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Right now, Latinos across the country are happily settling into the throes of tamale season, which peaks during the winter holidays. Emmy Award–winning blogger, cookbook author, and Denverite Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack is no exception: She plans a “tamalada” (tamale-making party) every year. “It was my grandma’s gift to the family to make tamales for everybody,” she says. “But the kitchen was her territory, and she only trusted my mom to help her.” Not so with Marquez-Sharpnack, who invites family and friends over for tamaladas that are half cooking class, half holiday party. She teaches her guests how to prepare a fluffy, flavorful masa mixture, stuff soaked corn husks with the masa and a traditional red chile and pork filling, and then steam the bundles to perfection. “It’s my chance to share this tradition with my kids,” she says. “But you don’t have to be Mexican to do this. It’s nice for everyone to get back to good old-fashioned cooking together.”
Tamales are labor-intensive, but many hands, lively conversation, and Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack’s advice, gleaned over almost a decade of hosting tamaladas for as many as 20 people, makes the process easy and fun.
“Ask a few guests to bring tamale fillings, an appetizer, or a dessert. You take care of the red chile and pork filling a day or so ahead and then soak the corn husks, make some drinks, and set out the masa ingredients an hour before guests arrive.”
“Plan your shopping [see ‘Shop Smart’ at right] so you can send each guest home with at least half a dozen tamales for eating right away or freezing.”
“Check out the tableware section at Save-A-Lot. They have so many inexpensive, cute little bowls, pitchers, and platters that can bring Mexican flair to the party. I use them for flowers, utensils, and napkins as well as for putting out the tamale fillings and corn husks so the table looks pretty while we work.”
“I like to show my guests how to achieve the perfect masa consistency: Once you’ve whipped and seasoned the fresh masa, drop about a half teaspoonful of the mixture into a glass of warm water. If it floats, it’s ready. If it sinks, add a bit more lard, mix again, and re-test.”
“Set out the pork filling, the seasoned masa mixture, the drained corn husks, and a few empty platters for holding the finished tamales. Demonstrate how to fill and snugly fold the tamales, then encourage everyone to join in on the fun.”
“While the tamales steam, it’s nice to sit back, drink a mimosa or cup of Mexican hot chocolate, indulge in a few treats, and enjoy time with family and friends. When the tamales are ready, buen provecho!”
“Send guests home with tamales in reusable containers labeled with reheating instructions: You can roll defrosted tamales in wet paper towels and microwave them. Or you can toast them on a comal, or in a skillet, instead. For a charred, smoky flavor, that’s a really good option.”
All your tamalada necessities can be found at the Brentwood Center Save-A-Lot on South Federal Boulevard. “It’s a one-stop shop, and the people are so friendly,” Marquez-Sharpnack says. Cut out her list to take with you.
“I use fresh-ground white corn masa because that’s the way my grandma always made it.” Look for bags near the butcher counter marked “S” or “Sin Preparar,” which means you’re buying plain masa, without added lard or seasonings; you’ll flavor the masa yourself.
“Buy a pork shoulder that has both fat and lean meat on it so it shreds easily after you cook it.” Save-A-Lot often puts the pork shoulder (labeled “pork cushion meat”) in the same display as the masa.
“Look for pliable dried red California or New Mexico chiles so you know they’re fresh—feel them through the package.”
“Lard makes really good, fluffy tamales.” Search for buckets of Morrell lard near the dried chiles.
“Make sure the corn husks (‘hojas para tamales’) are nice even sizes and look pretty.”
“You need a tamale steamer (‘tamalera’) with three parts: a large pot, a tight-fitting lid, and a steamer insert. Save-A-Lot sells 20-quart ones—which hold about 62 tamales—for around $16, but you can use any big stockpot with a lid and a rack.”
Red Chile and Pork Tamales
Yield: 5 Dozen Tamales
For the Red Chile sauce:
- 8 ounces California or New Mexico red chile pods
- 6 cups water
- 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon salt
For the shredded pork:
- 7-8 pounds pork butt or pork shoulder
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
For the filling:
- 6 tablespoons broth with fat pieces from cooked pork
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 6 1/2 cups Red Chile Sauce
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 batch tamale masa
- 1 15 ounce package of corn husks (ojas)
For the masa:
- 2 pounds lard (If you are using rendered lard you will need to use less broth)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder, divided
- 2 tablespoons salt, divided
- 5 pounds fresh ground masa (unprepared) for tamales, divided
- 2 to 3 cups broth from cooked pork roast or chicken broth, divided
- 1/2 cup Red Chile Sauce
Make the Red Chile sauce:
Remove stems, seeds, and veins from the chile pods. Place in a colander and rinse well with cool water.
Add the chiles to a large pot and add enough water so they are just covered. Bring water to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes. After 10 minutes turn the chiles over with tongs to make sure the chiles soften evenly. Drain cooked pods and allow time to cool down before blending. Discard water.
Fill a blender with 3 cups of water, half of the cooled chile pods, 3 tablespoons flour, 2 cloves garlic, and half of the salt. Blend until smooth. Strain sauce through a fine sieve to remove skins and seeds; discard skins and seeds. Repeat blending and straining process with remaining water, pods, flour, garlic, and salt. If necessary, season with more salt.
Tip: This sauce can be made in advance and kept in airtight containers in the refrigerator or freezer. Red Chile sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week or frozen for up to six months.
Make the shredded pork:
Place pork, water, and salt in a slow cooker and cook for 6 to 8 hours. After meat is cooked, remove from the slow cooker and let cool to room temperature. Shred pork and remove fat while shredding, reserving fat. (Usually, after pork is cooked and shredded, you will be left with about 3 pounds of meat.)
In a blender combine the cooled broth from the cooked pork and the leftover fat pieces. Blend and reserve for using when making tamale masa and filling. Broth can be kept, tightly covered, for 1 week in the refrigerator. The broth also freezes well and will keep for 4 to 6 months.
Make the filling:
Heat 6 tablespoons of broth in a large skillet. Add flour and whisk for at least 4 to 5 minutes. Add Red Chile sauce and salt, stir, and cook for 10 minutes. The chile sauce will be very thick at this time. Add the 3 pounds shredded pork and stir so all the pork is well coated with the red chile sauce. Simmer for at least 10 minutes.
Let mixture cool before filling tamales.
Make the masa:
Place 1 pound of lard in a stand mixer and mix until fluffy, scraping sides so the lard stays in the center of the mixing bowl. (The flat beater is the ideal accessory for mixing.) Add half the baking powder and half the salt to the lard and mix together. Add half the masa and mix together. Slowly add half the broth and half the red chile sauce, if using, to the masa and mix until combined. The mixture should be about the consistency of smooth peanut butter. If not, add more broth as necessary. Test the masa by taking a small piece (1/2 teaspoon) and dropping it into a cup of warm water. If it floats it is ready; if it sinks add a little more lard, beat for another minute, and test it again. Repeat this process until the masa floats. Pour the masa mixture into a bigger bowl. Repeat the process with the remaining ingredients.
Cover the masa and set aside while you prepare your filling.
Prepare the ojas (CORN HUSKS):
Soak corn husks in water for an hour before using, rinse well with running water to take off any dust or corn husk fibers. To keep corn husks pliable and easy to work with, keep in water while filling tamales. Place a handful of wet corn husks in a colander to drain before using.
Spread the masa:
Place the wide end of the husk on the palm of your hand, narrow end is at the top. Starting at the middle of the husk spread 2 tablespoons of the masa with the back of a spoon in a rectangle or oval shape, using a downward motion towards the wide-bottom edge. Do not spread the masa to the ends; leave about a 2-inch border on the left and right sides of the husk.
Fill the corn husks:
Spoon 1 1/2 tablespoons of your chosen filling down the center of the masa. Fold both sides to the center; finish off by bringing the pointed end of the husk toward the filled end. Make sure it’s a snug closure so the tamal will not open during steaming. Secure by tying a thin strip of corn husk around the tamal. This will keep the tamal from unwrapping during the steaming process, especially if the husk is too thick and will not stay folded.
Steam the tamales:
Use a deep pot or tamale steamer to steam tamales. If using a tamale steamer, fill with water up to the fill line. Set the tamale rack over the water. Place tamales upright, with fold against the sides of the other tamales to keep them from unfolding. Cover pot with a tightly fitting lid. Set heat on high and bring to a boil, about 15 minutes. Lower heat and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Keep lid on tightly. To test if done, put one tamal on a plate and take off the corn husk. If it comes off without sticking to the tamal, they are done.