My first can of tamales
I come from a big family – 6 kids, 3 boys and 3 girls. When I was about 9 or 10, my Mom started working outside the home. I was the oldest “Little Kid” and was frequently responsible to feed my younger siblings. Mom kept easy to assemble items in the pantry and frozen dinners in the freezer. The first thing I learned to cook was spaghetti and I would spice up the can of sauce. It was then that I realized I had an innate ability to understand flavors. One of the staples in our pantry was canned tamales. When I opened the can my sixth grade nose was assaulted with smell of beef, grease and spices. I laugh now at the memory of these corn tubes wrapped in paper and soaked in a greasy sauce. It felt a bit exotic eating these canned tamales. As I grew up, I discovered that most of the world doesn’t eat tamales out of a can, but rather in their natural state of a corn husk. I had different levels of satisfaction eating “real” tamales. Then life changed when I made my first tamale.
My first tamale making party
In the fall of 1995 I followed my heart to Tucson as Sherry was finishing up school at the University of Arizona. I got a small apartment downtown as I courted her. I had been in Tucson for about 3 weeks when she told me we were going to her parents house on Saturday to make tamales. It sounded like fun and I really didn’t know what to expect. I thought we would show up at 9am, spend a few hours assembling tamales then head home. We got to her parent’s house and there were about 20 people, 5 bushels of corn and about 5 cases of beer. A little Day Drinking to get us started! Seriously though, it was that day I truly fell in love with tamales. There is a lot of preparation to make tamales. The corn needs to be shucked, cleaned and ground. The chiles needed to be roasted, peeled and cleaned. The cheese needed to be sliced. The hojas (corn husks) needed to be cleaned and soaked. Everybody had their job and Celia orchestrated the event like a true master. There was laughter, teasing, storytelling and other shenanigans. Kids were running around playing and laughing. Finally, after many hours all the prep work was done and it was time to start rolling the tamales. Hoja, Chile, Cheese. Hoja, Chile, Cheese. This went on and on. Finally there were enough tamales rolled to start the first pot on the stove. Wow! The smell of the fresh corn steaming filled the kitchen and delighted my senses!. After about 45 minutes steaming, the first batch of tamales were ready which was good because we were all hungry and ready for a fresh tamale hot off the steamer. We consumed tamale after tamale and then got back to work rolling and rolling for the next pot. I think I ate about 6 or 7 – but, they were little and so delicious. Sherry explained that once all the tamales were rolled, we would divide them among the families so that we could take several dozen home and that they would freeze perfectly. It took us about 10 hours to get all the tamales made. I think we made somewhere close to 100 dozen. There were plenty of tamales to go around. We have had many tamale making parties throughout the years, but this one holds a very special place in my heart.
Red Chile vs Green Chile
There are hundreds of varieties of chiles in the world. Chile varieties range from the sweet and mild to super-hot. There are many chiles native to the region we inhabit – the Sonoran Desert. One type of chile, Chiltepines, were a staple in Sherry’s house growing up. Her Dad, Harold, had a volunteer plant right outside their front door that produced hundreds, if not thousands of small red balls of fire. There was always a shaker of crushed Chiltepines on the table ready to spice up Harold’s famous menudo.
Given Tucson’s proximity to New Mexico, a favorite chile here is the New Mexico Chile. When one thinks of New Mexico chile, the first thing that comes to mind is the Hatch Valley and the Hatch Chile. The New Mexico Chile (similar to an Anaheim Chile) is the staple chile here at Tucson Tamale. These mild green chiles are about 6-7 inches in length and about an inch and a half wide. During the chile harvest from mid August through mid October, all around town you can smell the sweet and spicy chiles being roasted at Farmers Markets and outside grocery stores. Chiles are roasted and peeled, then used for salsas, marinades, chile rellenos and, of course, tamales. Preparing roasted chile is a simple and somewhat messy process. The chiles are roasted until charred, placed in a paper back or covered in plastic. Once the chiles have steamed for a while, the charred skin is carefully removed and the chile is rinsed to remove any bits of char.
Another use of the fresh green chile is to string them up and make a Chile Ristra. Chile Ristras are seen all over the southwest as decorations on patios or kitchen walls. However, they are not just decorations, There is a very practical purpose for drying fresh chile. After the chiles are fully dried and deeply red, they are pulverized into a powder or boiled and ground into a paste. Sherry’s parents always had a Chile Ristra in their kitchen and a chile pod would be snipped from the string and added to soups and sauces. The dried chile is also used to make red chile sauce, which is used in cooking meats, soups, menudo, and, of course, tamales.
Lard is a typical ingredient in many tamales. I have never been a fan of lard – although it is having a rebranding resurgence and is celebrated as having 40% saturated fat. I am not judging lard – I just don’t care for it. Without the absolute best balance, I always got a weird aftertaste in my mouth. When I started making tamales, I understood the important role that lard played in the consistency of the masa. Let’s face it, lard is what made it fluffy. But I wanted my tamales to be fluffy and also be able to be enjoyed by the vegetarians in my family. So I went about finding a replacement for lard. What I found was that it was not just replacing the lard (which we did with an expeller pressed non-GMO canola oil) that mattered, but also in the way we made our masa to make sure it was light and fluffy. There is a secret to our fluffiness -and for now it needs to remain a secret.
Expeller Pressed Oil
Oil is typically extracted from a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds, such as corn, olive, avocado, coconut, grape – the list goes on. Oil can be extracted 3 basic ways. The first way is to press the seed. This is often referred to as cold pressed or expeller pressed. The first pressing extracts the best oil. The oil we use at Tucson Tamale is an Expeller Pressed Non-GMO Canola oil. After this pressing, there is still oil left in the seed but it is harder to get out. To get more oil out, the second method commonly used is heat, where the seeds are heated and squeezed more. The heat changes the flavor of the oil; sometimes the flavor is enhanced and sometimes it has an adverse effect on the flavor. The third method involves using chemicals to extract the oil. Although the chemicals used are considered food safe, the process can leave chemical residue in the oil, which results in a much lower grade of flavor.
RBST Free Cheese
rBST is a bovine growth hormone that naturally occurs in cows. The growth hormone can be created artificially and injected into cows to increase milk production. Although we only use rBST free cheese, we do not include the statement on our packaging because the disclaimer associated is long: *The FDA has stated that no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST treated and non-rBST treated cows.
The process of nixtamalization
Nixtamalization is an ancient food process discovered by the Aztec and Maya civilizations of Mesoamerica. Corn has a hull which locks nutrients inside and interrupts the body’s ability to properly digest the corn. The word comes from the Nahuatl; “nextli” – ashes and “tamalli” – corn dough. Nixtamalization unlocks the nutrients by breaking down the hull by soaking the field corn in a pickling lime (calcium carbonate) overnight to allow the hull to loosen. The corn is then scrubbed to release the hull and is ground into masa (corn dough). This ancient process allows amino acids, nutritional proteins, calcium and niacin to be unlocked and available to the body to digest.