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Tamales--Cook-Off 25

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Every now and then since December 2004, a good number of us have been getting together at the eGullet Recipe Cook-Off. Click here for the Cook-Off index.

For our silver anniversary Cook-Off, we're making tamales. It's true that All Saint's Day and Christmas are months away, but the weather has turned cold suddenly here in New England, and my thoughts have turned to the green corn tamales that I enjoyed a year ago on a trip to Tucson and Bisbee, Arizona. Early fall may also be the right time to start not only because high corn season approaches in the north (for those using fresh corn in their dough), but also because this may end up being a long process for some of us.

You see, I've resisted this cook-off because of my futile attempts to get fresh masa (chronicled here). In the meanwhile, I've been gathering good pork fat for freshly rendered lard using Fifi's RecipeGullet method, have several good filling recipes ready to test, and even have stockpiled a few packages of excellent corn husks for the cause.

What to do about this masa problem, however, is an open question. Should I give Maseca masa harina, the only brand I've seen recommended, a try? Or perhaps I should see what Rick Bayless's combination of quick-cooking grits and masa harina produces. I've even grabbed a bag of lime in case I'm forced to soak and grind my own masa from field corn. (Of course, if someone out there can find a source for mail-order fresh masa, I'm going to give that a try!)

There are quite a few lively topics around here on the subject of tamales, including a general one on making tamales, one on tamales with duck fat, another on tamales without lard, even one on the proper corn husks for tamales.

This ain't the composed salad cook-off; most of us can't make a quick trip to the store, grab a few things, and prep, cook, and serve the dish within an hour. So let's start talking about prep, materials, fillings -- and what to do about that masa problem!

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Ooh I'm excited! I've been planning to make tamales for a while now and now I get to share the process. I can relate to your frustration chris - I had little luck talking the guy at the tortilla factory near my house into selling me some of their masa. Yes I understand you sell maseca, but I want to buy some of your house masa (guess i need to learn spanish). I am going to try again but will probably just end up using maseca.

Interestingly enough I was planning on starting with green corn tamales and after that maybe tamales de puerco..

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We have made tamales with the dry masa and never had a problem following the package directions. This is something I would not attempt on my own. Tamales are a considerable amount of fuss, and having a partner in the kitchen is nearly essential. They freeze very well, so while your kitchen is already a mess from 3 or 4 dozen, you might as well make 20 dozen.

The recipe on the back of the Fiesta brand husks is delicious.

I have a recipe for chicken/chile tamales somewhere. I dig it up tomorrow. It doesn't make that many - 4-5 dozen, but they are terrific.

Stop Family Violence

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My local mercado had a couple of different Masas. I asked him which would his mother use. Maseca was the answer. I asked why he carried the other and he told me he was requested to but he had tried them and did not like them.

Although our relationship is only a few months old, he hasn't steered me wrong.

He gets a kick out of the gringo cooking mexican. Actually he always stops what he is doing and comes over interested in what I am cooking next. We spend quite a bit of time talking recipes.

Edited by handmc (log)


Ah, it's been way too long since I did a butt. - Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"


One summers evening drunk to hell, I sat there nearly lifeless…Warren

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Interestingly enough I was planning on starting with green corn tamales and after that maybe tamales de puerco..

I've never made tamales before, but am also interested in making those two types. I have fond memories of the tamales I ate in a tiny town in Michoacan and haven't found any that come close. I doubt I'll replicate those tamales, but I'm willing to try!

I've got easy access to fresh masa para tamales. At zarela.com, I found the following info:

A good mail-order source (overnight express) for fresh or frozen masa is María and Ricardo's Tortilla Factory in Massachusetts, which also sells cal and dried corn for making your own nixtamal or masa.
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You can dry your own husks for use in tamales, although I don't know if there is any difference between the sweet corn husks we get here in the states and canada and the corn from mexico (I imagine there isn't). The thread about corn husks chris provided a link to in his opening post has some information about drying your own husks.

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I'm definitely game for this one (thanks, Chris). At the moment I have some maseca in the house, as well as both corn husks and banana leaves. I'll probably use Mark Miller's recipe for the base tamale- it's always a crowd pleaser and I happen to love butter with any form of corn.

I've also got some roasted red chiles straight from the garden sitting in the freezer waiting to be used in something. Sounds like a perfect match.

aka Michael

Chi mangia bene, vive bene!

"...And bring us the finest food you've got, stuffed with the second finest."

"Excellent, sir. Lobster stuffed with tacos."

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Ok so I rendered my lard today and it turned out quite well using Fifi's marvelous recipe. I got about a cup and half of baking lard, two cups of savoury lard, two tablespoons of asiento, and 2 cups of cracklings from 2.5 pounds of pig fat. I'm sort of wondering how much asiento therre is supposed to be as there is really not much after I poured off both the baking and savoury lard. Plannng on making some refried beans tommorow but the tamales will probably have to wait until the weekened after next (maybe this weekend though!).

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When at the beach this summer with my family, I suggested we make tamales. It was a lot of fun - to me. My dad had fun, but said "well, I don't need to do that again!" The others ran away after a little bit of work.

Nothing was terribly hard, but it was an all-day kind of thing. We made Mushroom tamales and pork tamales - I think both of them were from Rick Bayless, and extremely worth it (to me!)

Of course, my dad's opinion could be because he lives in Texas where good tamales are a lot more plentiful than in New York.

The Kitchn

Nina Callaway

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I must not be doing it right. I make tamales couple of times a year, and it doesn't seem like they take that long, except for the steaming part. I don't make HUGE batches, but maybe about 50 at a time? And I do them all by myself. I make the filling (normally a pork/chile/tomato/raisin/almond thing) the day before, whip up the masa and soak the husks, and then just do them one at a time - spread, fill, roll, tie. I don't have access to fresh masa, and I contemplated doing the whole thing from scratch last year using the dried corn and slaked calcium and a grain mill, but put that off for another year. Is that what I am missing? Or perhaps rendering my own lard?

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I've had 'em with freshly rendered lard, which I'll be doing soon, and with fresh masa, which I won't. Either makes a big difference.

Anyone got plans for tamales coming? I'm trying to figure out fillings.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I'll be in the same boat as you chris, well, that is if lard rendered a week or two ago counts as freshly rendered. I am planning on doing tamales de maiz tierno and tamales de puerco (green corn and pork tamales).

The filling for my corn tamales includes corn, milk, butter, roasted chilies, and cheese (which I will probably have to subsitute for as I have no idea where to get mexican cheeses in montreal). Tamales de Puerco use carnitas (in my case, a la Jaymes), hominy, and spanish olives.

I'd like to try mole tamales, but have neither the time nor the resources for mole atm. Shooting to make them this weekend, going to try using up all my corn husks and freeze the excess. Next time I might try them with banana leaves.

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Chris, I have plans for tamales next week at some point. I'll get to a place then where I can get fresh masa, and I think I can also buy "home-rendered" lard. This place also sells back fat, so if they don't have "fresh" lard, I can do my own, which I think is preferable because you get those little leftover bits of crispy goodness -- the ones that keep the cardiologists in business.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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Well, I thought I would share this photo to encourage all of us.


It's a homemade pork tamale with red chile sauce--but not made by me. My friend's housekeeper gave him a huge batch of these wonderful tamales which we enjoyed last week.

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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I've had 'em with freshly rendered lard, which I'll be doing soon, and with fresh masa, which I won't. Either makes a big difference.

Anyone got plans for tamales coming? I'm trying to figure out fillings.

Back in February, I made Abra's amazing "Black Tamales" with the mole sauce from Bon Appetit. The whole nine yards: mail ordered all the authentic ingredients, made my own fresh masa, rendered my own lard, etc. etc. Sorry, I don't have any photos (I may be the only person in the world still without a digital camera).

The project took days, it was very cool, and a lot of fun in a grueling sort of way.

That said, I would definitely go to the trouble of making the Mole sauce again, because it makes a large amount, freezes well, and it doesn't taste like anything else I've ever had in my life. It's probably a once-a-year production, and as many others have said, well worth it.

Rendering lard was easy, but I wouldn't let the lack of fresh lard stop me next time. I used canola oil in some of the dough with great success.

But I would settle for using a good-quality masa harina for the dough. Making my own was just too much work.

Chris, we ended up filling the husks about two thirds lenthwise, rolling them around the filling, then folding up the flap from the bottom and tieing it with a strip of husk, leaving the tops open. Then I stacked them upright in an old enamel-ware pasta/lobster pot contraption, using the steamer insert which has a nice flat bottom with holes in it, and packing them in so they all stood upright. It took a lovely assistant to hold the tamales upright while I added more -- not something that's easy to do yourself. We tried lots of different methods, but this was the fastest and easiest, and got the best results.

Finally, I've still got a large portion of mole sauce in the freezer, and this thread reminds me that with the cool weather here again, it's time to make another batch! This time I might make something like turkey with fresh roasted corn, to show off seasonal ingredients. Or maybe just plain old yummy pork!

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A word of warning to those with flat top ranges. I killed one making tamales several years ago. I think the big pot that extended past the elements made it retain too much heat. The whole top just crumbled.

Perhaps this would be something to help use up the mole sauce that is in the freezer. I made a lot.................A huge lot!

In our house, pork rules. Just pork in a thick mole and plenty of it.

Edited by BarbaraY (log)
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I made a few batches of tamales but I wasn't satisfied with the flavor of the masa, which I made with rendered pork fat. So I gave it some thought, and I decided that whole butter would taste a lot better. I mean, when you eat corn on the cob, do you slather it with lard? Of course not; you slather it with butter. Corn and butter are a natural combo, so I decided to try it. I also added about 1 part stoneground yellow cornmeal to 3 parts masa harina, and that improved the flavor too. I cut the cold butter into the corn meal/flour, added a little salt, and then added ice water until the dough was right. What an improvement in flavor.

For the filling, I found pan-browned, simmered pork shoulder to be bland (maybe I'll try barbecuing one later), so this time I tried raw strips of skirt steak, cut across the grain, and strips of fresh jalapeno.

I made a marinade/sauce as well. I pureed a tin of Italian tomatoes packed in juice, and then forced the puree through a very fine strainer, leaving all the pulp behind. Then I pureed raw jalapeno peppers, raw yellow bell pepper, and a little shallot, and strained that too, taking only the liquid. I seasoned it with a little salt, and flavored it with a tiny pinch of ground dried chipotle, a good pinch of ground dried New Mexico chile, a tiny pinch of ground cumin seed, and a good pinch of ground coriander seed.

I took some of this liquid and added a bit more salt, and used it as a marinade for the strips of meat, which I marinated for about an hour. The rest I thickened with a little powdered gelatin, because I didn't want to cook it and spoil its fresh flavor. I used it as a sauce at room temperature. The flavor was great, but the texture wasn't; next time I'll try pectin. Has anyone got another suggestion for room-temp thickening?

Using raw meat and raw jalapenos inside the tamale worked well for me. I didn't want to overcook either, so I steamed the tamales for only about 30 minutes, which seemed quite enough to set the masa. The meat was still juicy and the jalapeno still had a slight crunch left.

The results were promising. All the flavors were fresh and natural, and nothing was cooked to death. I need to work on it more, but it was a good start, I thought. I think maybe some beef stock in the masa and in the marinade, along with rendered fat from some well-browned beef, might just about perfect it. I would have browned the meat before slicing it, but I was afraid it would overcook. But that would improve the flavor, so I think I'll try browning it quickly on both sides in a very hot skillet, and letting it rest thoroughly before slicing it. Any juices the meat expresses can be added to the marinade, or even kneaded into the masa.

It's not very "authentic" but I don't mind that. If it *tastes* good, it *is* good. I was also thinking of doing a charcoal grilled lamb shoulder and shredding some of it for tamale filling. That sounds pretty good to me.

I'll see how it goes.

Thomas, aka the Wired Gourmet

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chris, a week from Wednesday, I hit the place that will have fresh masa (fingers crossed) and then you'll see some action from me. Am I correct in thinking that this will be a long process and that four hands are better than two?

Do these things freeze well? Is it worth making more than a family can eat and stashing them in the chest freezer in the basement for quick and easy dinners?

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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