This is the first installment of Mexican food tutorials with the warm and inspiring Roland Rubalcava of Rubalcava's in Placentia. Roland has agreed to take us through his favorite dishes that he learned how to make from his mother--this way, you no longer have any excuses to eat at a gabacho-fied Mexican joint again!
To kick off the series, Roland will teach us how he makes tamales, a special tradition for many Mexican families this time of year. He said the key to making tamales is "doing it with people you enjoy." It can be pretty labor-intensive, but a little help from your friends and sharing the tamales over beers when they're ready makes it all worthwhile. Let's begin.
1. Preparing the Meat and the Masa
Before anything else, prepare the meat filling that you will put inside the tamale. You can find countless of these recipes online, and it's really difficult to go wrong. Just choose whatever filling sounds the best to you. The most popular are chicken, beef, and veggie, with either red or green sauce. The amount that you must prepare does not have to be exact. Estimate that you will put one hearty scoop into each tamale and make the amount according to how many finished tamales you would like. After preparing the filling, let it sit in the fridge overnight so that it is nice and chilled when you are ready to stuff the corn husks. A cold filling is much easier to work with and especially important if you want to freeze the tamales to heat up at a later time.
The day that you plan on preparing all of the tamales is the day that you should buy your masa. You can buy pre-made or powdered masa (the vile Maseca) at the grocery store, but Roland believes fresh masa is truly the best. You want to look for Masa Preparada Quebrada, which roughly translates to coarse grind, prepared masa. You can buy this at Rubalcava's or many Mexican markets. Again, you will use one scoop of masa in each tamale, so use that to gauge the amount you will buy.
2. Soak Your Husks
Without a nice pliable cork husk, you pretty much can't make tamales. To ensure you have this flexible wrapper, simply soak them in warm water for a little while. It doesn't take that long for them to suck up the moisture. Roland recommends letting your husks soak while you go to purchase the masa. You can find husks ready to go (like in the photo above) at any Mexican market for $3-$5.
3: Fill 'Em Up
This is the part where your friends come in. When all of your ingredients are ready, start by putting masa on a husk. This task is extremely similar to frosting a cake. Roland recommends using a sushi rice spoon for this step, because it's wide and easy to work with. Holding the husk in one hand, take a generous dollop of masa and plop it in the center. Then spread it out to two of the corners in a nice thick layer. Using more masa is always good because it helps prevent the tamale from drying out. Make sure to leave one end without any masa on it, because this part will be folded later.
Next, take a big scoop of your filling and dollop it into the middle of the area you covered with masa. You don't need to spread this out because you will be wrapping the husk around it.
4. Make Tamale Origami
Now you must fold your tamale for cooking! Fold the tamale into thirds. Begin by folding one side to the middle of the filling, and then fold the other side over that. Then grab that end that does not have masa on it (you left that part, right?), and fold it up towards the center of the husk. You're making a pseudo-burrito, which isn't too hard, but you want to ensure that no masa or filling will seep out.
5. Wrap It Up
When your tamale is ready, wrap it up with wax paper--the way they do at fast-food restaurants. This part is simple, but it's a key step. Not only does the paper keep the tamale intact, but if you don't put enough water in the pot when you're steaming them, you will smell the paper burning before your tamales are ruined.
6. Prepare Your Pot
You must, must, must have the correct pot to cook your tamales in, says Roland. You will need a large stock pot, and a steamer basket or grate that will hold your tamales above the water. You can buy the stock pot/steamer combo at restaurant supply stores or at some Mexican markets. When you have attained this handy piece, put the steamer in the pot and fill the water right up to it. It's okay if the water goes a little bit above the steamer because this will end up evaporating anyway.
7. Cooking The Tamales
You will fill this great pot with your nicely wrapper tamales in a standing fashion. Start by leaning one against the wall of the pot and then stacking the rest in a circle around it. The key is to loosely fill the pot--if there are too many tamales, the steam will not reach all of them.
Once your pot is loaded up, close the lid and put it on the stove under medium to high heat. The more tamales you have in the pot, the warmer you will want the stove top to be. It usually takes one and a half to two hours for these babies to be ready, but you should really judge with your nose. When you can smell the earthy masa in your kitchen, it's probably time to check on them.
To see if they are indeed ready, pull one out of the pot, unwrap it's wax paper, and peel back a part of the husk. If there is little to no masa coming off on the husk, your tamales are ready. You can also stick a toothpick through the center, much like a cake, and if it comes out clean you're good to go.
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And that's it! As you can see, tamales are easy to make but a bit time-consuming, so have a whole day set aside to prepare and enjoy them. When you're serving them to friends, drizzle some green sauce and sour cream over the top with some jalapeños and cotija cheese on the side. Of course, if you don't want to put in the elbow grease you can try these same tamales made by Roland himself at Rubalcava's. Enjoy!