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 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 chiles. 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 chiles 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 chile. 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 chile 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, chiles, 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 fresh 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 they were at least Mercedes-Benz status!