with pork is the most effective way to ensure success and popularity in the non-vegetarian world. I like to think I’m right in assuming this.
I’m in the other hand a bit of a newbie when it comes to cooking with chiles, especially dried ones. I’ve used them a few times in the past (in one occasion I had to evacuate my apartment, it was like a can of pepper spray had gone off in there after opening the pressure cooker. That was some serious heat my friends. I wish I could remember the kind of chiles I was using) but I haven’t really experimented with them much since. So I figured, I have this beautiful piece of pork, I have these dry chiles, I have a renewed hope in this Mexican staple… it’s inevitable. It must be. Tamales happened.
Traditional tamales use lard in the making of the masa dough. I love that combo and it’s pretty popular in Venezuela too. If you’ve made Hallacas you know what I’m talking about and if you don’t check out the post on making Hallacas. and btw, I love lard, don’t get me wrong. I think lard is wonderful, but I didn’t have any, and more importantly, the pork shoulder I used was extremely fatty.
Too much of a good doesn’t necessarily make it better. So I ended up replacing lard with olive oil. It works extremely well, and the cooked dough was springy, airy and had a great texture to it. Everybody will have an opinion on the texture of the dough and how it should be but we can all pretty much agree a dry masa dough is everybody’s worst nightmare in the tamale making arena. Tough, dry tamales no bueno.
Another thing we Venezuelans love is achiote which we call onoto or more commonly known in English as annatto. The coloring properties of annatto are amazing. The tint is soluble in oil. I love colorful food and adding a bit of color to the masa goes a long way and requires almost no extra effort. Annatto has a bit of a taste to it but it will not be overpowering if discernible at all.
Either way, annatto taste is great too but to this day I can’t get over how awesome that yellow tint is! And… this intro is getting way too long… so, why don’t we just get to work and make some tamales. It’s gonna be a long process guys, but that’s sometimes what it takes to get to deliciousness. Let’s go over the ingredients, the process, and show you who to cook tamales.
The corn husks:
40-50 dry corn husks. Soaked in hot water for 10-20 minutes.
If you don’t have corn husks, you could use parchment paper. The corn husks don’t really contribute to the flavor of the tamales but they sure look way cooler.
The Masa Dough:
150g olive oil
2 tsp salt
1250g-1400g water (or low sodium chicken stock if you prefer)
5 tsp onoto/achiote
The Mole (sauce):
7 dried negro chiles;
7 pasilla-ancho chiles
10 cloves of garlic
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin
3 tsp kosher salt
5 tsp brown sugar
2 tsp tomato paste
1.5 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 Cup of freshly chopped cilantro
The pork shoulder:
1 skin-on bone-in 15-18 pound pork shoulder
1 cup of salt
1 cup of sugar
1 gallon of water
Making the masa dough:
Making the masa is pretty simple. If you want to infuse some orange/yellow color to the dough then heat the olive oil over medium heat. You’d do the same if you were working with lard/shortening by the way. Just heat up the fat, add the annatto and cook for about 10 minutes making sure the fat doesn’t burn. Stir frequently to release the natural dye from the annatto seeds. Remove fat from the heat and allow to rest.
Masa dough can suck up a lot of water. About 140% of its own weight in water. So have plenty ready near your work area. Some people like using a stand mixer. I think mixing the ingredients by hand is just as good if not better. In no particular order mix all the ingredients until the dough reaches the consistency of thick humus or ice cream. There’s really no way to describe it better. It should be spreadable like whipped cream cheese. Set aside when you’re done. This workout routine takes about 20-30 minutes until the mix is very smooth and there are no clumps or lumps.
Making the mole sauce:
This is a lot quicker. Especially if you’re using a pressure cooker. Add all the ingredients to the pressure cooker. Barely cover with water. Pressure cook for 20 minutes. That should be plenty. Depressurize by running cold water over the pressure cooker. If cooking in a regular pot, then cook for 30-40 minutes. Allow the sauce to cool a bit. Remove the stems from the chiles. The chiles should be very soft at this point. The stems should pull right off. Discard them. Using a stick blender, blend everything until very smooth. About 10 minutes. Here I decided to strain the sauce. Sure, the sauce was very silky, beautiful. But the heat from the chiles was almost all gone. Most of the heat in chiles come from their seeds. What’s cool about this, is that by returning the strained solids spoon by spoon back into the sauce you can dial the heat amount. I ended up with a medium hot sauce in the end (not sure how to better describe it but….). It was delicious. Pour this deliciousness into a large clean bowl. And before I forget, now would be a great time to place those cork husks into hot water before you continue.
Making the pork stuffing:
In a previous article I wrote about roasting a pork shoulder for my tamales. I highly recommend reading through the previous post. It’s more common to find recipes that call for boiling/simmering the pork. It’s up to you. I find roasting a lot more exciting and delicious. Once your pork shoulder is ready dice/shred the meat. The meat should be falling off the bone and if you prefer, you can just shred the meat with your hands or a couple of forks. It’s a lot of meat and some of it will never see the inner walls of a tamale, I surely ate like a pound while shredding. The whole process should take about 20 minutes. Now that you have your minced/shredded/diced pork bits. Dump them in the bowl with that awesome mole sauce, add the freshly chopped cilantro and again… using your hands, mix everything up.
Hopefully, you’ve been soaking the corn husks in hot water while you were shredding the pork and making the stuffing. Rinse the husks before using. You might even need to dry them with a towel. If they’re wet, it will be difficult to spread the masa dough on the husks. Ok, so now you’re ready. Grab a husk, with a spoon grab some masa dough and spread a thin layer over the husk no thicker than 2mm-3mm. Add about 1 to 1 1/2 Tbsp of pork filling in the center of the dough layer. Wrap the tamale. I suggest going on youtube and checking out the wrapping/folding technique rather than me trying to explain in words how to do it. It’s very simple and quick. We ended up wrapping about 30 tamales and froze all of them but 4 (dinner/reward). They freeze amazingly well. It is one of those weekend cooking projects that is fun because you can use the help of others for the assembly part. Tamales make great gifts too and believe me, I’ve been eating tamales for lunch and dinner for a week and still can’t get over them. They are so damn good. My faith in tamales has been entirely restored.
Here is where things can get a bit debatable. Tamales are cooked by steaming. I boiled mine. Of course, they were wrapped securely for this purpose. I didn’t go against the tradition on purpose, I boiled the tamales because that’s how Venezuelans cook their tamale counterparts (hallacas and bollitos) It was more like second nature to me. Later after reading some more, I realized that steaming is how tamales are mainly cooked in Mexico. It’s not the end of the world and if anything, I like debates. Why is steaming a better choice? It’s pretty interesting actually.
I’m gonna have to run comparisons between the 2 approaches because I’m not entirely convinced there’s an advantage of a way over the other. A good opportunity to share your thoughts on the matter btw. Steamed or boiled? and Why? Venezuelans boil their hallacas. I’ve tried steaming hallacas and the dough’s texture wasn’t pleasant. Plus steaming tamales takes close to 2 hours per batch where boiling takes care of it in 10 minutes or so. But anyway, we have 2 options:
If you rather stick to the Mexican tradition, please steam them in a pot with the lid on. Don’t allow the tamales to become in contact with the water. You could use those Chinese bamboo steamers by the way. Also, I would suggest covering the tamales with a wet towel, to keep moisture at a maximum level during the cooking. Steaming alone can easily dry out the dough and make it rubbery.
If you boil them Venezuelan-style. Make sure you wrap the tamales securely. They go in the water for 10 minutes and it’s done. That’s about it. They’re ready to go after you strain them.
And that’s that! I hope you enjoyed the post and if you haven’t made tamales yet, it’s never too late. Sure it is a time-consuming process but it is enjoyable and fun, especially if you recruit helpers and feed them alcoholic drinks. I hope this heat wave eases off a bit. I haven’t been able to actually do any cooking it is so hot. Lucky for me, there are some tamales left in the freezer and half a jar of hot salsa verde to smother them with when I’m good and ready.
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