Holy Tamales, Batman!

I vividly remember living in the Pueblo of Zuni in western New Mexico when I was a kid.

In reality, we didn’t live in the actual “pueblo”. We lived on the mesa near the hospital where my dad worked as the hospital’s administrator.

I remember riding in my mom’s red Honda and driving down into the pueblo to go to the post office.

I remember seeing Kachinas dancing in a Shalako ceremony (now closed to non-tribal members).

I remember riding my bike and being chased by the “Rez” dogs and having to take an alternate route home which caused me to be late, which caused my parents to call the tribal police.

Good times!

I remember my little sister, Christine, being very, very sick with a horrible fever and my very, very concerned parents driving her to another hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, during a winter storm.

I remember OshKosh B’Gosh was all the wardrobe rage in our house and Santa knew Cabbage Patch dolls were the babies of choice.

Circa 1980-something.

Memories. Oh, memories!

I also remember an old Zuni woman coming to our house and showing my mom how to make tamales. A vat of creamy, white lard in a light blue container and stacks of paper-crisp corn husks adorned the work area.

Even after we left Zuni and moved to central New Mexico, tamales were a natural part of the holiday culture–just like putting out luminarias (paper lunch sacks filled with sand and candles), baking biscochitos with real vanilla from Mexico, and buying alfalfa hay and Piñon seeds from strangers on the side of the highway.

I remember my mom would make or order tamales every year during the Christmas season. And we would gobble them up with melted cheese and chile sauce on top.

After my family moved to Missouri, it was my job to order tamales and deliver them to Missouri during my Christmas breaks from New Mexico State University.

It’s a family tradition.

Last year, because he’s a good guy, Adam singlehandedly researched tamale recipes and rounded up ingredients to help bring this tradition to our family in central Kansas. He caught some flack from me– not because Adam’s tamales were bad (because they were really good), but because they weren’t my mom’s tamales.

They weren’t my momma’s tamales!!
They weren’t authentic New Mexican tamales!!

I wanted nothing to do with them.

And after I had my freak-out session, I ate half a dozen of them!

Luckily, Adam still puts up with me.

I’ve apologized since last year’s fiasco and humbly requested we have a do-over this year, and I’d help (and take pictures).

It’s a major process to make these suckers.
But they are so worth it.  And even though it’s not my mom’s exact recipe, I don’t think I can tell the difference from our tamales and the ones I consumed every year growing up.

In fact, it’s too good not to share.

Stick with me, I promise it’s worth it…

Traditional Pork Tamales

3 1/2 pounds of pork shoulder or butt (cut up with fat trimmed off)
10 cups water
3 minced garlic cloves
1 onion
3 1/2 teaspoons of salt
3/4 cup of Crisco
6 cups of Masa
1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
Approx. 50 dried corn husks
4 cups of red chile sauce

The ingredients...give or take a few items.

Red Chile Sauce

15 dried chiles (Anaheim or New Mexico)

4 or 5 garlic cloves

2 teaspoons of ground cumin

2 teaspoons of All-Purpose Flour

1 teaspoon of salt

2 teaspoons of melted shortening

Directions for the sauce:

1. Remove the stems and seeds from the dried chile peppers.

Disclaimer: This is chile, people. Don't rub your eyes!

2. Throw the chile on a baking sheet and then throw in a 350 degree oven for 2 to 5 minutes (or until it smells like a sweet roasted (not burned) smell).

3. Remove the chile from the oven and soak in water that covers all chile for about 30 minutes.

4. After 30 minutes, put the chile, 2 1/2 cups of the soaking water, the garlic, cumin, and salt into a blender. Cover and blend until smooth. Be sure to save the leftover soaking water.

Grab the nearest little kid and make him push the button to blend!

5. In a 2-quart sauce pan, stir the flour and the melted shortening over medium heat until it’s browned and then stir in the blended chile mix.

6. Simmer uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes. The sauce will slightly thicken. If the sauce gets too thick for you, this is where you can add the leftover soaking water for your desired thickness.

Now, onto the meat portion…

1. Slice up your pork, quarter your onion, mince your garlic and throw it into a 5-quart Dutch oven. Go ahead and add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Bring it all boil.

2. Keeping it covered, simmer the above for about 2 1/2 hours (or until the meat is super tender).

Go ahead, take the lid off and stir it occasionally. You know you want to.

3. Do the laundry, feed the cows, wash the dishes, visit the Co-op…

Or find another little kid and take some pictures of him while you wait.

4. Remove the meat from the broth. Allow both to cool in separate bowls.

5. Shred the pork.

6. Strain the broth and keep 6 cups.

7. In a large sauce pan, heat half of the red chile sauce and throw in the shredded pork. Simmer covered for 10 minutes.

You can also just mix it up in a bowl.

8. Refrigerate the leftover sauce to use on top of your tamales.

Now, onto the tamales…

1. To make your masa, beat the shortening in a large bowl on medium speed for one minute.

2. In another bowl, stir the masa, baking powder and 2 teaspoons of salt together.

3. Alternately add the masa mixture and broth into the shortening– beating well after each addition. The goal is to add just enough broth to make a thick, creamy paste.

Remember: The key is to alternate.

4. Soak the corn husks in warm water for at least 20 minutes. Be sure to remove any silks.

Clear off a table because you're going to need some space.

5. To make each tamale, spread about 2 tablespoons of the masa mix into the center of the corn husk.

Find any extra people, including husbands, and put them to work making tamales.

6. Place about a tablespoon of the meat/sauce mix in the middle of the masa.

7. Fold in the sides of the husk and then fold up the bottom.

Still don’t understand how to roll a tamale?  

Click here to see How To Wrap A Tamale.

8. Place the tamales in a steamer basket that’s been placed in a Dutch oven. The tamales need to lean in the basket, open side up.

9. Add water to the Dutch oven, just below the basket.

10. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce the heat.

11. Cover and steam for 40 minutes– adding water if needed.

12. After 40 minutes, remove from basket, warm up your leftover chile sauce and chow down!

Disclaimer: Be sure to remove the tamales from the husks before eating.
Throw some chile sauce, cheese, or salsa on top...or just eat it plain. It's up to you.

You will have more tamales than you’ll know what to do with. You can freeze them– still in husks– and then steam them in the microwave when you’re ready to eat them.

Before I owned a microwave steamer, I’d just wrap the tamales in a wet paper towel and reheat in the microwave.

And there you have it… Traditional Pork Tamales.

Keep in mind that the more people that are available to help in all of the processes is better.  That’s why it makes making tamales so enjoyable, and a family tradition during the holidays–getting lots of people in on the action.

Wishing you many yummy tamales in 2012!

6 Thoughts

  1. I’m so happy that you posted this! I’ve been really wanting to try making tamales, but I have felt pretty intimidated by the prospects of the whole undertaking! I even got the Cook’s Illustrated book on international recipes from the Kansas City library and just goggled at it. Your post made me feel like, OK, here’s where you start, and here’s where you finish. And here’s what you do in between!

    1. Hi Melissa! It is definitely a process, but it’s a do-able process. The nice thing about tamales is that you can break up the production into multiple phases or do it all at once. Besides, there’s nothing better than eating freshly steamed tamales made in your own kitchen. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

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