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Hector & Lara mug with their masterpieces!
Hector & Lara mug with their masterpieces!

Food lies at the heart of our bodies and our culture; it is there for celebrations and sustenance. NOMaste features a local fierce foodie each month, in four weekly segments. First, an interview, then a top 10 list, followed by a recipe to share, and finally a food review. This food corner will not just feature local chefs but also restaurateurs, buyers, suppliers — any woman involved in any aspect of the food chain, from farm to food truck. Join us each week as we get to know another Foodie in the city. Part I of this month’s series can be found here, and part II can be found here.


Ingredients

2 lbs corn flower
1 lb pork
1/2 cup salt
5 tbsp baking soda
Several cups of lard
Several cups of stock (whatever flavor you prefer — chicken or pork)
2 lbs tomatillo
2 bulbs of garlic
2 onions
6 jalapeños (Serranos preferably)
Water
25 corn husks

Yield:  About 25 Tamales


Prep:

  1. Boil the pork in one liter of water, with one onion and garlic bulb, and a hint of salt.
  2. Take it out of the pot and let stand until it reaches room temperature.
  3. Shred the pork when it is cool enough to handle.
  4. Soak the corn husks in warm water (should soak for at least 30 minutes).
  5. Cook the tomatillo and jalapeño, with a pinch of salt.
  6. Once it is cooled down and at room temperature, mix in a blender with half an onion and a clove of garlic.
  7. Place the cornmeal in a stand mixer.
  8. In a separate bowl, mix together 3 cups of water, baking soda, and 2 tablespoons of salt.  The liquid will be cloudy and slightly thick.
  9. Add a few cups of lard and a few cups of stock, along with the baking soda mixture made in step 7, to the stand mixer. (This is done by eye, and you can add more until you get the right consistency after mixing).
  10. Blend for several minutes until the mixture is sticky — the consistency is key. It should be tacky and sticky, but hold its shape and be pliable.

Assembly:

  1. Take a corn husk, and place it on a plate with the smooth side facing you (one side will have more ridges, one side will be smoother). Orient it so that the larger side is towards you.
  2. Smear the cornmeal evenly all along the lower ⅔ of the corn husk.
  3. Add some of the shredded pork to the center.
  4. Add a tablespoon or two (or four) of the salsa verde you made with the tomatillos.
  5. Gently fold each side of the corn husk towards the middle, then fold up the smaller lower half that does not have any cornmeal, to ‘close’ the bottom.
  6. Place on a plate and make another one.

Cooking:

  1. Boil water in a pot that has a steamer tray above it.
  2. Place the tamales in the steamer tray section, standing upright, with the folds on the bottom.
  3. Cook for 90 minutes on a low simmer, with the pot covered.
  4. Remove from heat, and serve!

I had the incredible pleasure of not only being given this recipe, but I was shown by the master himself, Hector, in his own kitchen, how to do this. The tamale is as old as time. I was told this recipe is similar to the one that the Aztecs used to serve the Spanish back when they came to South America; they would serve dozens and dozens of these during large dinner meetings with the new strangers. It was an honor to be included in this tradition, and to have it all laid out and explained in front of me.

I will admit, some of the proportions are not exact — things were just added ‘by eye’ like the lard and stock, and the texture/consistency of the dough was done and adjusted until it ‘felt right’.  So while I cannot explain in critical detail the exact portions and textures, I did my best to absorb and now pass on this ancient knowledge. I am sure with some trial and error, and some experimentation, you will be able to master this.

The largest time-consumers of this recipe are simply the prep work and the assembly itself. The small parts in between, and the cook time, are not much when compared to these tasks. The meat and salsa verde should be prepared in advance, the day before, since they need to cool before assembly, so plan ahead for this endeavor. The physical assembly, if done alone, would be quite time-consuming to make all 25 pieces that this recipe should make, since each one is stuffed and rolled by hand. The cook time just seems like an opportunity to clean up the huge mess your kitchen will no doubt be in after doing all of this, so think of that as multitasking.

I imagine once you get into a groove it will be easier, but I fumbled a little clumsily with my tamale — spreading the cornmeal slightly awkwardly — more so since I had people watching me (a master, no less — no pressure!). I actually assembled my tamale upside down, with the smaller husk at the bottom rather that at the top, where you fold! But Hector did not make me feel bad — he just said with great enthusiasm, like the wonderful coach he was being with me, that I was doing a fantastic job. Thanks Hector — I know it wasn’t perfect, and it was upside down, but I appreciate you believing in me! I assure you all my other tamales will be right-side-up from now on. You only make that mistake in the presence of the master, once.

You can be as creative as you want with the filling, since it’s a choose-your-own-adventure. We made some with pork and salsa verde, but I sampled one with chicken and spices after the prep-party. You can fill them with any type of meat or vegetable, and with any type of condiment. Your limit is your imagination. Me being the Northern Italian that I am, envision a polenta tamale filled with tonko. (That’s something we lovingly call our thick meat sauce, more stew than sauce, which is typically served atop a heaping pile of polenta. The term is not official in any way, the spelling is mere conjecture, and I believe the term is just a family nomenclature).

It did feel more like a demonstration than anything; I took mental notes as I watched Hector gracefully mix a pinch of this and a spoon of that, till everything was just so. He was such an expert, and I was in awe just watching him go.

After the demo and my try at making a tamale, I was offered a chicken tamale and some Oaxacan hot chocolate. Hector and Elder know I have no palate for hot sauce — I believe I am missing a gene for it. So they gave me a very mild, but flavorful, chicken tamale just for me. It was piping hot, in its pretty corn husk wrapper. I unfolded it and ate it with a fork and knife. If it was a little cooler, I could just hold it like a sandwich and eat it that way. The tamale is a perfect food — your protein and your carbs right in one package. It’s a sandwich but in a way more interesting wrapper! The texture is great — you have something to chew, but it’s not so chewy it’s work to eat. It has just enough variety with the texture of the meat and cornmeal to keep you intrigued.

The hot chocolate — which I realize is not in the recipe here — was to DIE for. It was so thick and so incredibly chocolatey that all I had for dinner was one cup of hot chocolate and one tamale and I was stuffed — it was that rich. It was one of the best, if not the best, hot chocolate I have ever had. It was like liquid velvet. It was so hot I had to sip it slowly — I think it’s meant to be enjoyed that way. I worry if it was chugged or drank down too fast, the texture would be too much or too thick and you would lose something in the rush, or not enjoy it as much as it should be. Sip this — this is a sipping drink if there ever was. They just added it to the menu, too, so you should try one!

This recipe, due to the time and effort to make it, is for an intermediate person in the kitchen at a minimum. If you have some trouble ‘making’ pasta (as in boiling it from a box and adding jar sauce), you might not want to try this alone — try it with a slightly more experienced friend.  This would be the perfect recipe to try on a fun-night-in with friends, where you have the meat and salsa prepped, and your guests spend time drinking wine and assembling a pile of tamales.  At least, that’s my idea of a great night! This is something to be shared — not just the final product, but the process, too. I envision a lot of gossip, a lot of laughs, and a lot of sticky salsa-covered fingers around a large kitchen table.