Living in South Texas, tamales have always been a staple and still a delicacy. The making of tamales has always inspired awe among those of us who were not lucky enough to have a heritage steeped in chilies, manteca (lard), beautifully seasoned meat, and masa. The experts, specialists, nay, artists are the lovely little ladies who learned from their mothers, who learned from THEIR mothers, down through the generations.
I was lucky enough to finagle an invitation to a “tamalada” which is a gathering of families and friends who come together to make (and eat) tamales. From the cooking and seasoning of the meat, the preparation of the flavorful masa, the soaking and cleaning of the dried corn husks, the assembly of the actual tamales, and finally the steaming of the lovingly prepared treats, everyone helps… and tells stories, and sings songs, and enjoys being part of the age-old process.
The tamalada that I attended was hosted by the Guadalupanas, a group of faithful men and women who honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico and many parts of North America. These men and women came together to make 300 dozen tamales for the festivities surrounding the feast day of Our Lady, on December 12th. What a wonderful, joyful, and educational experience it was. These people had so much to share with me. I wrote feverishly. I let them know that I had looked up directions on the internet. While I don’t speak much Spanish, I did hear the word “internet” come up in some of their conversations and some good-natured chuckles. I smiled apologetically and continued working and taking notes.
The great thing about tamales, other than their out-of-this-world flavor, is that the ingredients are very inexpensive and are available at every grocer in South Texas around the holidays. Also, depending on how much time you have, this can be broken down into several days of work. Day one: cook the meat. pour off juices and save, refrigerate meat and juices. Day two:reheat, shred and season cooked meat. re-refrigerate. Day three: prepare masa, reheat meat, assemble tamales, steam tamales, eat fresh tamales.
Venison and Wild Pork Tamales
(Preparing the Meat)
*Approx. 3 lbs. “cook-all-day” venison
About 1/2 pound or 1 cup fat (manteca, salt pork, Crisco, wild pork belly)
Fat is an important part of the tamale-making process. Anyone who tells you otherwise….. don’t eat their tamales. Lard (manteca) is the traditional ingredient of choice. I had the wild pork belly, which I chopped into one-inch cubes and placed around the pan to distribute the flavor and fat.
Approx. 1/4 cup salt/pepper/garlic powder mix
Approx. 1/4 cup any seasoning that includes chili powder and comino (I had the mix you see in the photo so I used it.)
While traditional tamales are made from a variety of meats, mine are made from venison, with wild pork belly added for fat and flavor.
1. Prepare “cook-all-day” venison. Throw in some salt pork, wild pork belly, or some lard for extra fat. Tamales really need the fat to turn out the way they should. Season heavily with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Not only will you be seasoning the meat, but also the juices that will be used later.
2. Add cooked meat to a deep-sided cast iron pan. Add enough reserved meat juices (with melted fat) to cover meat. (Set aside about a cup and a half of meat in case you feel that you’ve overseasoned it according to your taste.)
3. Simmer about 20-30 minutes until meat can easily be shredded with two forks. Season with additional 2 tbsp. comino, 2 heaping tbsp. chili powder, and 2 tsp. salt. Meat should be a beautiful mahogany color and the flavor should be strong. Don’t forget that some of the seasoning will help flavor the masa as well. Pour off most but not all of the meat juices. Reserve for use in the masa.
Preparation of the husks
Corn husks are purchased packaged like this and are usually found in the produce department, specialty/ethnic food department, or spice department of the grocer.
Corn husks are the vessels in which the tamales will be shaped and steamed. They must be rinsed thoroughly to remove any foreign matter from them.
The husks will need to be soaked for 30 minutes or so to make them pliable enough to roll. A secret that I learned from the Guadalupanas is that there is a subtle difference in the two surfaces of the husks. The smooth side of the husk is preferable for smearing the masa mixture.
The other side of the husk contains ridges that will cause the masa to adhere, thus making it difficult to unroll the tamale with any success.
Preparation of the Masa
Masa can be prepared from corn meal or purchased as a dough, which is available from most grocers who cater to a strong hispanic population. I’ve used both. While starting from dry corn meal certainly works, achieving the correct consistency is much easier when starting with dough. There are many good recipes out there for using dried corn meal. There is also a recipe on the bag,
Do not think that prepared masa is ready to use. The consistency is similar to clay and still needs quite a bit of doctoring up. This is 3 lbs. of masa.
3 lbs of prepared masa (set aside about a cup that can be added at the end if the texture you’ve achieved is too soft)
1/3 cup of Knorr’s Pollo y Tomate Caldo (chicken and tomato bouillon)
2 tbsp. comino (cumin)
1/3 cup chili powder
About 1/2 cup reserved meat juices (If meat juices were reserved from cooking, there will be a good amount of fat in the mixture. It can be separated, and added to masa.)
1 to 2 cups melted fat, either separated from meat juices, lard, or shortening
Slowly combine ingredients using a potato masher, dough hook on a mixer, or by hand until masa is the consistency of very creamy peanut butter.
Assembling the tamales
Set up your station with meat & tongs, masa & wide spoon, soaked husks, and cookie sheet for assembling.
1. Select a corn husk and allow some water to drip off. Choose the smooth side. Spoon about 3 tbsp. of masa near the smooth, wide end of the husk.
Notice the texture and location of the masa on the husk.
Add a line of meat to the masa.
…and roll it from left over toward the right, pulling the husk over the meat and enveloping it in the masa. Continue to roll the husk until completely wrapped. Fold the narrow end of the husk away from the seam and lay it on a cookie sheet.
While you may be getting pretty excited about your progress at this point, it’s time for one of the secrets that I learned from the Guadalupanas. Before you make dozens of tamales, only to discover that you don’t care for the seasoning, it’s possible to make a sample and fix what needs fixing. Sample your first tamale by wrapping it in a wet paper towel and popping it in the microwave for about 2 minutes. This will steam the tamale to the point that you can get an idea of the results. The texture will not be right but you can check the seasoning of the masa and meat. I mentioned earlier that a small amount of meat and masa should be set aside. This provides you the ability to add reserved meat in case it tastes too strong, or add more fat or reserved masa if necessary to adjust texture, Don’t get the idea that the microwave will produce results as good as long-term steaming! It truly doesn’t stack up.
Now that you’ve gotten your ingredients seasoned up just right, start an assembly line.
Once your tamales are made, it’s time to steam them. Find a pot deep enough to hold tamales while standing vertically, a steamer basket and a lid. Fill pot with about an inch or so of water so that it comes just lower than the level of the steamer basket. Another secret…. drop a penny into the water. As the water boils, you can hear the penny “tinkling” in the pot. When the “tinkling” stops, water needs to be added.
Another secret I learned from the experts is to form a pyramid shaped from foil that the tamales can rest against. The folded ends of the tamales should be placed toward the bottom.
Place the lid on the pot and bring water to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and steam for one to two hours. Tamales are best when freshly steamed.
Whew! You’ve just done something amazing. Bring out the beer, grab the tongs, and invite your nearest and dearest to sidle up to the pot and eat fresh wild game tamales!