The last time I participated in a tamalada was in 2013. It was also the last time our Flo (Mom) was able to participate in one as age and arthritis were taking their toll. So, while Flo supervised, my sisters, brother-in-law, and I went through the process of preparing the meat, the masa, and the hojas, before becoming an assembly line which smeared the masa on the hoja, filled it with meat, and closed the hoja before setting up several dozen of them in a big olla (steamer) for cooking. It was a fun family experience that I’ll always remember because Flo was just so happy.
These last seven years, though, it’s been all about experiencing community, listening to others’ chisme, and seeing other things one sees in the North Side of Houston by standing in line at Alamo Tamales. Sometimes, it was about ordering a few dozen for the season and other times, we’d get into the double digits so we could give out to friends and neighbors. Alamo’s are my favorites–the homestyle ones that are made by an assembly line of ladies in the back and not the machine made ones.
This year, although a lot of businesses are hurting because of the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot more time in my tiny kitchen making my own meals and experimenting. Not trusting COVID-19 protocols (or their customers) at restaurants, I’ve found myself remaining careful and avoiding them. And this year, that includes avoiding standing in line for tamales. Although I do hear Alamo has some sort of protocol to make things safer, I decided a few weeks ago to make my own tamales for my family.
Unfortunately (very), the family-style assembly line would not be possible as distancing and staying quiet while making them is impossible. Too much chisme and politics of which to speak and too many arms crossing to grab spoons and hojas. So, it was up to me and my sister, Sylvia, to get the job done.
The night before, I chopped up a pork loin, along with an onion, a few garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and some low-sodium chicken broth to cook in the crock pot overnight. By 4AM, the aromas emanating from the kitchen were waking me up. After six hours in the pot, I removed the meat and set it aside to shred. Also, the night before, I took a bag of corn husks (hojas) and set them in a huge pot of water so they could soften overnight.
Since I prefer Tamales rojos, I made a red chile paste made of dried guajillo, ancho, and pasilla chiles. I boiled them with garlic, onion, and a little salt, then pureed them in the blender. I kept a third of it to add to the masa, and the rest for the meat. Later, I needed more for the second batch of masa, so, I made some more paste.
Once I shredded the pork meat well, I added the red chile paste to it and cooked it some more in a giant pan, drained any excess fat, and set it aside for the assembly line.
The masa is a whole other experience. After already buying a couple bags of Maseca, I saw that Kroger was actually selling bags of masa. Growing up in Cristal, the only masa we ever used was from El Molino that was behind my childhood barber shop. Since it’s hard to find a molino in West Houston, and after not trusting the masa at the store, I decided that Maseca was the way to go. I unded up using 7 or so cups of Maseca, a 1 lb block of lard, baking powder, salt, and the rest of the chile rojo paste, then added 6 or so cups of warm low sodium chicken broth, making a huge bowl of masa by continuously mixing by hand until it seemed pliable and soft enough to squish out of your hand. If it was soft enough, it would spread easily on the hoja.
By now, you realize that the masa is not only the most important part, but the most challenging part of the process. That’s until you start spreading the masa on the hoja. Memories of my Mom and Pop came up as I tried spreading my first hoja. They made it seem so easy, but it wasn’t. Maybe I just don’t have the talent. So, I went to YouTube and found a Mexicana from the barrio telling me that “it takes years to achieve the talent of spreading masa on an hoja.” Thankfully, this is when my more experienced sister, Sylvia, joined the two-person process. Thankfully, she was faster than me and spread a lot more of the masa than I did.
We like our tamales meaty, so, that’s how we made them. After adding the meat and rolling them up (we didn’t put a hoja ribbon around each–too much work!), it was time for the steamer. I have a huge 24 quart steamer I found at a local market, but I decided to do two different batches (5 dozen total) to allow enough room for the steam to cook the tamales. After adding water to the steamer, to just below the steamer plate, I set up a huge coffee cup wrapped in foil in the middle, then stood up each tamal against the cup and continued placing them around as if forming a teepee of sorts.
We gave each batch two hours to cook. They came out tasty and spicy. Obviously the filling and the chile in the masa are important, but ensuring that the masa is well-cooked is key so that the tamal rolls out of the hoja. After leaving them out to set and cool, we wrapped them up in foil. They were ready to travel, eat, and also to freeze for later.
Sunday morning, I traveled to the ‘burbs to deliver a bunch to my other sister, Toni. We had a good breakfast of tamales and a side of eggs. Brother-in-law made a chile in the molcajete that was hot and that just made you hungrier for more tamales. There seems to be enough for the Christmas weekend and I even kept a dozen in my freezer in case I get the urge.
My first experience making tamales from start to finish was an experience. It’s a process. And if you want them to taste good, you must be meticulous about every part of the process to ensure success. That means it’s time-consuming and work-heavy. Or, as my Pop would say, “es una chinga.” Because after everything is done, you still need to wash everything and put it away for future use. So, don’t complain when someone tries to sell you some expensive tamales!
As my sis and I laughed about some of our mistakes, the lights going out in the middle of the process during the morning storms, and about all the memories with Flo and Pop, we decided that it was all worth it and that it’ll remain a thing we do.
I’m happy with my latest accomplishment en la cocina. And I look forward to a bigger tamalada post-pandemic with the whole family and maybe one-or-two COVID vaccine-inoculated friends, if it is deemed safe. But with Greg Abbott and his followers acting like fools…anyway.
Have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday. COVID-19 may be at a scary point right now, but if you continue to mask up, distance from those not in your household, and practice good hygiene, your risk will be decreased. And this is worth it, too.