Tamales Mexicanos… I did it my way

Even though Mexican food is readily available in Houston, that doesn’t mean you get good tamales. For years I enjoyed the Rolls Royce of tamales, but most restaurants here serve tamales that are closer to a Yugo. My ex-mother-in-law made the best tamales I’ve eaten to date. She made them every year and would give each of her sons a few dozens to enjoy. I cherished those days, they only came around once or twice a year, so I had a lot of time to think and dream about them. Alicia was a generous woman, but she kept her method and recipe for tamales very close to the vest.  Fast forward some 15 years, you’ll find me trying my hand at recreating the coveted tamales.

Off to the interworld I went looking for recipes and tips. I found lots and lots of them, all calling for chili powder as seasoning. For some reason, I can’t picture my mother in law dumping chili powder to season her pork or chicken. So, I’m going to make this up as I go, combine some of the ingredients I saw her utilize in other dishes and see what happens. It all begins with the chilies. I used 3 different dried chiles:

  • Chile Ancho is pretty mild by comparison to other dried peppers, it has a smoky fruity flavor. This isn’t surprising when you realize that Anchos are dried red poblano peppers.
  • Chile Guajillo also a mildly flavored chile, that seems to bring out the best in its companions. Fruity, but with sweeter undertones than other peppers. Interestingly, guajillos are also used to make Harissa paste, a condiment popular in North African dishes.
  • Chile Pasilla are very dark and wrinkled like a raisin, they’re also pretty mild heat & fruity.

I used all three chilies a few different ways. First, to braise the pork and chicken. Yes. I made 2 different types of tamales, I had to. Both meats were cooked separately and slowly with onions, garlic, cumin, cilantro and 1 or 2 of each chili. I made sure to add plenty of water for braising, because that very broth flavors the masa later. Once the meat is fork tender, I allowed it cool before shredding.

I also made additional chili sauce. One thing I remember about Alicia’s tamales, is that the dough was always very flavorful and colorful. For the chili sauce, I cooked the same aromatics: cilantro, chilies, onions, garlic, cumin and added tomatoes. Once everything had softened, I pureed and seasoned the sauce.

Now let’s talk about the masa. I opted to use premixed masa instead of starting off with the dry corn stuff. But first I made lard. Yep, there’s a LOT of lard in tamales. The lard helps flavor the masa and makes it lighter, fluffier. So, I got some pork fat trimmings and rendered that fat down.

Before combining the lard and masa, I beat the lard until it was fluffy and added salt, pepper and pinch of cumin. I then worked the masa in and worked on its consistency by adding chile sauce and broth until it was about  the consistency of softened ice cream.

The tamales are cooked in corn husks, these are sold in packs and need to be rehydrated before use. Once they are pliable again, you can begin the exciting task of stuffing or making the tamales. Its not a difficult process, but it is a tedious one, which is probably why it is customary to have a few friends or family members pitch in at this point.

Once your tamales are stuffed, you can stack’em into a steamer pan. I took a vegetable steamer and placed it at the bottom of the pan, built a few layers with empty corn husks, this prevents the water from seeping through and ruining the tamales at the bottom and it also add to the flavor of finished tamales.

After about 40 minutes, you’ll end up with perfectly cooked, delicious tamales. Look at that gorgeous baby.

I also made some salsa and we sprinkled some queso fresco on top. I’m not offering a recipe here, I really kept adding and tasting things until they were right. I will say these weren’t quite Rolls Royce tamales, but I think I made it to Benz status.

 

There are lots more pictures, you can see them here.

Cookingly yours,
Anamaris

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5 thoughts on “Tamales Mexicanos… I did it my way

  1. If your mother-in-law is/was anything like my grandmother, she couldn’t have written down the recipe to save her life. My grandmother made the best biscuits I’ve ever had. The last time I watched her make them, I tried to write down the recipe. Ha! It was a mountain of flour, with pinches of leavenings worked in, lard the size of two eggs, etc. It was hopeless. After 3/4 of a century of cooking, everything was in her head and done by “feel.” The tamales look great, by the way.

  2. lifeinarecipe says:

    Your tamales look awfully tasty! The best tamales I have ever eaten were at a stop we made with the tour we took to Chichen Itza. It was a place outside of the gates and we had this wonderful buffet of food, including iguana! 🙂

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