Tamale Party

A highlight of this past weekend was a tamale-making party at my friend [James Buratti->]’s house that he and his wife Jen hosted. Tamale-making is a ritual that holds a certain mystique in Mexican culture, with recipes and techniques handed down from generation to generation and horror stories of young people’s apprenticeships in the kitchen during the process. While I adore tamales, I’d never gotten to be a part of their production, so was quite excited to get to participate and to be a part of that cultural institution.

Jen and James had things well organized, so we got right to work. They were each trying different approaches to the process: Jen using the traditional techniques and recipes handed down through her family, James working with a recipe from the grocery store that looked good and trying every time and labor-saving innovation he could think of.

The first step was mixing the masa. While you can get a big bag of masa from the grocery store pretty cheaply, it needs further preparation to be used for tamales. We mixed in salt, chili powder, and alarming amounts of lard and vegetable shortening, working the mixture until it had about the consistency of hummus and would float in water. We tried doing so both by hand and using a mixer. The latter produced a fluffier masa, and was certainly less work than doing it by hand. On the downside, one didn’t get the lovely hand-conditioning benefits that the lard provides for practitioners of the manual technique.

Next we spread the masa onto the corn husks, which had been prepared by trimming off the tops and soaking them in water. (Again, you can get bags of corn husks at your better grocery stores if you don’t happen to have a corn field handy.) We started using spoons and fingers to do the spreading, but James, who had been drywalling a lot lately, pulled out a few different sizes of putty knives, which eased the process considerably for me, though they got mixed reviews from others.

Next, we spread fillings in a line and wrapped the whole husk/masa assembly around the filling core like paper around a pencil. The most traditional filling for tamales is actually pulled from a whole cooked pig head, but fortunately nobody was feeling quite that traditional. We settled for spiced pork and beef fillings, with a few raisins added for sweetness in some of them. (Later, beans and cheese and chicken fillings also arrived, though that was after Liam and I had headed home for Christmas decorating. Some of the best tamales I’ve ever had also had strips of poblano peppers and cheese for the center.)

Finally, the finished tamales were steamed for about 45 minutes. And while I thought I loved tamales before, I must say that the ones I have had paled in comparison to these freshly cooked ones — hot, fluffy and delicious!

My only complaint about the whole process is that, as with many things, once I saw what goes into them, my enthusiasm for tamales was diminished a bit. I’m not a fan of lard in general, and watching big blocks of it going into the masa caused a disturbance in the force that I’m sure my cardiologist felt all the way across town. James and I discussed the possibility of substituting olive oil, which might make slightly less-savory tamales, but would certainly make me feel better about eating them!

James took lots of photos of the process, which you can see here. Thanks, Burattis, for putting together such a great event!

UPDATE: Here’s the post from James & Jen’s weblog.