Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To Make a Tamale

In mid December, Tia Cata had a big party to break in her new building / party room that had just finished with construction.  For this party, Ela was recruited to make 400 tamales, to feed the horde after the church service wound down.  This was a several day process to prepare, and I did my best to document each step.  I missed a good chunk of preparation of the recaldo (sauce) because the family dog bit me and I had to head to the doctor for an anti-rabies shot, but that's a story for another day.  

Anyway, here are the steps I was able to follow.  I apologize that I don't have the actual quantities available, but none of you need to make this in quantities of 400, I suppose.  Besides, I think it's mostly made to taste... a handful of this, a few pounds of that.... you get the idea.

For such quantities, a makeshift cook space was made.  Cement blocks raised the metal basins off the fire, and a fence of lamina  was set up to shelter the flames from wind.

As with most things, the process started with corn.  On Thursday it was set to nixtamal, or soak in limestone and water to soften the kernels enough to take them to the molina (grinder / mill).  

After cooking the corn it gets taken to the mill (the next day, Friday morning).  Here I get hazy, but I think they cook it again with water added, as well as some cooked rice (a relatively small portion of the total) to make it more smooth and white.    

Ela then strained the liquid to take out all the bits of grit from the corn kernels.

Lots of consome (bullion, I think... some kind of powdered broth), margarine, and salt were added in (with many a taste test to be sure the balance is just right).  

And it returned to the fire, for constant stirring.

We started to take turns as the masa thickened and made stirring more tiring.

Finally, it began to boil like the mud pits in Yellowstone.

When we could drop a glob into cold water and have it keep it's shape, we knew it was ready.
Here's the sauce.  I missed the making of this goodness, but Ela told me it's loads of tomatoes, some red bell peppers, two kinds of ground pepper, cinnamon, and a little chocolate.  They must have taken this to the mill too, because I don't want to think how many blenders full this would have been.  I think it was strained as well, because I didn't find any seeds.

Ela removed the chicken skin and chopped the meat into chunks, cutting right through the bone with a knife reinforced by a wooden bat to give a little extra force when needed.

And it landed in yet another big tub.

While Ela was on meat duty, she had a neighbor girl cut exactly 400 strips of bell pepper.  That was how we kept track of when we met our goal.

Meanwhile I counted out 865 raisins by hand, to find out how many we had, and thus how many could go in each tamal.  I know there was an easier way to do this... perhaps count 50, weight them, and then estimate from there.  Too bad.  This is how we do it here.

Sorry the picture's blurry, I must have been too cross eyed to notice.   
Some leaves were washed and cut small to be the inner leaf; perhaps a plate sized option to remove the tamal from the main wrapping?

The main leaves had also been washed and had their stems removed.
At last, all the ingredients prepared (Saturday, day three of the process at this point...), we started to assemble.  The chicken was in the sauce, the masa cooled and doled out onto the waiting leaves....

...the decorative pepper and raisins placed just so....

...wrapped, folded, and stowed into another basin.
They return to the fire, with naked corn cob (stripped of kernals) and water in the bottom to prevent scorching and plastic on top to retain steam.  Two hours to go.  

At last, the fruits of our labor made it to a plate.

I have to admit, the "decorations" didn't make it look all that lovely...

....but the taste was great!  The texture was unlike any I've tried before; I wouldn't have said it was corn if I hadn't already known.  And, while there are other styles of tamales here that don't get strained and keep that cornmeal texture, this is the fancy party way.  
And that, folks, is the three day ordeal to generate 400 tamales.  Like I said, 50 for Noche Buena?  No sweat.  ...But this isn't something I want to whip out on a weekly basis.

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