Wednesday, April 02, 2008


After thinking about it for years, making pale substitute dishes (tamale pie, the huge, sliceable tamalòn) and having the right ingredients for months, I finally made real, corn husk-wrapped, pork and ancho-filled tamales. My huge tamale steamer had been doing exclusive duty as a big stock pot*. They took a huge amount of work to make but I think they were well worth it and I'm sure that they'll become one of my many once-a-year cold weather projects. The work is divided into three phases: the "stew", pork shoulder simmered and shredded and mixed with an ancho chili sauce; the dough; and the assembly/cooking so you can interrupt the work between phases if you want to relax.

*Actually there's little difference between big stock pots and tamale steamers. Basically the difference is the disk-shaped rack that holds the tamales above the level of boiling water. If you have no tamale steamer, you could rig up a big stock pot with a couple small cups holding up a wire rack for cooling cookies.

Here's the recipe:

Pork ancho chili "stew":

1 1/2 pounds lean pork shoulder, in 1/2 inch cubes
3 fresh bay leaves, optional
3 tsps salt
7 large ancho chilis stemmed, and seeded
4 large pasilla chilis, stemmed and seeded
1 chipotle chili, optional(if you like it hot)
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 large cloves garlic
1 tbsp lard or bacon drippings
2 tsps sugar

The dough:

1/2 pound lard (it is best if you have rendered pork fat. I like to keep the drippings from fresh, unsalted pancetta)
3 1/2 cups masa harina
2 cups plus 4 tbsps hot tap water
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt

About 40 corn husks (32 for the tamales, a couple for the strips to tie them with and the rest to line the tamale steamer). Boiled in abundant water in a huge pot and then allowed to soften in same water for 2 hours.

Making the "stew":

Bring 8 cups of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the pork, 2 tsps of salt and bay leaves and allow to simmer partially covered for about 40 minutes. While the pork is cooking, lay the ancho and pasilla chilis open and flat on a hot cast iron griddle. Hold down for about 5 seconds per side with a metal spatula. Once toasted, put into a small bowl of hot tap water. Once all the chilis are submerged, allow to soak for 20 minutes. then pour off the water.

Drain the water from the meat and reserve. This now flavorful water will help you make both the "stew" and the tamale dough. Place the drained chilis in the bowl of a food processor. Add the pepper, cumin, garlic, optional chipotle and 2 cups of the pork broth. Blend until smooth. Pass through a medium mesh strainer into a mixing bowl, reserve.

Heat 1 tbsp lard in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the pan is very hot, add all the chili puree in one go. Make sure you're wearing an apron because, this sauce will become angry, fuming, spiting and sputtering. Despite all thins, stir for 4-5 minutes until the puree has taken on a darker shade of brick red and has thickened. Add 1 1/2 cups of broth, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer covered for 15 more minutes. Once finished, add remaining 1 tsp salt and the sugar. Remove 1/2 cup of sauce to go into the tamale dough and another 1/2 cup to pour on finished tamales. There should be 1 1/2 cups left to mix into the pork.

Break up the pork cubes into shreds. Add the approximately 1 1/2 cups of sauce into the shreds and set in the fridge while you make the dough. OR, YOU COULD GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK AND PUT EVERYTHING IN THE FRIDGE OVER NIGHT. NO ADVERSE EFFECTS WILL OCCUR. GO AHEAD, RELAX!

In a large mixing bowl, mix the hot tap water into the masa harina and allow to rest for 30 minutes. If you have a hand mixer, your life will be a lot easier than mine for the next half hour. If not, get out the food processor (no need to rinse it since you'll be putting some of the chili sauce into the dough) and place the lard into the bowl. Whizz the food processor or use the hand mixer to beat the lard until fluffy and smooth. I once tried to do this by hand using my sturdiest wooden spoon and some elbow grease but I wasn't able to beat in enough air and the result was soggy and sad. Add the 1/2 cup of chili sauce and incorporate. Begin to add 1/2 cup-sized bits of the reconstituted masa while you beat. If you have a hand mixer, you'll do just fine but your food processor will probably whine and complain like mine did once most of the masa has been incorporated. When most the reconstituted masa has been incorporated into the dough, or when your food processor starts to show signs of stress, add some of the total 1 cup of pork broth that will eventually go into the dough. Whew! Ya still with me? Music to work your fingers to the bone by: "Hot Tamale" by Mr. Vegas. Continue to alternate masa and broth additions until everything has been added. Now, you're ready for the final step, add the baking powder and salt, and beat into the dough for about a minute to made sure they have been evenly distributed. At this point, a good test of future success is if a bit of your dough floats in a glass of cold water. Tamale assembly: If you've been powering on in the same day from start to finish, you should already have been soaking and softening your corn husks for 2 hours. If not, boil them for 10 minutes, keep covered and go watch a movie while they soak. Otherwise, set up your whole corn husks, dough, "stew" and 1/4 inch wide strips of some of the smaller corn husks for tying and the tamale steamer with some extra corn husks already lining the rack and several inches of water at the bottom. Take one whole husk, flatten out on a plate with the wide end toward the right. With a rubber spatula scoop up about 3 tbsps of the dough and spread in a 4 inch square at the edge of the wide end of the husk with at least 1 1/2 inches of empty husk on each side. Then place 1 1/2 tbsps of the "stew" in a line down the middle of the dough square. Take up the empty sides of the husk and bring them together thus enclosing the filling with the dough. Fold the empty sides over to one slice and fold up the empty bottom. Tie with a corn husk strip and place open top up along the wall of the tamale steamer. Continue this way (you'll get a feel for it after a couple) until you have made about 32 tamales and you've finished your ingredients. The last tamales tend to be very heavy on one ingredient and light on the other depending on how you proceeded previously. Lay all tamales standing up and leaning against each other on the rack. Cover the tamales with any remaining whole corn husks. Moisten 2 kitchen towels and lay them along the edge of the steamer. Place the lid on tightly over the towels. They should help keep a seal on the steamer and help keep insideous dripping into the open tamales. Place over a high flame to get the water boiling quickly, then once it boils, lower it to medium-low and steam for 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. Watch carefully so that all the water doesn't boil away. Once the tamales are done, take them out and unwrap a couple, pour a bit of the re-heated chili sauce over them and enjoy! They reheat perfectly. Just re-steam or microwave them until hot.


Blogger Maddy said...

mmm...lard. Seriously, making tamales is pretty fun if you have a few helpers and get a nice assembly line going.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Proud Italian Cook said...

Wow Susan, Thats a huge undertaking! They look and sound fantastic! I hope you had some help making these. :)

6:13 AM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Hi Maddy, Dontcha just love lard? I use it for some Mexican dishes like this one. Only wish I'd had an assembly line going for these tamales, though. Wanna come to Italy next time I make them?

Hi Marie, It was a lot of work. Like I said, this'll become one of those once-a-year projects.

11:58 AM  
Blogger rowena said...

I would be all raring and set to go on this if I had the corn husks. Please tell me that you got the husks at a little ethnic shop in Milan. Because if you did, would you share the address with me? I'm so missing my achiote seeds and other ingredients that I usually bring back with me only when returning from the states.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Hi Rowena, Sadly, I brought the corn husks from Chicago. Now if you want achiote seeds, you can get them at any of the Kathay stores here in Milan (mine is just off via Padova on via Clitumnio) and maybe at New Continental Market on viale Monza. Now, I wonder if it's possible to find banana leaves here in Italy since those are also used to make tamales.

8:40 PM  
Blogger J at said...

Wow do those sound good! I think we should all converge at your place, and have a tamale party in Italy!

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, wow! Your tamales look terrific! Yum!


3:09 PM  
Blogger a.c.t. said...

Hey Susan, I went out and bought all the ingredients to make your famous 'battuto' soup. I have a few parmesan rinds hanging around in the fridge and what better way to use them!

3:54 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Can you see me salivating all the way over here. Yum.

I've only made tamales a couple times, but this post is inspiring me to do it again, and soon. The pork filling recipe sounds spectacular. I'll definitely be using it.

11:58 PM  
Anonymous We Are Never Full said...

KUDOS KUDOS KUDOS. This is why tamales are usually made in HUGE batches and for specialy occasions in the Latin-American/Puerto Rican household. Because they take a loooong time to make. We did them once and I made about 20, but wished I had just gone and made 50 to freeze for later.

Oh, and lard is 100% necessary... it is part of what gives it flavor and texture! mmmmm, lard. going to take a bit of time to poke around here.

amy @ we are never full

4:14 PM  
Anonymous chefjp said...

Excellent job on this recipe

10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marilee says yum

1:42 AM  
Anonymous joanne at frutto della passione said...

Hi, I just wanted to invite you to a Sex and the City evening that Linda of Milanese Masala and I are organizing in Milan. Check our blogs for more info. Hope you can make it.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Tracie B. said...

oh god that looks so good! after an exhausting search for cilantro in naples, i gave up on la cucina messicana in italia. did you invite any italians over for these? did they like them?

5:29 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Just wanted to check in and see if you're okay . . . I miss your posts!

4:45 AM  
Blogger Belinda said...

Tracie B: Cilantro is also known as fresh coriander or 'coriandolo' in Italian. Sorry if you already knew that!
I use parchment paper to make tamales if I am out of corn husks. OK, it is NOT the same, but pretty darn close. I grew up in the Coachella Valley and 'Christmas Eve Tamales' are part of my holiday tradition.
Susan - I love this Blog!

12:08 AM  

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