Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Santa Fe'asting: The Three Day Tamale

It's been two weeks since Thanksgiving now, and after many scrubbings, the kitchen still smells faintly of lard, the cabinets are now permanently splattered bright red with chile and the refrigerator is still brimming with the products of our long labor. Even after many dinners of homemade sopes and tacos and burritos there are still pounds of masa, pulled pork and jarred red chile in the ice box.

Leftovers: Tostadas with red chile pulled pork and green chile sour cream

But with all that time invested, tamales are a labor of love and well worth the trouble. As with so many of the dishes I've eaten in New Mexico, I'm constantly surprised by the depth of flavor rendered from that same supreme economy of ingredients: to my New York eyes (tongue?), at least, beef, pork, eggs, chiles, beans, corn, onions, garlic, cumin, cilantro, cinnamon and oregano are the only real mainstays of Santa Fe cuisine.

Having never made tamales for Thanksgiving, or, for that matter, ever, I was again somewhat taken aback by their sheer simplicity, so that despite our three day cook time, the actual prep and work time came down to mere hours.

Day One: Collecting the Ingredients for Red Chile Tamales

This recipe will make somewhere in the range of a hundred tamales.

5 lbs pork loin, quartered (never again! bone-in pork shoulder – pernil – is cheaper and more flavorful)
1/2 lb dried red chiles, toasted and soaked in hot water
6 cloves (or more) garlic, roughly chopped
2 onions, roughly chopped
2 tsps Mexican oregano
2 tsps cumin

Bring several quarts of lightly salted water to boil in a medium sauce pan. Meanwhile, place a heavy-bottom stock pot over medium-high heat and toast chiles until just fragrant, add to the pot of boiling water, and turn off the heat. Alternately, spread the chiles on a sheet pan and broil for 30 seconds to a minute.

Add the chiles and half their soaking liquid to the remaining ingredients in the stock pot and just cover with water. Bring to a boil, remove any accumulated scum, reduce to a simmer, and cover, skimming occassionally, for approximately five hours. At this point, the pork should just be beginning to fall apart.

Things start to fall apart.

Choose Your Own Adventure:

If, at this point, it's going on midnight and your fellow tamalistas are falling asleep, it's time to cool the pot down and shove it in the refrigerator.

If, however, you're still wide awake, remove the pork and, in small batches, blend the cooking liquid in your food processor or blender, retaining as many chiles, or as few, as you'd like. Lightly re-season with cumin and oregano but DO NOT add more salt, as you will be reducing the cooking liquid to a sauce later on.

Return the pork to the liquid, cool, and refrigerate overnight.

Day Two:
Making the masa.

It is imperative that you return the pork to the stove BEFORE making the masa, or, like me, you will cover the entire kitchen in a solid coating of pork fat. Cook with the lid off – you want that chile to reduce by half. At that point, feel free to re-season with salt and fresh minced garlic. A dash of sugar won't hurt either – I'd say two to three teaspoons.

Hana has fun playing with lard.

As you can see, making masa involves incredible amounts of fun with lard and masa flour. Given the inexactitude of Hana's masa-making, I suggest you use the recipe provided with your masa flour. For a ballpark estimate, I'd say we made approximately eight pounds of masa comprising three pounds of lard, a generous amount of salt and...well, let's hope you can do arithmetic.

If, at this point, it's going on midnight and your fellow tamalistas are falling asleep, it's time to wrap and refrigerator the masa. By now the pork should have cooked for about ten hours, total, which is just perfect.

Day Three: Panic.

60 to 100 corn husks
8 lbs prepared masa
5-ish lbs pulled pork red chile

Day three is Thanksgiving, and, if you're anything at all as ambitious as Hana and I, you'll be making sourdough, yeasted biscuits, mashed sweet potatoes, and seven layer dip along with the tamales you have yet to wrap and steam.

Set two quarts of water to boil in a large stock pot. Soak the corn husks in the heating water for approximately ten minutes, remove and set aside. Dump all but an inch of water from the pot, place a steamer (if you have one) in it, return to a boil and cover.

The Game Plan:

Forcibly enlist at least four friends to help finish the tamales.

Only three friends.

While you are shredding and saucing the pork with your cooking liquid reduction, helpers numbers one through three should spread a thin layer of masa on the softened corn husks, which will probably be spread on every surface in your house.

Helper number four, meanwhile, will take your pork and place a conservative amount in the middle of each tamale.

At this point, the corn husks should all contain a thin layer of masa in their center, with no masa touching the edges of the corn husks, as well as a thin line of pork running down the middle of the masa.

Having completed your job, you will begin to roll the tamales : roll lengthwise, then fold the ends over and tie them tamales with torn strands of corn husk.

Finally, get all those helpers to start rolling, and throw those babies into the steamer! It should take about half an hour to cook. Maybe more. I don't know. All I know is, them babies are good!

The Final Product:


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