They had giant steam trays full of cooked masa. Pretty thick consistency, probably like stiff cottage cheese, but smoother of course. Maybe like potato dumpling mix. Masa looked soft/damp but not too sticky (didn't see it sticking to their hands). Anyways, corn husks were damp (maybe washed, maybe soaked). Lady took a lump, maybe between a large golf ball and tennis ball, plopped on the inside of the husk. She spread it out with the back of a soup spoon (traditional!) on the silky (smooth) side of the corn husk til it was about 1/8" thick (pretty damn thin), right up to the edge of the flat (straight cut) side and about 3/4 ways up to the top (raggedy side), across the entire width of the husk. Then, she folded it tri-fold, like a letter, across the width of the husk, leaving straight cut side on bottom and raggedy side on top. Then, she folded over the raggedy side onto the husk and tied it, to make a square package; the straight-cut side was still open. Then into a giant steamer.
Maria made us some delicious pork tacos for the road. Red sauce, redolent with chiles, beautiful deep flavor and red color but not too spicy. They made 3 kinds: pork (with red sauce); chicken; and cheese with a jalapeno strip in the middle. For the cheese ones, it was masa as usual, a sprinkling of cheese (looked like mozza or cotija), then a sliver or two of green jalapeno, seeded.
Jacob was using a "cheater" homemade tortilla press (made from two heavy blocks of wood with a lever) to create flat disks of masa on wax paper. He would hand the masa "disc" to the woman, who would put it on the husk and "clean it up", to the same thickness and dimensions as the rest.
Anyways, all of this got me thinking about making my own tamales. So I searched around and found/developed a recipe, based on what I've read and some videos I watched, as well as the knowledge I acquired above. So here goes:
Based on recipe from Sacramento Bee video site
- 2-3 lbs Pork Butt
- 1 large onion, whole
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
In large pot of cold water, add 1 whole onion, 4 cloves garlic, pork and salt. Bring to a boil, then cook at a good simmer for 1.5-2 hrs. Pork Should shred easily. Remove pork and veggies; discard veg. Let cool to room temp.
Meanwhile make red chile sauce:
- 3-4 cups dried New Mexico chiles
- 4 cloves garlic
In pot of boiling water to cover, add chiles and simmer for 10 min.
Drain and reserve 1 cup cooking water.
Blend chiles and garlic in blender with garlic. Blend till smooth.
Strain to remove seeds/chunks. Sauce should be smooth and not too thick. Add some cooking water back (if it isn't too bitter); otherwise thin out with water.
You will need about 8 cups prepared masa.
Buy it from a mexican market, tortilla maker, or reconstitute it from dry.
Tamale construction and Cooking:
- Shred meat. Add sauce and mix to combine.
- Cool meat in sauce.
- Add about 1/4-1/2 cup of sauce to masa (about 8 cups of prepared masa)
- Soak husks for 20-30 minutes in warm water, so they are soft.
- Spread masa on silky side of corn husk, using the back of a large soup spoon (traditional) or a 4" plastic spackle knife (modern). It should be a thin, smooth layer (about 1/8" thick), because masa expands as it cooks, and you don't want it too thick.
- Wrap tamales in parchment paper sheets OR place open side up in the steamer. Wrapping in paper helps keep steam in and keeps them in tact.
- Steam for 45-90 minutes. After 45 minutes, start checking every 5 minutes.
- Husk should be easily removed from masa, and masa should not taste grainy; that's when you know it's ready.