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February 1999 Issue
Mexican Treats Revisited
by Philip R. Gantt
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Red Tamales

Making tamales is a Mexican tradition for the Christmas holidays. And, I must add, making tamales is not an easy task. Typically, making tamales involves cooking for at least one full day, and an assembly process of at least one half day, if you have help.

One may ask "why all this effort to cook some food which may last only one or two days?" The answer is only found in tasting the food which results of the effort, and in observing the close family ties created by the unified labor. Anyone who has tasted genuine home cooked tamales will testify to the fact that there is no better food characteristic of the Mexican heritage.

Tamales are most definitely considered Mexican food rather than Spanish food. Further, tamales are a food characteristic of the less affluent of the Mexican cultures. The cost of the ingredients is modest. Less expensive cuts of meat may be used in making the chili. It is the work which makes the tamales valuable. The recipe given will yield over 120 tamales.

The red chili sauce can be store bought. Use the type labeled "red chili sauce", not enchilada sauce. Las Palmas is the brand I prefer to use, but others are also suitable. Or, if you prefer, make your own chili using dried red chilies which can be cooked and pureed. The type of chilies used will determine how hot the chili is. Start off using equal parts of New Mexico (hot) and California (sweet) dried chilies. The prepared masa can be purchased at most Mexican stores. The form of the prepared masa is like a heavy dough. If a Mexican store is not convenient, buy some of the dry masa mix (Masa Harina) to make your own dough.

  • 9 lb. pork, cut into large cubes
  • 7 lb. beef, cut into large cubes
  • 1 lb. dried red chilies plus 1 large can chili sauce
  • 4 lb. lard
  • ½ cup salt
  • 3 T. baking powder
  • 10 lb. masa, premixed
  • 2 cans medium pitted olives
  • 9 cups of juice from the meat
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Hot water for steaming
  • Large corn husks, about 5 packages
Begin the process by trimming the fat from the meat and cutting it into large cubes. Boil the meat in a large pot, using enough water to cover the meat, then add more water to increase the depth by one inch. Bring the meat to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until the meat is easily pierced with a fork. Remove the meat and set aside, saving the juice from the cooking.

Prepare the chili as follows: soak the dried chilies in a bowl with enough warm water to cover. 5 Minutes should be adequate. Break the stems off of the chilies, open them and remove the seeds. Strain the liquid and put it into a pot. Add the cleaned chilies and garlic to the pot and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes. Allow the chili to cool and then puree in a blender. In a large skillet or medium sized pot, melt about ¼ cup bacon grease. To the bacon grease add about 5 tablespoons of the dry masa mix (use flour as a substitute). Mix until a paste is formed. Once the paste is creamy, slowly add the pureed chili sauce and the can of red chili sauce. Mix until the mixture is smooth before adding more of the liquid. Once all of the chili is mixed in, add the meat to the chili and let simmer while preparing the other ingredients.

To prepare the masa dough from the dry mix, mix 16 cups of the masa (4 lbs.) With about 8 or 9 cups of the leftover juice from cooking the meat. Knead until the dough is well mixed. Use this mixture as you would the premixed dough. I also add some of the chili to flavor the masa and color it slightly red.

To prepare the masa for the tamales, first whip the lard in a very large bowl with a blender until it is fluffy and easily peaks. Add the salt and baking powder. Whip in chunks of the masa dough and assure thorough mixing. Also add some more of the juice leftover from cooking the meat. The final masa dough should have the consistency of whipped cream, but a little thicker. It is perfectly acceptable to have bits of meat in the masa. Test for the proper mixture by taking ½ teaspoon of the mix and dropping it into a cup of hot tap water. The mixture should float. If it sinks, you will need to add more lard.

To use the corn husks for the tamales, they must first be softened. Do this by soaking them in a sink full of warm water for at least 45 minutes before using. Separate the husks carefully. Discard any that are small sections or which have been cracked or torn. The largest pieces are most desired. Also rinse off and remove any corn silk before using.

With the masa prepared, the corn husks softened and the chili made, you are now ready to begin the work of making the tamales. First, select two large corn husks which aren't torn and fold them open, the edge of one overlapping the other. Spread the masa on the wide portion of the leaf, leaving the top half (the pointed end) uncovered. Use a large kitchen spoon to do this. Spread the masa evenly, no more than ¼ inch thick, 1/8 inch thick preferred. Using the same spoon, take some of the meat and put it into the center of the spread masa. Place an olive in the center of the meat and roll the corn husk to encase the meat. Fold the pointed end up and use the second husk to paste the first wrapping together. Repeat the process until all of the meat is used, or until all of the masa is used.

TIPS: Don't try to overfill the tamale. Try to use enough to make the rolling and folding process manageable. Using too much filling will only make the work harder until some skill is developed in making the tamales. In our family, we usually try to get a production line working. One person will clean and prepare the husks, one will spread the masa and fill the meat and olive, another will fold and arrange on a rack for steaming. One secret grandma had for making tamales was to use the same spoon for spreading the masa and spooning the meat. She always took a little of the chili from the meat and mixed it with the masa to color it red. This process not only added color to the masa, but added flavor as well. Bits of meat would invariably get into the masa, and this makes for a better end product. This is a secret well worth remembering. Also, some prefer to shred the meat before using. I prefer not to do this as much of the meat will fall apart anyway as it has been throughly cooked.

The tamales may be steamed in batches as they are being rolled and folded. To cook the tamales, they must be steamed for one hour in a large pot with a rack inside. I use a lobster pot for steaming tamales with a vegetable rack on the bottom. Add enough water to barely reach the bottom of the rack. The tamales must not contact the water used for the steam. The tamales must be held upright, with the open end up, while steaming. A piece of linen cloth or a clean towel should be placed over the tamales while they are steaming to prevent water from dripping into the tamales. After the tamales have steamed for one hour, they must be allowed to cool for about 30 minutes before removing them. This will give time for the masa to set. They will cool faster if the cloth or towel covering them is removed.

A properly prepared masa should result in a fluffy dough which is not dry. The ideal masa should be porous like bread with little holes permeating the dough. The steaming process will have melted nearly all of the lard out of the masa. Discard the melted lard in the bottom of the steaming pot before starting the next batch.

The resulting tamales should be excellent to eat. Be sure to make plenty, as in our family they are eaten as soon as they are ready! To assure that all of the tamales aren't eaten on the first day, serve plenty of guacamole and chips ahead of time, and have some Spanish rice and grandmas' refried beans to serve on the side. Tamales will keep well under refrigeration for up to two weeks if they aren't eaten first. Or, you might consider freezing some for longer storage. They will keep frozen for up to a year.

Any leftover meat can be used to make burritos or enchiladas on another day.

  • Yields: 60 servings
  • Preparation Time: 2 days
 
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