July 6, 2013

Tamales - from corn kernels, pig fat, & cream

I grew up in California and love mexican food. When I moved to the Boston area, I found the offerings in this cuisine sorely lacking (these days I think Anna's and Boca Grande are pretty tasty). One less common dish I especially favor is tamales.

A tamale is a sort of dumpling made from corn dough surrounding filling and sauce, traditionally wrapped and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The corn dough (called masa) is made from ground nixtamalized corn, whipped with fat, stock, and salt. The fillings and sauce can be anything, but  red pork, chicken, and beans are common in restaurants that I have patronized. The specifics of the masa, fillings, and packaging vary by region across latin america.

Even at establishments that offer a tamale however, it is often not very good. I think the one at Boca Grande is decent, if you are in the area and want to try one out.

I had been itching to try making tamales myself for years when I ran across this book in Page, AZ:
Tamales 101: A Beginner's Guide to Making Traditional Tamales, by Alice Guadalupe Tapp.
I bought the book and pored over all the amazing looking recipes in it, and prepared to try them myself when I got home.

After returning to Boston, I scoured the latin markets of Cambridge and Somerville trying to find fresh, unprepared masa (just the moist ground corn, without the other ingredients). My search was completely unsuccessful in turning up fresh masa of any kind. The grocery store carries Maseca, the ubiquitous brand of dried nixtamal meal. I did try making some tamales with Maseca, but I found them unsatisfactory.

Not willing to let lack of local supplies get in my way, I took one step further up the chain and brought in materials to nixtamalize and grind the corn myself. I started with supplies from Gourmetsleuth.com; their yellow dent corn, calcium hydroxide, and corn husks. For grinding the treated corn, I purchased a C.S. Bell #2 hand grist mill, but it quickly became obvious that this grinder was not suitable for moist grains. It got hopelessly clogged up with the first handful of treated corn. Fortunately I found that the food grinder attachment on the kitchenaid did a reasonable job. It does produce a fairly course output, but in my opinion this is not a drawback for tamale making. Putting the meal through twice helps. The tamales made from this masa were fantastic!

Tamales are great to make in a huge batch, then freeze for later. You can take them out of the freezer, steam them for 20 minutes or so, then enjoy. Just prior to the birth of each of my kids, I made a big load of tamales to deploy selectively when we didn't want to cook during the difficult newborn months.

It had been a while since we had made tamales, so it seemed a good time to make some up. Here is what we did.

For the last few years I've been working out of a 20kg sack of blue corn I purchased on ebay, supposedly from indians in arizona.

This corn nixtamalizes beautifully and has a pronounced nutty and distinctive blue corn flavor. I must admit it has taken me longer than anticipated to work through the bag! We discovered recently that when ground dry in the C.S. Bell grist mill, it makes quite serviceable corn meal for things like cornbread, so maybe we'll be going through it faster moving forward.

I began with 3kg of corn pulled from the food stores in the basement.

This was rinsed in cold water:

Then went into a large pot:

 with enough water to cover the grains plus about 100mm extra depth.

Remove any floaters with a slotted spoon.

We began heating this on the stove and meanwhile stirred in 1/2 cup of calcium hydroxide until it was well blended.

As you can imagine, this much mass took a little while to boil, but once it did I simmered it for 15 minutes, then turned off the heat and let it sit for about 2 hrs. The corn (and water) will turn yellow and start to look sludgy.

The next step is to scrub off the chemically swollen outer shell on the corn. My method is to run cold water into the treatment pot until it is cool enough to handle. Then I take a double handful of corn from the pot and transfer it into a working bowl of clean water.

 In this bowl, I scrub the corn between my hands numerous times until is starts to feel smoother and harder. Then I dump the wash water and transfer the corn to another reservoir, and repeat.

When the pot is empty, I work back through a second set of washing and into the rinsed pot. Continue washing until there is not much scum coming off the corn anymore.

Earlier this year, my Kitchen Aid broke its attachment gearbox while grinding sprouted einkorn, and since then I have been making use of antique cast iron hand grinders. For this project, I used my Enterprise #5, with all the corn run through twice.

I think this was the first real instance when I was feeling that the #10 Enterprise may have been a better choice, but the #5 did the job.

 I think it took around 2 hours to run the entire operation, including clean up. Man, was I sore all week! And I got some blisters on my hands. But when we were done, we had over 4kg of ground corn. Here is Buster, starting to clean out the grinder after we were done.

I reserved some to try to make tortillas, and froze a smallish bag with the excess, leaving an even 4kg for tamales.

Other ingredients for Masa
For this batch we used home churned cultured butter which we had made a load of the previous weekend, primarily for making pie crusts.

We started by culturing 2.8L of non-UP cream from grass fed cows, then churned in two batches through the 4L Dazey hand churn.

This made about 1100g of butter and 1.1L of buttermilk.

A little buttermilk went into the pie crusts with the butter, more went into waffles and pancakes, and the rest into cold cucumber soup. Here is Millie paddling the butter to squeeze out the wash water.

Becky has been cooking down chicken carcasses like mad, so we were able to use flavorful, thick, home made chicken stock for the liquid.

And finally, we used up some of the leaf lard we rendered a few months ago.

Mixing the Masa
Violet and I mixed the masa in two batches in the Kitchen Aid with the paddle attachment. The total ingredients were:
  • 4kg ground nixtamalized corn
  • 150g leaf lard
  • 650g cultured butter
  • 900ml chicken stock
  • 3.5TBS kosher salt

First we measured out the ingredients.

Then we whipped the fats until fluffy (about 2 minutes).

Then we added, in several additions, the corn and stock, then finally the salt.

Next, we whipped on high speed for about 4 minutes, until a chunk of the masa would float in cold water.

I ended up adding about an extra 300ml of liquid to get the consistency to what I think it should be, like drywall mud.

Extra Masa
I tried making some tortillas with the extra unprepared masa. First I added enough water to bring the consistency to that of play dough.

Then I put about 2 TBS between layers of polyethylene in the tortilla press. You can see Millie is skeptical.

The dough did not have much cohesion, probably due to the coarse grind.

This made it hard to release from the PE sheets without ripping it apart.

I did manage to get a few to come off in one piece using a dough scraper, so I cooked them in the iron pan.

We ate them for lunch with just butter on top. They tasted pretty good, but they did not much resemble corn tortillas from the market. They tasted like blue corn tortilla chips, except chewy and thicker. The girls were not impressed. So maybe we need a finer grind for tortillas?

Last summer I bought some peppers at the farmers' market to make tamales with, but I didn't end up using them so I froze them. They came out of the cold for this project. I roasted them, first on a cookie pan under the broiler, then on the stove top to further carbonize the skin of some stragglers.

The blacker the better for removing skin. For some reason the green ones just would not peel.

Wrong kind of peppers I guess? After roasting and skinning, I removed the seeds, pith, and stem to ready them for tamale use. My hands were killing me for like 24 hrs afterwards. Should have worn gloves, but its hard to pinch the skin with gloves on.

We also have 2.2kg of presoaked black beans in the freezer, from a cloth dying experiment I'll detail in a post in the next week or two. Becky took out about 1500g of these and cooked them up into the usual black beans we use around here for tacos, rice companion, etc.

In the past, I've used corn husks from Gourmet Sleuth, which were pretty good. This time though I tried some from Hoosier Hill (via Amazon) and these were even better.

Bigger percentage of large contiguous husks, which makes tamale making easier. The husks get steamed for about 20 minutes to soften them while other things are readied.

One tries to fill on the smoother side of the corn husk, since it releases the masa better later, but sometimes it is hard to tell.

Two big wooden boards were arranged on the counter and the ingredients and supplies were positioned for easy access.

For the black bean and cheese tamales, each one begins with a big scoop of masa, which is smooshed out over the corn husk by hand.

The masa is not as sticky when it is cold from the fridge, but on the other hand it is much stiffer and harder to smoosh. Next comes a scoop of black beans.

Then a big dollop of grated jack cheese. Then the husk is used to close the masa over the filling, ideally overlapping the husks significantly to prevent leakage during cooking.

Strips of corn husk are used for ties. I used two styles of tying this time to differentiate between the hot pepper and black bean ones since the kids don't like the hot peppers.

This sequence is shown from left to right below.

The hot pepper tamales progress similarly, but instead of black beans, a hot pepper is used for filling instead. The progression is shown below.

Violet and Millie actually were quite helpful in assembling the tamales!

Violet had the idea of drawing some faces on some of the corn husks with our washable non-toxic markers.

She made two of these, one name "Tom" the other named "Molly". Here is a song she wanted me to video and put on youtube.

After assembling, we loaded the tamales into a pot set up as a steamer.

The tamales are steamed for 1 hour, then allowed to cool on the counter.

Don't let the steamer run dry like I did on the second load of tamales. There is plenty of melted fat and cheese down in the steamer water by that point and it can get pretty ugly if the water runs out.

Ah, delicious. The kids love to slather on sour cream.

Becky and I ate a few with freshly made guacamole. I've eaten many a tamale with creme fraiche, which we often have in the fridge.

These things freeze extremely well. I pack them 9 or 10 to a big ziplock and stack up the bags in layers in the freezer. To reheat, just put straight from the freezer into a steamer for around 20 minutes or until heated well all the way through. Its already been cooked, so this is just to condition it for serving.

We got 70+ tamales from this batch, about 2/3 of which are shown below. We put them through as three steamer loads, two on Sunday, one on Monday night.

It is inevitable that you will have leftovers of something since all the ingredients won't run out simultaneously. So we are still working through a big tub of black beans by eating them in tacos.


mssewcrazy said...

Enjoyed watching the tamale making- didn't know much about the process involved. I also watched Violet's video and dubbed it tamale theater- tell her she was quite the star. I am going to ask some of the Mexicans here if any of the ground corn in the Mexican products here in the store would work. Maybe I'll try to make some.

JD Albert said...

Wow, those look amazing. That's cool that you did your own nixtamalization -- I always snicker when I see lime as an ingredient in a bag of tortillas and think that most people think it is the citrus fruit in there.

I'm not surprised that Maseca is useless for tamales, but it does make a decent corn tortilla -- the grind on it is very, very fine and they hold together nicely off a tortilla press with a PE bag.

Miss you guys! Great to see all the kids.

Holly Gates said...

@mssewcrazy - Yeah, give it a try! Tamales are great... assuming you like corn. I've seen some people just use aluminum foil for the wrapping. Lacks romance, but then there is less specialty items to source to try it out.

@JD - I was surprised the first time I read about nixtamalization. I thought 'Lime? Really?'!

Thanks for the tip on Maseca too, have to give that a try now that I have a tortilla press.

I miss you guys too!

mssewcrazy said...

I'll try the foil, Holly. Thanks for the tip on that. It might make the project closer to happening since I always am lining up projects to try. I have become a fan of nonstick foil lately so that might be the way to go here for a few tamales for dh and myself. I get amused with the churning and the meat grinders as I grew up on a farm where that was part of every day life and we all thought it was great not to do those things anymore. Lol ! Now we've all gone full circle. I am liking vintage sewing machines and becoming interested in some of the simpler ways of doing things. I am enjoying following the blog ever so much. It's very interesting seeing the projects you and the children work on together.