Mommy has been homesick lately. That’s a challenging feeling for someone from Virginia, whose parents are from Long Island and New Orleans-Oklahoma-Virginia, who moved to Texas, who married someone from Mexico who grew up in Canada, who then all together moved to Spain then bounced back to Vermont. Homesickness in this case means crying over photos of Tex-Mex food and blazing sunsets and a wisp of mariachi music on the international program on the radio.
It means learning to make the food that used to be everywhere. In the last few months, we’ve made—for the first time—enchilada sauce, pozole, and the Sarah with no Chorizo breakfast taco. We have rendered lard. We have burned corn tortillas and set off the smoke alarm. But, until this winter, one dish had remained out of reach–the mother of all homemade food, tamales.
Doña Trini let me come to their Dia de los Muertos tamaliza in Santa Rosa in Mexico City a few years ago. Well, she let us pay her and bring a large block of cheese. She coached me through helping the family make the hundreds and hundreds of tamales necessary to lure the spirits back from the other side. Who wouldn’t be revived and tempted back home by the smell of earthy corn and spicy beans wafting through the air?
Tamales had been on our to-do list, since we were in Mexico City with Abuelo during his last days. On the two-year anniversary of his death, I set out the things I’d been retrieving from dusty, forgotten shelves at the local store and out-of-the-way Vermont farms and preparing for weeks: red sauce, rajas (strips of roasted Anaheim chile), spicy refried beans, soaked corn husks, fresh cheese, a giant vaporera with husks tied to the handles (We found this at the local grocery store, on sale along with a few dozen of its brothers. I can only imagine that this was a horrible purchasing error, as all but the one we took home with us remain on the top shelf, above the seasonal candy), and the hard-won corn masa made with lard we rendered ourselves.
Daddy saw all of this on the counter, and suddenly remembered something he had to do right away, and took off out the door, returning only when the last tamal was being folded and tucked into the pot. Martin, the best sous chef I’ve ever known, rolled up his sleeves and helped me spread masa. That night, our last one together until their too-brief summer visit seven months away, we feasted on the food of Abuelo’s ancestors. When we closed our eyes, we were there in the rancho kitchen with him.
Doña Trini’s Tamales, With Liberal Commentary from Mommy
Santa Rosa, D.F., Mexico
Tie a bit of corn husk around each handle of the vaporera (large steamer pot for tamales with a steam insert) to ensure good luck for good tamales. I can’t imagine Doña Trini still needs luck after a lifetime of spectacular tamal making, but I sure do, and if she ties ears onto her pot, so will I.
Cook dried corn with activated lime for 1 to 1 ½ hours the day before the tamaliza, cooking until the corn looks yellow. The tamales in question were made with blue corn, so I don’t know exactly how yellow you can expect it to get.
Drain and wash the corn until the husks come off, then leave in large colanders to drain overnight. Soak your corn husks for the tamales overnight in cold water, as well.
Take your corn in buckets to the local molina—stone mill–and have them grind it into masa for the tamales. Make sure you get in line early, say in the vicinity of dawn, or all those other Malinches ahead of you will mean you get back late and are making tamales long into the night. Alternately, grind on a metate with a mano for a good upper body workout.
I skipped the above, since the closest molina is probably the one in Santa Rosa, and instead looked for a bag of Maseca (literal translation—dry corn flour) at the local grocery store. In Texas, Maseca is so plentiful that it’s used as bricks in adobe homes and piled up to hold off floodwaters. In Vermont, the store stocks this two bags at a time in a section labeled “Mexican” that is otherwise chips and salsa and Maria cookies. Those two bags were quickly snatched up at Christmastime, and there was no word on when their replacements would arrive. We ended up getting five pounds of organic, stone-ground masa harina from our local food co-op. You’d think it was gold instead of yellow corn, but at least it smelled right.
Use broth (I use vegetable, so the only meat sin is the lard, but I would guess chicken would taste better) and salt to make the masa according to the package directions, or about 11 cups of liquid to five pounds of corn.
Put lard (very liquid here) in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon of baking powder and beat until it is a fluffy, white liquid. Use a 7:1 ratio. Trini used 14 kilos of masa to 2 kilos of lard, but a more realistic amount is 2 kilos of masa to 200 grams lard.
Lard is necessary. Fresh lard. Not the preserved junk in a brick at the grocery store. If you are not willing to obtain pig fat and render it or find fresh lard, don’t bother. This is the most ancient and most Mexican of foods, and there is no need or room for innovation. This isn’t a snack; it is a connection between you and millennia of human culture. Have some respect. Tamales are also just too much work to make with olive oil or vegetable shortening.
Add the masa a few cups at a time, beating vigorously. The mixture is ready when a bit of it will float in water. Mommy never achieved this, but the tamales came out great, anyway. You’re just looking for aeration so you don’t end up with a corn brick.
Prepare your fillings, ideally the day before: I like to make beans with three or four medium New Mexico chiles to two pounds dried small red beans, then refry them with large quantities of olive oil. Cut up queso fresco or panela (like paneer or feta), or in a pinch, grate cheddar, Colby, or Monterey jack cheeses. Make a red cooked salsa by sauteeing onion and Mexican oregano, adding a can of plain tomato sauce and simmering for 15 minutes or so. Cut up roasted Hatch/Anaheim/New Mexico chiles—the long green ones—into thin strips called rajas. Combine beans and cheese, or salsa, cheese, and rajas in tamales.
Set out all ingredients in an assembly line, with water already in the vaporera. Call in the reinforcements, and turn on the radio to the scratchy border station. You should hear accordion and the plaintive cries of the broken-hearted.
Set out refreshments to revive tired tamal makers. Doña Trini kept neon-colored soda on hand, which was a bit jarring in a tableaux of clay pots of peppers and beans and women in embroidered aprons.
Hold a corn husk in your left hand, point side down, and apply a quarter cup or so of the masa with a large (cooking-sized) spoon at the point end, scraping downward to get all the masa off the spoon. If the husk is wider than your hand, fold the extra over your thumb. Using the back of the spoon, spread the masa left, then right, then straight up, ideally ending up about 1/4 inch thick, and ending a couple inches from the top.
In the center, spread a few tablespoons of beans with some cheese, or rajas, cheese, and sauce. Or beans and sauce. Or rajas and cheese. Go wild.
Fold the right side of the tamal over the fillings, meeting with the edge of the masa on the left side. If you had overhang on the husk, flip it over, then fold the top edge down. Place this neat, largely flat, package fold-down into your vaporera. Overlap the tamales, placing them up against the sides of the vaporera, circling in towards the center. You can have an “upper deck,” as long as the lid closes. Steam for 45-60 minutes, until the masa peels away easily from the husk.
Serve with salsa. Don’t eat the husk. Think of Mexico and bouganvilla and crashing waves and sun through the palms and Abuelo, sitting at his table having a coffee.