I grew up in a family where food was a central part of family gatherings. Reunions and funerals and Sunday meals after church but also breakfasts and birthdays and people being in town for a visit. My great-grandmother believed in bacon and sausage at the same meal together, and if there were both grits and cream of wheat, well, the more options the better.
None of the women who raised me were particularly patient when it came to teaching cooking skills so when I moved out on my own, I depended on what I could teach myself. Often (and still) that meant calling someone and scribbling notes while they described an inexact process. For example: my grandmother's funeral potatoes.
I always say that I don't cook much because I don't like cooking. Some of that is because I haven't enjoyed it as an activity and some of it is because I think I'd just drink Soylent and review it for y'all if I could get away with it (there's a lingering "Soylent Green is people" creep factor). I have always hated the necessity of eating, the never-ending requirement of it. I have problems with authority and, in some ways, the body's constant need for nutrition is the ultimate authority.
That was some deep shit right there. I'm taking that to therapy with me, let me tell you what.
Throw in my eating disordered history where I've gone so far as to pass out after not eating, and of course I've had problems with cooking and feeding myself. Of course I've resisted learning the ins and outs of daily cookery.
Lately, though, I've been thinking that, actually, my self-image and my current reality might not line up as much as all that. Because I do cook and I do enjoy it. I'm having people over on a regular basis and am taking a lot of joy in feeding them — and I'm also coming home and making myself something to eat on the regs. Instead of suggesting we go out to eat, I'm helping Ed in the kitchen or prepping stuff before he gets home. And none of it is a heinous and tedious chore.
Sometimes it takes a little while to realize when we've changed, right?
Or maybe it's just a sign that the meds are working. Because as I've felt better and more like myself, I've felt genuine and wonderful hunger for the first time that I can remember. Instead of eating by rote because I know I need to, I feel hungry.
It's hard to convey how meaningful that is. It's hard to get across unless you've ever experienced it. I know a lot of people complain about the constant hunger they experience on psychiatric meds but it's so magical to me — I feel excited by food possibilities.
And I feel excited to make different things. I want to make the things that we go out to eat for. The most recent project? Pork tamales.
Spoiler alert: This was an amazing food project and I am making them again for our February potluck. (January was a red curry that I learned how to make years ago.) The process of making them is a little involved but that was part of the pleasure of it. It's a unique experience and I'm still savoring it, still enjoying how creative it feels. Making tamales is very tactile and you have to be kind of thoughtful about every stage of the process. I want to bring that thoughtfulness to the other foods that I make, even when it's just eggs. So, you know, that's a goal.
What's your deal with cooking? Is it a chore? Who taught you what you know? Did you learn to love it later? And in the meantime, here's the recipe for those pork tamales.
Things You Need:
- 3-4 pounds pork butt
- 1/2-1 pounds whole ancho chile peppers
- Corn husks (they come in a bag that you will potentially never finish)
- Lard (sorry, not sorry)
- 1 pound tomatillos
- 3 serrano peppers
- Masa (corn flour — Maseca is the brand I used)
- Baking powder
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Dried parsley
- Ham stock or water
Make Your Filling
To prep your meat (heh, meat), liberally salt it on both sides. Pork butt is pretty well marbled but that's what's going to make the meat lovely and tender and flavorful when it's done cooking so don't worry about trimming off all of the fat.
Chuck your salted meat into a dutch oven (or slow cooker or however you braise meat). Put enough water in your vessel to cover the surface of your meat by a couple of inches. You can throw in some onion if you like but I don't dig onion and so used some onion powder instead. Then put the lid on and cook it in the oven at 325 for three hours or so — the goal is meat that pulls apart with a fork so check it at 3 hours and see. (Pork should be cooked to 160 degrees F to make sure it is done, by the way, but you shouldn't have a problem reaching that with this method of cooking.)
Go do other stuff while your meat cooks. And when it's done cooking, you're still not actually ready to jump in because you need to let your meat cool. So set your meat aside for a while. Also hang on to the water in the pot that has now because ham stock because that's going to come in handy.
Once your pork has cooled, use some forks (or your clean fingers) to pull it into a million shreds. Set it aside.
The Ancho Stuff
Ancho chile peppers are dried and your next task is to reconstitute them. Chop off the stems and remove the seeds first. Then put them in a pot and cover them with water (it's a theme) — bring the water to a boil, cover your pot, take them off the heat, and let them sit for a half hour or so.
The result is soft and kind of slimy looking peppers plus some very red water. Add the peppers plus some of the cooking water to your blender or food processor and pulse until you can get a good puree going. Add more water as needed until the consistency is like gravy.
The next step is to strain this blended mix. I know it seems unnecessary but it really does make a difference in the end product so I think it's worth finding the mesh strainer and doing it.
The Pork Plus The Ancho Stuff
Put some oil in a pan and, over medium to medium high heat, brown your shredded pork. This provides some additional depth of flavor. Add a teaspoon and a half of cumin while you're at it.
When the meat is browned, add your strained ancho stuff. Are your familiar with sloppy joes? Make your meat to sauce ratio similar to that. If your meat is too wet, your tamales are going to be a hot mess. If your meat is too dry, your tamales are just going to be sad.
Set this mixture aside.
Make Your Salsa Verde
Peel the husks off of all of those beautiful tomatillos. They're gorgeous, right? Cut the tomatillos in half and put them face down on a cookie sheet or in a baking pan. You're going to broil them and it's going to be great.
Cut the stem ends off your serrano peppers. These peppers will provide spice so remove the seeds if you don't want things to be very spicy. Keep the seeds if you're fine with a hotter end product. Add these to your baking pan. Throw a couple of cloves of garlic on there, too.
Listen, here is a thing about me: I don't like onions. The texture is a problem. If you want to cut up a whole onion and add it to the mix, that is fantastic. But I did not. Nope, nope, nope.
Broil all of these things until there are burnt black bits -- that's going to be about five minutes in the oven on the high rack with the temp set to broil.
Once that's done, add everything to your food processor or blender and pulse it to a nice smooth texture. Ding, salsa verde's done. And also delicious. Don't forget about the delicious part. You're going to have some of this left over, too, which is a total bonus.
Make Your Masa
I'm going to suggest that a stand mixer is the way to go with this. I mean, mixing it up by hand would be a hell of a workout but there's something to be said for efficiency.
Add 3 cups instant corn masa flour to the mixer bowl. Then add in 1/4 cup dried parsley, 3/4 teaspoons of garlic powder and salt, and 3/4 tablespoon of baking powder. These are your dry ingredients. Start to mix them on low.
Next you're going to add about a half cup of the salsa verde that you made. It'll season your masa so err on the side of more salsa but watch the texture of your dough and add more or less of the other wet ingredients as you work — you want to end up with a dough that is moist but not soupy. It needs to be able to not drip off the mixing paddle.
Next, add 3/8 cup of lard. It's easiest if you melt it first. Yes, 3/8 is a weird measurement — it's half of 3/4 of a cup and I think eye-balling it is just fine.
The last wet ingredient is about 4 cups of that ham stock I told you to reserve. You may or may not need all of the liquid depending on how much salsa verde you added. Watch the texture of the masa dough and go from there.
Assemble Your Tamales
First, soak your corn husks in hot water for at least twenty minutes. They need to be pliable. They have a smooth side and a rough side, and you'll also need to take note of that because your filling will go on the smooth side.
Dry your corn husks off with a towel, one by one. Yes, it's a pain. Yes, it's absolutely necessary.
Set up your tamale assembly line. You're going to smear about a 1/4 inch of masa on the bottom 3/4 of each corn husk. Then you need to add a line of your pork filling down the center. It doesn't take as much filling as you might think.
The tricky part comes now — you're going to fold the tamale so that the two sides of masa meet and enclose the pork filling, with one side of the corn husk overlapping the other but without masa being trapped between the layers. Then you'll fold up the bottom so that nothing leaks out.
There are some videos on YouTube but I really found it didn't matter how much I watched someone else do it. This is the kind of thing you have to figure out with your own hands. And it takes practice. Fortunately, this recipe makes about two dozen good sized tamales so you have a little room to figure it out.
You're going to need to stand your wrapped tamales up in something or they'll leak all over the place and that would be awful. Use what you've got.
Steam Your Tamales
Tamales are steamed and it took me a little while to not feel intimidated by the steaming process. I bought a pasta pot and it made me feel ridiculous because it worked so well. Put your tamales in the top part where the pasta would go and fill the bottom pot just to the level of where the top pot sits.
Bring the water to a boil, cover, and simmer the whole assembly.
Steaming tamales isn't fast. Give it 90 minutes and then start checking. You'll know your tamales are done because they'll have firmed up but you can also just pull one out, unwrap it, and check to make sure it isn't mush. If it is, wrap it back up and tuck it back into your steaming situation.
Just don't let your pot run out of water.
When the tamales are done, they're incredible. All of the different parts of the process create layers of flavor. Tamales may not be the prettiest food but they're a really good example of how sometimes the most delicious stuff is the most unassuming looking.
Two dozen tamales won't last long at a party but if it's just you (or you and a person or a couple of other people), tamales do reheat well. Wrap one in a damp paper towel (leave the corn husk on) and give it two minutes in the microwave. Lunch is served and also everyone else watching you eat lunch will be totally impressed.
But screw that because if you've made your own tamales, you should be impressed with yourself anyway.
Note: Unsteamed tamales freeze well. Just put them in a Zip-loc and put them in the freezer for up to six months. Take them out when you're ready, defrost them in the fridge, and then steam the way you would have when they were fresh.