Sunday, January 10, 2010

Intermediate Tamales

This year, I was able to talk the family into a Mexican Christmas. It would be an opportunity to try my hand at mass producing tamales. There were two goals of this effort (besides a successful Christmas dinner), variety and consistency.

With the help of family and friends, we made five different kinds of tamales, each being an entirely separate effort. Most of the ideas and techniques worked, but some didn't. Through the experience, I have discovered a few tips about what makes a good filling and good masa.

We went through 35 pounds of masa making 5 different varieties of tamales:
  • beef machaca
  • roasted chicken with veracruzana sauce
  • pork al pastor
  • chocolate, cherry, and pecan
  • strawberry masa with strawberries, bananas, and pineapple

The preparation of the meats and sauces was very time consuming. I may take a few shortcuts in the future, but it is always educational to do everything from scratch at least one time to know what to do myself and what to purchase prepared. For instance, the beef machaca takes a seasoned chuck roast and slowly bakes it inside of a bath of beef broth, carrots, celery, and onion. After pulling the meat out and allowing it to cool, it shreds easily and the broth is used to make the machaca sauce. Not going to find this prepared at the grocery store.

On the other hand, the roasted chicken was a lot of work for limited benefits. The skin was gingerly separated around the breast of a whole fryer. I rubbed some olive oil, crushed garlic, and placed a rosemary sprig into the skin pocket. The chicken was then seasoned with chile powder and baked.

After baking and cooling down, the meat is stripped from the carcus and shredded. Finally, the veracruzana sauce is mixed with the chicken and all of its delicate flavors are drowned out by the sauce. Next time, I will be picking up the roasted chicken from the grocery store.

The best meat turned out to be the al pastor, a pork dish cooked with pineapple and chiles. The pineapples contrast the rich pork and zesty chiles. Makes a terrific tamale filler.

Adapted from Daniel Hoyer's "Tamales".
  • Cut 3 1/2 pounds of boneless pork loin into bite sized chunks and season with salt and pepper. Mix with 2 cups of diced, fresh pineapple chunks and let marinade overnight.
  • In a heavy skillet over high heat, add some vegetable oil and sear pork until well browned on all sides. Add 1/2 of a chopped white onion and 10 chopped garlic cloves and cook for an additional minute.
  • Add 4 to 6 ancho chiles and 2 guajillo chiles that have been stemmed, toasted, seeded, soaked, and pureed to the skillet mixture and fry for 1 or 2 minutes more.
  • Add enough water to the skillet to just cover the meat. Add 2 tablespoons of apple vinegar, a teaspoon of whole cloves, and a canela stick to the mixture. Stir well to combine the seasonings. Cover and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes.
  • When the meat is tender, uncover and cook until only 1 cup of liquid is remaining.
Makes enough for 24 to 30 tamales.

The meat tamales all came out tasty. While some sauce keeps the tamale moist after steaming and gives a good flavor, too much sauce can turn into a mess while trying to form the tamale. The second picture below of the beef machaca is what I found to be the perfect balance. My new approach is to give the meat and sauce mixture a good stirring before the tamale preparation, then to drain off the excess sauce rather than having to constantly avoid it.

Another problem that I am still having is with getting the masa to form around the meat so when the tamale is opened, the filling is surrounded by the masa. I think that the solution involves leaving a border around the outer edges and sealing the two ends together before rolling, but I need to investigate further. Hopefully will have a solution when getting to the Advanced Tamale blog. You can see the problem below. While still beautiful and tasty, it just lacks from what I would consider a perfect tamale.

As for the masa, I had to wait in line for 30 minutes during the Christmas masa rush. I was a little disappointed at first, until I realized I was among my people. I was able to spend the time with a bunch of Mexican ladies trading tamale techniques and recipes. Most of them found it funny that a gringo knew so much about the craft, but in the end, I sold them on trying out the chocolate, cherry, and pecan tamale and we talked about techniques for spreading the masa. The best tip that I picked up was to blend some chopped green and red chiles into the savory tamale masa to give it a holiday look and a little additional flavor.

I also purchased some strawberry masa on my visit. It looked so bubble gum florescent pink that I was convinced that it would be loaded with strawberry flavor. I asked the sales clerk what she would put into these tamales and she said pineapple works well. I had a little left over from the al pastor so I used that for some and improvised with banana and strawberries for the rest. Sadly, these were pretty disappointing. Just a slight strawberry flavor came from the masa, and steaming the tamales left the fruit discolored and tasteless. They were still edible and amazing looking, but next time, I would mix dried ingredients like chocolate chips and dried fruits instead of the fresh stuff.

The second goal I was shooting for was to strive for consistency in size. Seems like an easy enough concept, but it isn't very easy in practice, especially when you have an assembly line working. I did manage to start getting a uniform size on maybe the third round of this effort and have some pointers on doing so in the future.
  • Eliminate husks that are less than six inches at the widest point. Anything smaller is going to fold into a tiny size. You can use these smaller husks to make ties for the tamales.
  • Use a consistent amount of masa spread on every husk. I found this masa spreader at the local Mexican market, Mercado Loco. It is kind of like spreading spackle on a wall with this thing. Depending on the angle it is being used, a thick or thin layer of masa is spread evenly across the husk.

Masa thickness is a personal choice. I would like to work towards a little thicker masa on mine, especially since the stuff that I have found is so tasty.

The Christmas dinner was beautiful and delicious. Still have a little ways to go before really mastering the art, but at least everyone is able to benefit from eating the lessons along the way.

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