Almost since the day I started working with her, I’ve been harassing my co-worker, Lydia Vega, to teach me how to make her family’s authentic tamales. When she finally agreed earlier this fall, I decided it would be fun to make a party of it.
As it turns out, you don’t make tamales without having a party.
First, the recipe lends itself to huge batches that are made to be shared. Second, while not difficult, stuffing the tamales is time-intensive work that is also better shared. Third, well, who doesn’t love spending an afternoon drinking wine, making delicious food and catching up with friends? I can’t think of a better way to beat the January, post-holiday doldrums.
Since I couldn’t invite you all, I took good notes to share. Before we get to the recipe, though, a few general tips:
• You may have to visit a few different stores to find the ingredients, but I was able to find them all locally. The masa that Lydia recommends is called Arturos masa, and it comes frozen. The peppers I bought did not specifically say “mild,” but Lydia said that as long as they don’t say “hot” they should be fine.
• Pull out the largest pots, bowls and pans that you have for mixing the masa and meat. Lydia has a huge mixing bowl that she brought with her, but if she hadn’t, I would have used my trusty canning pot.
• Have something for your friends to take tamales home in. At the end of the day, we all walked around the table, each adding one tamale to a zip-top bag until they were all gone. It was a bit like ring-around-the-rosie!
Lastly, I highly recommend making tamales around your kitchen table or some place where you can all see each other. Is it a bit messier than doing it on the kitchen counter? Probably. But the rewards in conversation are well worth it.
Here’s the recipe.
The Vega Family Tamale Recipe
(Makes about 70 tamales)
Boston butt pork roast, about 10 pounds
1 large bag mild New Mexico chili pods
10 pounds Arturos masa
3 16-ounce boxes lard
1 bag of corn husks
1 Tablespoon cumin
4-5 cloves of garlic, diced
The night before your party, you’ll need to cook the roast. To do so, add the roast to your largest pot — I used my canning pot — and cover with water. Boil the meat, checking the water level every so often and adding more as needed, until the roast falls apart when you pierce it with a fork. For me, that took 4-5 hours. Once the meat is cool, shred it with a fork and refrigerate. Save several cups of the cooking broth, too, as you’ll need it later.
You should also prepare the chilies ahead of time. In a large pot, cover the chilies with water and bring them to a boil. Let them cook for about 15 minutes. The goal is to get them re-hydrated. Remove the stems, and put the chilies in a blender or food processor to break them down. Once you have a rough paste, run the chilies through a food mill to remove the skins and seeds. Save the resulting smooth paste; discard the skins and seeds.
Once your friends have arrived, it’s time to prepare the masa. Using your hands and the biggest bowl you can find, mix the lard into the thawed masa. Add about 4 Tablespoons salt and some of the reserved juice from cooking the meat. The masa is ready when it forms an easily spreadable paste. (We ended up adding about 2 cups of cooking juice to get there.)
While one person is preparing the masa, have another person soak the corn husks. To do so, put the corn husks in your clean kitchen sink and fill with hot water.
Meanwhile, another person can be preparing the meat. Mix the chili paste with the garlic, cumin and a few teaspoons of salt. Add in enough of the reserved cooking broth to make a watery paste. Add the chili paste to the meat and mix until well coated. This is a good time to let everyone have a little taste to check the seasoning.
By this time, the corn husks should be softened. Pop them in a strainer to drain off excess water.
With all the prep work done, now it’s time to make tamales:
The corn husks have a rough side and a smooth side. With the smooth side up, and holding the husk in your hand, use a spoon to slather masa on the bottom two-thirds of the husk. While the thickness of the masa is a matter of personal preference, Lydia advised spreading fairly thinly. As a guess, I’d say our masa was about 1/4-inch thick.
Once you have the masa spread evenly, add a spoonful of the meat filling to the center. Then, fold one side over, fold the other side over that, and tuck the resulting tail underneath to form a neat pocket. Keep going until you run out of meat or masa.
To cook the tamales, steam them for a least an hour. Lydia said two hours is better — particularly if you’re doing a larger batch — but who can wait that long?