Like me, my mother-in-law is a native Texan.
By Dyanne Fry Cortez
I grew up in the Hill Country town of Burnet. Romana hails from La Grulla, just north of the border. We both have childhood memories of tamales, but the pictures in our heads don’t look much alike.
In my parents’ home, tamales came out of a can. They were wrapped in translucent paper, which I learned to peel off before digging in. I liked them for the taste, and also because they made a quick and easy meal. Mom had only to drop them in a saucepan, add a little water, heat and serve.
When Romana was a girl, tamales were a Christmas Eve tradition, wrapped in corn husks and cooked in a washtub on an outdoor fire. Nothing about them was quick.
First, the family would butcher a pig. The meat was cooked, ground and spiced for picadillo filling. Some of the lard went into the hand-mixed corn dough, or masa. It took hours to prepare the ingredients, spread masa onto washed and softened husks, add filling, roll the tamales, and pack them in the tub. Fortunately, there were plenty of hands to do the work. Romana was the youngest of six surviving children. Older brothers and sisters had their own kids. Aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws got together on holidays, and the feast was always worth the wait.
Some things change with time, and some don’t. Romana lives in Kerrville, 300 miles from her South Texas roots. She cooks tamales on a stove now and stuffs them with her own blend of pork and venison. But she still grinds spices in her mother’s well-seasoned molcajete. Her family — which now includes eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren — still looks forward to homemade tamales at Christmas time.
And I’ve learned there’s a lot more to making tamales than just opening a can.
A Holiday Tradition
Tamales are good eating any time, but they have a special reputation as holiday fare. Families all over the Southwest stage tamaladas, or tamale-making parties, in November and December. They turn out tamales by the tens of dozens, sharing the wealth with friends and neighbors, making up bundles for visiting relatives to carry home. If you’re making tamales, there’s no point in making just a few.
Food is central to these gatherings, but it isn’t the whole story. “It’s a family thing,” said Steve Lopez of Taylor, quoted in The Tex-Mex Cookbook by food critic Robb Walsh. Lopez’ brother-in-law added, “Preserving our culture, that’s what this is all about.”
What’s in a Tamale?
Like sausage, tamales can be made from inexpensive cuts of meat. Many traditional cooks use a hog’s head, boiled until the meat and fat fall away from the bone.
As my mother-in-law sees it, this makes sense if a person started with a whole hog, made good use of the other parts, and has a head left over. “You can use any part as long as you boil it and grind it,” Romana reports from long experience. If she’s buying pork at the grocery store, she prefers a cut that’s easy to work with.
She also buys prepared masa for making her tamale dough. Masa is made by cooking corn with water and lime, then stone-grinding it to a fine texture. Bags of fresh masa are available in the refrigerator case at some stores. If not, most stores will have dried masa, or masa harina, sold in the baking section alongside the flour.
For the tamaladas of Romana’s childhood, the family chose a pig weeks in advance and fattened it up for the occasion. When she moved to Kerrville with her husband, Sabino, older sister Rosa and two small sons, she left the family farm behind. But Sabino was a hunter. Deer season opened in fall, just as the women were starting to think about tamales. They tried making some with venison and got a leaner, flavorful batch that was a hit with family and friends.
Since then, nearly every deer that has found its way to Romana’s kitchen has been turned into tamales. Pork is still part of the picture, however. “If you made them with just deer meat, they would be too dry,” she says. She finds that a 50-50 mixture works best.
For this year’s tamales, we took meat from a white-tailed deer and mixed it with parts of a 350-pound feral hog, both killed in Kerr County. The tamales turned out great.
“You can pretty much replace any kind of domestic pork with wild pig,” agrees Rick Taylor, a TPWD wildlife biologist based in Uvalde. With an estimated 1.5 million nuisance hogs roaming the state, competing for habitat with 4 million deer, he adds, “I don’t know many places where deer are that hogs aren’t.”
That means a hunter can find tamale makings on the hoof almost anywhere in the state (and there are no bag limits on feral hogs).
The Cortez Family Recipe
(6 to 8 dozen tamales)
- 1 package dried corn husks
- One leg of venison (about 8 pounds, deboned)
- Side of pork (8-10 pounds, deboned)
- 1 small onion
- White vinegar
- Bacon grease
- 2 or 3 cans (8 ounces each) tomato sauce
- Black peppercorns
- Cumin seed
- Fresh garlic
- 1 pound pure lard
- 5 pounds prepared masa
- Chili powder
- Equipment Needed
- Meat grinder (electric or handpowered)
- Molcajete or mortar for grinding spices
- Several large pots and bowls
Prepare the Wrappers
Soak corn husks 2 to 3 hours before rolling. Change water several times to eliminate clinging dirt. If you’re short on time, hot water works faster.
Prepare the Meat
Boil venison and pork together in a large pot. Add a small onion (sliced), 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt, and 1/4 to 1/2 cup vinegar to take away the wild smell. Deboning can take place before or after this step. Cook about 1 hour or until meat smells done. Save broth; run cooked meat through grinder.
Make the Stuffing
Unless you have an enormous pan, you’ll need to make picadillo stuffing in several batches. The procedure described here will fill a 12-inch skillet. Repeat as necessary until all the meat is used.
Heat a few spoonfuls of bacon grease in a skillet. Add a little flour, brown and stir. Add one 8-ounce can tomato sauce; cook and stir over low heat until you have a thick paste.
Grind spices in a molcajete. Use the list below as a starting point, then adjust to taste:
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons cumin seed
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 dried cloves
Add a little water, stir, and pour the spices over the sauce in the skillet. Add approximately 1-1/2 teaspoons salt and stir vigorously to blend all ingredients.
Add a little of the broth you saved from cooking the meat. If it smells too gamy, use water instead. Begin adding ground meat a little at a time, stirring after each addition to distribute the sauce throughout. Add more liquid as needed. You want a fairly dry mixture (think of taco filling), but don’t burn the bottom. When you have as much picadillo as you can stir, remove from heat and start a new batch.
Mix the Masa
Heat lard in a saucepan until soft, almost melted. Put masa in a large mixing bowl. Add heated lard and 2 tablespoons each salt and chili powder. Mix dough with hands until ingredients are thoroughly blended.
Spread, Stuff and Roll
A corn husk suitable for tamale wrapping will be 4 to 5 inches wide at one end (the “top” or open end of the tamale) and taper to a point at the other (this “tail” folds over to keep the filling inside).
Spread a thin layer of masa on a husk. Start at the top right edge and go about two-thirds of the way across and down. Use a spoon, butter knife, tortilla press, oiled fingers or any tool that works for you. (Chances are none will work on the first attempt, but keep trying.)
Put a line of picadillo, about 1 rounded teaspoon, along one edge of the masa layer. Roll the husk, wrapping the dough around the filling, and fold up the tail.
An assembly line works well here. One person can spread masa, one can fill and roll, and the last one can stack tamales in the cooking pot.
Find some short, wide husks and make a few chatos — little slabs of masa with no filling — to go at the top of the pot. As the tamales cook, you can open a chato now and then to see if the masa is done. And yes, they’re also good to eat.
Tips for Better-Looking Tamales
One surface of the corn husk will be rough, with prominent veins. The other will be comparatively smooth. Put your masa on the smooth side.
Make the masa layer just wide enough to wrap once around the filling. The husk will go around more than once, but you don’t want the dough to overlap the edge.
Pack and Steam
The final step is to steam the tamales. You’ve already cooked the meat twice; this last cooking is mostly for the masa.
To make steam, you’ll need water in the pot. You don’t want to drown your tamales in the water. A steamer with a basket will solve this problem, but a regular pot will work if you pack it right. In either case, tamales should be cooked standing up with the open end toward the top. This allows the steam to circulate for even cooking. Add a little salt and chili powder to the water to keep salt from leaching out of the masa and give the tamales a healthy reddish tinge.
Packing Tamales in a Pot
Line bottom of pot with leftover corn husks. Place molcajete upside-down in center and stack tamales in a circle around it. The tail ends may be underwater, but the wrapping will protect them.You can also use a coffee cup. Keep stacking tamales on this foundation, much as you would stack wood for a bonfire, leaving a space in the center so that heat can rise. Layer them up until you’ve filled the pot. Lay the chatos across the top, put the lid on, and cook for 15 minutes on high. Reduce heat to simmer and cook another 45 minutes. Keep an eye on the pot to make sure it doesn’t run dry.
Once cooked, tamales can be refrigerated or frozen. They’ll reheat quickly in a steamer. Try them while they’re hot — there’s nothing like a fresh tamale right off the stove.
“They just slide down one after the other,” Romana says. “You never know when you’ve had enough.”