Making Tamales Can Be as Fun as Eating Them

Story by Roxann Wedegartner | Photos by Dominic Perri

It’s tamalada time!

What time is that?

Any time you feel like having a great party where friends can gather together and make tamales This gathering is called a tamalada, and it is steeped in ritual and tradition. Aztec, Maya, and Inca women accompanied their men into battle to serve as cooks. Their ingenuity may have produced the first “to go” food in the tamal (singular for tamales).

Tamaladas generally occur during the fall in preparation for the holidays, when primarily the women in the family meet to share gossip and the duties of making dozens—sometimes hundreds—of tamales. The rest of the family and friends see to it that the music plays and the beer and margaritas flow.

I grew up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where I met my husband and became a cog in an annual tamalada gathering. My mother-in-law, Alice, was a wonderful cook only surpassed by her maid and cook, Maria. Put the two of them in a kitchen together and you knew everyone was going to eat well for days.

Early in November before Thanksgiving and with a freezer stocked with freshly killed venison, duck, and quail from my father-in-law’s hunting trips, Alice would announce the tamalada to her friends. They showed up willingly, bringing their own favorite tamale fillings. Alice and Maria took charge, provided the masa, husks, and more fillings; she gave the orders, and we obeyed. Soon everyone was making tamales, talking a blue streak, and sipping bourbon or margaritas. Miraculously after several hours, the stack of tamales were ready to be steamed and then taken home to enjoy.

Here in this Valley I have established my own tamalada tradition and so can you. While a tamalada can happen any time of year, I like to stay with my Tex-Mex tradition and do it in the fall when the harvest from our own gardens and local farms is still abundant and fresh, especially our corn. Here’s how you do it.

The Plan

For a successful tamalada, invite at least five to 10 people––enough people to share the work and the fun. Put someone in charge of soaking and handing out the corn husks, have a couple of people spread the masa on the corn husks and pass them off to a couple of other people for filling. Next, have your most obsessive, detail-oriented people in charge of properly folding the husks around the filling, a very critical step. Someone else needs to oversee the steaming. Let the music play––live or CD––and pour the drinks. My favorite tamalada music is anything by Freddie Fender or Los Lobos, but then that’s the tejana in me.

For utensils and cookware, have spatulas or any type of spreaders, mixing bowls for the masa and the fillings, a large pot or container for soaking the husks, and steam pots or any large, deep pot with an expandable steam basket placed inside for steaming the tamales.

The Tamales

Almost anything can be put into tamales. So meat lovers, vegetarians, and vegans can all join the party. The basic filling ingredients of traditional tamales are meats, vegetables, fruits, cheese, and chilies. Think pulled chicken or pork, venison, duck, beef, turkey, tofu, squash, onion, corn, poblano and jalapeño chilies, pumpkin, raisins, cooked beans … the list is endless. It’s fun to have more than one filling type available. Corn masa and corn husks make up the casing (though some Latin American regions use banana leaves). Some recipes also call for a sauce, but others simply rely on the filling being moist enough. When saucing, go with a two-to-one ratio of filling to sauce. The trick is to not make the filling too moist or you’ll have soggy tamales.

As the host, plan to have at least the one batch of masa prepared before the party. I highly recommend Maseca-brand instant corn masa flour, which can be purchased locally. The instant version is really a must for easy preparation. Do not use cornmeal or regular corn flour. They are made from a different type of corn and will not work.

Lard, never butter or vegetable shortening, is an essential ingredient for the masa. If you are vegetarian or vegan and don’t want to compromise, solid coconut oil can be substituted for lard. The masa must be moist. How much masa you prepare depends on how big a tamalada you’re throwing!

The Assembly: Spreading, Filling, Folding, and Steaming.

Corn husks need to be soaked in hot water for 45 minutes before use. To fill, lay the husk on a flat surface with the rough side down, smooth side up. Then, on the smooth side, spread the masa to approximately ¼ inch in thickness on the husk nearly to the edges of the sides and the flat end, leaving a little more space on the tapered end. Don’t overfill as the filling needs to get completely encased in the masa and husk. Once filled, fold the sides in on one another, slightly overlapping. Then fold the tapered end up to seal the bottom. Some people like to have narrow strips of husks or cotton twine handy to tie a neat sash around the tamal.

If you’re using more than one type of filling, keep the tamales separated before steaming them. Once wrapped, they look the same. You can put them into marked plastic freezer bags. Tamales freeze well whether or not they’ve been pre-steamed.

To steam the tamales, place a layer of corn husks in the bottom of the steaming pot, layer the tamales in there gently and cover with another layer of husks. Cover the pot, bring water to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 45–60 minutes.

A fan of cooking good food for family and friends all her adult life, Roxann Wedegartner is a former assistant food editor of the Houston Chronicle.  See some of her writing and recipes on her Facebook page Food Tales.

Get the full recipe for the tamales here

Sources for Special Ingredients

Masa: Ecuador Andino in Hadley or in many grocery stores

Lard: Ecuador Andino, Sutter Meats

Corn husks: Ecuador Andino, Foster’s Market (Greenfield)

Food Fight

SOME CALL IT DINNER

Story by Sanford D’Amato | Photo by Dominic Perri

My sister and I were prolific eaters from birth, and as we got older every dinner at our house was either a mental or physical fight for food. It’s not as if we were deprived, as my father was a grocer and we always had enough to eat. But as the table was filled with plates of food, we would both be planning strategy on what choice bites would be the first and last to cross our lips. It was as if an announcer roared out over a loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, grab your forks and GO!”

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2015_Apr30_EdiblePIoneerValley_Summer_035

The majority of the year we would fight over the protein—the only two golden, glistening gams of roast chicken; the crispy ends of a rosy rotisserie beef; or that one slice of roast pork that was perfectly ringed with crispy, burnished fat—all almost normal behavior in the pantheon of aggressive American families. But we both had an odd quirk that separated us from the norm. We adored vegetables.

Starting pre-teeth with puréed broccoli and carrots, the feelings became more intense as the vegetables became more solid. Next to the slice of pork, the almost-burnt quarter onion infused to bursting with the limpid cooking liquid, or the crunchy breadcrumb-herb-coated baked tomato that stood guard near the beef—those were the prizes.

When summer rolled around the game changed as our primal instincts kicked into overdrive. String beans, summer squash, and zucchini—products that made their once-a-year appearance at their peak of flavor—almost made us completely forget that there was any meat present. I would have to plunge my fork into the vegetables and quickly return to my plate with the grace of a fencer, hoping that my hand would not be hit by the tines of her faster fork.

These vegetables were all a prelude to the most anticipated arrival of the year. It had been tempting us since its hint of green leaves first peeked through the soil. Driving past full fields of slender stalks with flowing golden locks, we knew they had to be ready, as they were knee-high a lifetime ago. For me, and many others, corn is the king of summer.

I would spread a layer of newspaper on the side stoop and shuck away within seconds of my dad driving up with the bag of ears. I had already picked out “my ears” so that when my mother moved towards the table with the platter, I was ready. My sister and I rapidly circled the ring to claim our seats, our eyes never leaving the platter or each other’s hands. I threw the first move, as I was pretty fast, and within seconds had the cob buttered, salted, pronged on each end, and brought to my mouth when I realized my sister was halfway through her first ear (she strategically skipped the prongs and went bare-handed—quite impressive). I started to chomp faster to catch up—we were neck and neck, ear for ear—but in the end there was no knockout, just a split decision.

The best corn is consumed the day it is picked, as close to picking as possible, and without refrigeration. Corn was always a vehicle for creamy butter but with sweeter varieties the butter is almost superfluous—however, a light gloss of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil doesn’t hurt. After I’ve had my fill of straight cobs, I go to my favorite corn combo and pair it with large, spice-crusted, deeply seared sea scallops and crispy bacon. I make a sauce inspired by my personal olfactory vice, caramel corn. I deeply caramelize honey to bring out some bitterness, glaze the corn kernels, and deglaze the sauce with a corn cob broth, add lime juice and cider vinegar to balance out the sweetness of the corn and scallops, and finish with a whisper of sharp spicy Hungarian paprika to add a touch of heat to the sweet.

There is only one time of year to have this combo: when Valley corn is at its peak. And I suggest you make a little extra, as this is a dish worth fighting over!

Sanford (Sandy) D’Amato is a James Beard Award–winning chef who teaches cooking classes at Good Stock Farm, his home in Hatfield. He is the former chef/owner of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI, and the author of GOOD STOCK: Life on a Low Simmer, his memoir with recipes. Learn more about Sandy and good Stock Farm cooking classes at GoodStockFarm.com.

Recipe for Chargrilled Scallops with Grilled Caramel Corn Sauce and Corn Relish