For countless Mexican American families and Texans, the holidays mean tamales. (Fun fact: the season starring fresh masa technically runs from the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th through Three Kings’ Day on January 6th.) Since we’re not traveling for the holidays this year, I decided to join in the fun, put my family on the assembly line, and steam a couple batches of our own.
To procure the fresh masa, I stood in a long (socially distanced) line at El Milagro in Austin. After chatting with the gentleman in front of me, who was buying masa for his wife’s sweet tamales (made with raisins and coconut) I purchased 5 pounds of coarsely ground, unprepared masa (prepared masa is mixed with lard and ready to go), which had a sweet, earthy aroma the consistency of fresh Play Dough.
I learned a few tricks along the way. My friend Johnny, a chef in San Antonio, told me to add some cornstarch to the masa, and prepare it in advance, so it’s easier to work with. I also benefited from this L.A. Times article that explains prepared masa should have the consistency of spackle, and a dollop should float in a glass of cold water when it’s ready.
My muse for the filling was a no brainer: smoked pork shoulder seasoned with Taco Secret, our new street taco blend that’s available in January. After smoking the pork, I combined the shredded pork with a Red Chile Sauce, which adds tremendous flavor and ensures a moist filling.
Don’t be daunted by the lengthy recipe. Each step: smoking the pork, preparing the fresh masa, and making the red chile sauce can be done up to 3 days in advance. Then, when you’re ready to assemble the tamales, crank your favorite soundtrack, shake your favorite elixir, and enjoy the process. The results create a memorable meal--but a primary part of the enjoyment is preparing tamales with your favorite people.
Smoked Pork Tamales with Taco Secret
Makes 4 to 5 dozen tamales
- 48 to 60 dried corn husks, soaked, washed, drained, and patted dry
For the fresh masa:
- 1 cup butter (or a combination of butter and vegetable shortening or margarine)
- 5 pounds unprepared fresh masa (I used coarsely ground)
- 1 to 2 cups chicken (or smoked chicken) stock, as needed
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
For the pork:
- One 5- to 6-pound bone-in pork shoulder
- ¼ cup Taco Secret
Red Chile Sauce:
- 4 to 6 dried guajillo chiles
- 5 unpeeled garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 medium white onion, chopped
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- One 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes
- ½ to ¾ cup chicken stock (or smoked chicken stock)
First, prepare the masa: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the butter (and/or shortening) for about 2 minutes, until fluffy. Reduce the speed to medium and add half the masa, in large pieces. Add 1 cup of stock and then add the remaining masa, salt, and cornstarch and beat until evenly combined.
Return the mixer to high speed and whip for 3 to 5 minutes, until the masa is the consistency of spackle. If necessary, add more stock until the correct consistency is attained.
Drop a teaspoon of masa into a cup of cold water. If the masa floats, it’s ready. If it sinks, continue whipping it for another minute. Transfer the masa to a sealable container and refrigerate until needed.
Smoke the pork: Use a paring knife to make small incisions (about ½ inch deep) on all sides of the pork shoulder. Sprinkle the entire cut with Taco Secret, and use your hands to evenly coat the meat. Allow the meat to marinate at room temperature for 1 hour, or wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 1 day in advance (remove the meat from the fridge an hour before smoking).
Prepare a charcoal grill for two-zone cooking, and build a medium-high fire. When the coals are glowing red and covered with a fine gray ash, use tongs to remove the cooking grate and place a drip pan with 1 inch of warm water on the side with no coals, and add a couple chunks of wood to the periphery of the fire. Clean and oil the cooking grates.
When the fire begins to produce a steady stream of smoke, place the pork over indirect heat, close the grill, vent the grill for smoking, and smoke for 3 to 3 ½ hours, until the meat is very tender and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the roast reads 170 F. Add additional coals or wood chunks as needed to maintain a steady temperature of 300 F to 325 F.
Remove the pork from heat and allow it to rest in a baking dish (to capture its juices) for at least 15 or up to 30 minutes, before slicing.
While the pork smokes, prepare the red chile sauce. Toast the chiles and garlic in a dry cast iron skillet over medium heat. When the chiles become aromatic and turn shade or two darker on each side, remove from heat. The garlic will take a few minutes longer, remove the cloves when they’re slightly softened and browned on each side. Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles, place them in a bowl of warm water and submerge them with a small dish or plate for about 10 minutes, until softened; remove chiles from water, pat dry and thinly slice. Peel and slice the garlic cloves.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until softened but not brown, about 8 minutes. Add the oregano, chiles, and garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 to 3 additional minutes. Pour in the tomatoes and ½ cup of stock and bring the mixture to a lively simmer. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until the mixture has reduced slightly and the flavors have melded. Taste and add additional salt as needed. Use a blender or an immersion blender to puree the sauce.
Combine 5 cups of coarsely chopped or shredded pork with the chile sauce and refrigerate until you’re ready to make tamales.
To assemble the tamales, spread ½ cup of the masa on the smooth side of the corn husk, leaving ½-inch of the husk free of filling (the filling should be about ¼ inch thick). Spoon a generous ¼ cup pork and sauce onto the center of the tamale. Fold the long sides of the tamale over the center, forming a cylinder, then fold the bottom to make a packet that is open on top. Repeat with remaining tamales.
To steam the tamales, fill a large pot that will hold a steamer basket insert with about 4 inches of water. Leaving out the insert, heat the water to a boil. In the meantime, loosely fill the steamer basket with tamales, placing them alongside the basket with the opening faceup. Don’t pack them too tightly, steam needs to circulate freely for the tamales to cook evenly.
Place the basket of tamales in a pot, cover, and steam for 1 hour. To test doneness, pull one tamale out and unroll. If the masa releases from the husk and is set, they’re done. If not, cook a few more minutes. Serve warm, with your favorite salsa.
Grill-side banter provided by food writer, cookbook author and grilling enthusiast, Paula Disbrowe.
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