tamalada deathmatch.

This is an old post about tamale-making, lightly edited just now, and resuscitated in light of the fact that we're going to be making more tamales soon and there are a bunch of useful tip tip tips therein. Herein. Etc.

The two first vegetarian tamales we'll experiment with will probably be Mark Miller's mint/goat cheese tamale, and Susana Trilling's blak bean/squash version mentioned below.


Originally published 13 November 2006: I really wish that my [redacted] didn't have both of our cameras with her: the table at which I am typing this is currently home to 10 empty beugeltjes, 2 empty wine bottles, a empty tequila bottle, 6 shot glasses, and all manner of associated debris. I could probably sit and work somewhere else, couldn't I, but this tableau was oozing so much Bukowskian charm this morning that I couldn't ignore it...I'm a sucker for squalor.

The above textual snapshot of Sunday night middle-aged decadence's leftovers is the result of yesterday's vegetarian tamalada, which I kinda thought was yeah just OK (my food I mean) until this morning. See yesterday I finished making making a mole or two (mancha manteles and mole poblano), tamale dough, and 3 tamale fillings: fresh corn/poblano; wild mushrooms + aged goat cheese; chipotle black beans + squash + aged goat cheese. And then I stopped cooking and had everyone else build tamales, choosing whatever filling they wanted, etc.

And then we steamed them right up, and: the corn ones were pretty good, a trifle boring...I went too easy on the poblanos; the mushroom ones...I didn't really enjoy. My relationship with mushrooms in Mexican cooking has been going south for awhile, not sure what's up with that. I just don't believe them anymore when they act like they're supposed to be there; and then by the time I realized I didn't taste a black bean one, I was pretty full. And so, while everyone was very enthusiastic about the food, I knew I'd cooked better. I didn't help that my instructions about putting mole inside the tamales weren't received until about half-way through the assembling process.

And then, I had a black bean tamale for breakfast and felt instantly redeemed. This was another Susanna Trilling variation, on her Tamales de Calabaza y Frijoles recipe; her version has you put pureed squash in your masa and use pureed black beans as the filling. I couldn't imagine this texture (or lack thereof) being interesting for more than a few bites, so I pureed about 1/4 of the beans along with a chipotle and added this and the squash to the whole beans for the filling. And a little hard goat cheese, grated. And a tablespoon of mole poblano per tamale if'n you want.

Anyway, this was the unbeatable winner of the tamalada deathmatch, no contesto. I was skewered by every piece of flavor shrapnel that makes me crave the explosions Mexican food is capable of: sweet squash; smoky chipotles; subtly tangy goat cheese; little bit of mole mystery in my masa; comforting beany goodness. Unfortunately, there was only one of these left this morning. All the rest are corn. Boo!

Tamalada lessons in bullet point form:
  • Make the masa the day before. The purpose of this tamalada was that people who'd never cooked Mexican food before wanted to see how it was done. But there's not much that's very interesting about making masa, and the dough is supposed to be better after a day or so.
  • Make at least one mole the day before. It will taste better than the one you make during the tamalada, pretty much no matter what. Use this one in your tamale dough and in the tamales themselves. Serve the other one (that you make during the tamalada to show how it's done) on the side.
  • A bottle of tequila is a very very good idea, especially if you are not drinking any. The salt/lime bonding ritual is an old favorite for a reason...it's fun, and after two tequila shots your guests are ready for action and adventure. After five shots they will pretty much do anything you ask them to.
  • Letting people build their own tamales was a very good idea (it's important to ensure that this step happens between tequila shots #2 and #5). The nice thing about tamales is that there's very little technique involved in wrapping one, yet there's enough room for creativity to where people can engage with the process: it's not drudgery. Everyone enjoyed this a bunch. This is also a nice break for the chef.
  • Also, last night's tamalada was just about the perfect size: more than 6 people would probably require too much tamale-assembling space and create too much debris.
  • This is obvious, but I didn't do it: when you let everyone build their own tamales, they all come out different sizes (well each person tends to stick with a particular size). It might be wise then to have two steamers going, one for big, ambitious tamales and one for more modest efforts. This way, you see, you might be able to better control the cooking times and end up with a more unified result. I didn't take this seriously until the end of the cooking time, when I had to cook the big ones a bit longer.
  • Tamales are filling, even vegetarian ones. You do not need much additional food. A nice crisp green salad with a vinaigrette should do it. If people really want to make something to bring, a salsa is a good idea. Everyone's will be different even if they think they're just making "tomato salsa". Just make sure they only make a small batch, not more than a couple cups. 
  • But, if you're going to be making mole it's also not a bad idea to make some rice too so people who are really into the mole have a blank canvas on which to apply the stuff. I didn't serve the rice, just left it covered on the stove and let people know it was there.
  • Everything I bought at Tjin's was very good, even the canned poblanos.
  • And of course, right before everyone showed up I found my missing corn husks which had kicked off a semi-frantic "Plan B" scramble late last week.
Something else I learned from Ms. Trilling: the trick of rubbing a cut tomato all over your hands post-chile deveining really seems to work. I did not injure my eyes or genitals once yesterday.

And: because there wasn't a lot of cheese involved in yesterday's meal (the emergency quesadillas I had ready to go were never required), Rozemarie's homemade maple syrup-pecan ice cream drizzled with maple syrup was really a perfect dessert. Nice one, Rozey.


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