Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Posted by @brian_eng at 12:30 PM
One of the things I always look forward to during the holiday season are my uncle Jose’s mom’s tamales. During the family’s annual Christmas dinner, Vietnamese hot pot and prime rib are usually the stars of the show, but deep down everyone is praying that uncle Jose walks into the house with a bag full of his mom’s tamales.
With a hankering for tamales, I decided to adapt Rick Bayless’s recipe for red chile pork tamales. I was set on making half the batch with meat from a pig’s head after the great experience I had cooking jook/congee with it. It’s so hard to resist the many textures and flavors that the head provides. On my trip to Marketplace on Oakton, not only did I find the usual pig’s heads, but they had suckling pig’s heads too! Not only that, but they were priced the same as a normal’s pig’s head at $0.99/lbs!
Just like the jook, I used the skull to make some tasty pork stock and substituted it for the water and chicken broth in the recipe. Also, as I’ve said before and the recipe suggests, freshly toasted and ground spices are always so much better. I find this especially true for cumin, which was freshly ground along with the pepper. However, one thing that didn’t work for me was using a food processor to blend the guajillo chiles with liquid as the recipe suggests. In its defense, it does also say a blender can be used and I should’ve known better by the amount of liquid in the recipe. Anyways, using a food processor lead to a splashy mess, so I transferred the chiles and liquid to a blender, which worked much better.
With the filling done, I turned my focus to the tamal batter. Rick Bayless must have known I was making tamales, because the day I went shopping for ingredients he tweeted about his favorite brands of masa: El Popo and El Milagro. I was set on using fresh masa for the tamales, but I was too lazy to go to a tortilleria or one of the several mercados around Rogers Park. My next option was masa preparada, which is masa already mixed with lard and salt. Unfortunately, the Food 4 Less in Evanston, which by the way stocks a good deal of Mexican products, only had pineapple-coconut flavored masa preparada made by La Guadalupana. As a result, I had to settle with Maseca brand masa harina: dried and powdered masa which needs to be reconstituted with hot liquid. I decided to use the freshly made pork stock instead of water to reconstitute the masa harina with the hopes that it would add another level of porky flavor to the tamales.
Regarding the lard, I would probably make my own fresh lard next time or go to a proper mercado to get some lard that isn’t shelf stable and not hydrogenated like the bucket-o-lard that I got off of the grocery store shelf. After whipping the lard until it was fluffy, the masa is added and mixed until a small dollop of batter floats in cold water.
Filling and wrapping the tamales took a really, really, really long time. I have experience wrapping sticky rice in banana leaves and lotus leaves, so I thought filling the tamales would be a cakewalk. This was not the case. Tamales take much longer because of the fact that you have to evenly spread the masa out. I’m just glad I had an offset spatula to help speed up the spreading process. The dimensions of the masa spread specified in the recipe was a little wide for my personal preference. I prefer a thin and tall tamal as opposed to a fat and short one due to it’s fork-sized friendliness.
The first few tamales I ate actually kind of psyched me out. The fact that I knew how much hydrogonated lard went into the masa made swallowing a little hard. I thought it was kind of funny that I’m more psychologically averse to hydrogonated lard than I am to things like eyes, tongues, ears, and snout: all of which were in the pork filling.
Overall, the tamales came out pretty good for my first attempt. Not quite at the level of uncle Jose’s mom’s tamales, but I don’t think I’ll be attaining that level of yumminess in tamal form until I start making tamales on a regular basis.
For my next batch of tamales, I’m thinking sweet rather than savory, much like the one I recently had at Parque de las Palapas in Cancun and similar to the sweet corn tamales I’ve had at Frontera Fresco for many a lunch meal. The taste of the tamal I had in Cancun reminded me of Vietnamese corn che, che bap, that contains sweet corn, coconut milk, and tapioca or sweet rice. Perhaps I’ll reconstitute the masa harina with coconut milk and fill the tamales with fresh, young coconut and sweet corn.
I also really want to try making a batch of tamales wrapped in lotus leaves, much like Chinese sticky rice. When it comes to things wrapped in leaves or husks, I enjoy the flavor and aroma that lotus leaves impart over banana leaves and corn husks. But the much loved pandan leaves would trump even the mighty lotus leaves if I could just get my hands on some.