Have you ever made tamales? No, not tamale pie. My mother used to make that and as much as I enjoyed her cooking, tamale pie would not have been one of my favorites. From what I can remember, it was noticeably sweet, and comprised of hamburger, corn, and canned tomatoes. I’m not going to blame this on my mother, because I know it was the recipe. Tamale pie could never compare to homemade tamales.
The only source of comparison I have is that of local women who tempt office workers with their once-a-week offerings, wrapped in foil, and still piping hot. They’re amazing and so of course it’s a challenge to not eat one before taking them home to share for dinner. I’d say that’s a fairly good model to work from.
Often, tamales are made with dried corn husks, the masa, or corn meal and filling spread on the inside of a dried corn husk, or fresh banana leaf before steaming. The filling can be anything imaginable, and often is depending on who traditionally makes the tamales, and what region of Mexico or the Southwest U.S. they’re from.
If you’ve been studying Mexican cooking like I have the past few years, the idea of banana leaves wrapped around a savory filling is quite tempting; it sounds so exotic! A glance out my patio window focuses in on the not so big non-fruit bearing variegated leaf banana plant I’ve been nurturing as a possible source. No, I’d have to depend on a local market, which shouldn’t be a challenge in San Diego considering the influence of Mexican cooking, but it is.
When I first happened on to the lone 4-lb. package of huge sections of banana tree leaves recently, I grabbed it knowing I’d procrastinated long enough and could now make my own homemade tamales. I knew I didn’t need four pounds of leaves, so attempted quite unsuccessfully to separate them. Unfortunately, the leaf strips were enormous and all folded together, so my efforts in trying to avoid waste ended up creating something worse. The leaves began to split, making them useless for the next shopper’s tamales.
Thankfully, my first attempt at tamales was a success thanks to the help of a very good friend. Between the two of us, influence from a few good recipes, and a make-shift steamer, a few split banana leaves caused very few problems.
Tamales with Pibil-Style Pork and Guajillo Sauce
Guajillo Sauce Ingredients
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
16-20 dried guajillo chilies (1 4-oz. pkg.)
1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
1/4 tsp. freshly cracked pepper
pinch ground cumin
3-2/3 c. broth
1-1/2 T olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1 T sugar
Pibil-Style Pork Ingredients
1 medium onion, quartered through core
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup achiote paste (see notes)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
1 4 1/2- to 5-pound bone-in pork shoulder roast (Boston butt)
1 lb. banana leaves
1 lb. masa fine for tamales or 1-3/4 c. masa harina for tamales + 1 c. hot water (see notes)
1/2 c. (4 oz.) vegetable shortening or lard
2/3 c. cool broth
3/4 tsp. salt
Prepare the pork
Place the onion and garlic (skins on) in a dry skillet over medium heat. Cook about 15 minutes or until fragrant and with black spots appearing on the skins. Allow to cool, then peel and put in a blender or food processor with the citrus juice, achiote paste, vinegar, salt, pepper, cumin, and oregano. Pulse to puree until smooth.
Dry the pork with paper towels and then coat exterior with citrus puree. Place in a sealable plastic bag or wrap well with plastic. Refrigerate for about 4 hours, or, overnight.
Cook pork in an oven or using the indirect heat grilling method at 350 degrees F or until it is extremely tender, about 3 hours. Allow to cool, then shred, or cut into very small pieces. Set aside.
Prepare the guajillo sauce
Cook the garlic as described above.
While the garlic is cooking, cut the stems from the guajillos, cut each once lengthwise to open, and remove them along with the seeds. When the garlic is done and cooling, lay each chili in the pan. You’ll have to press on them with a wooden spoon to toast them. You’ll know they’re ready to be turned when you see a puff of smoke, but not a second longer. Turn and repeat with each chili.
Place the toasted chilis in a bowl and pour enough hot water over them to cover. Allow them to sit at least 30 minutes. Expect to save the water for another use, if you prefer. It can take the place of all or part of the broth in the recipe as long as it is seasoned.
When the 30 minutes has passed, using a blender or food processor, add the peeled garlic, oregano, pepper, cumin, and 2/3 c. of the broth along with the chilis and puree until smooth. Pour into a fine meshed strainer positioned over a bowl, and using a rubber spatula, rub the puree through the strainer, scraping the bottom to collect the sauce. Continue until only small piece of the dried guajillo skin are left. Discard.
In the same dry skillet used to roast the garlic and chilis, pour in the puree all at once. Stir constantly over medium-high heat about 5-7 minutes until it thickens to a paste, deepens in color, and smells pungent.
Stir in the rest of the broth and simmer, covered partially, until the consistency of cream, about 30 minutes. If it becomes too thick, then add more broth.
To finish, taste and add to your preference, salt and sugar.
Use as part of the pork filling, and as a sauce to serve over the completed tamales.
Prepare the pork filling
Place the shredded or cubed pork in a skillet and pour over about 1/2 cup of the guajillo sauce, making sure to coat all. Allow to simmer on very low heat while preparing the masa and banana leaves.
Prepare the masa batter
Beat the shortening or lard until it is light and fluffy, less than a minute. Add the masa (purchased fresh, or reconstituted) in several additions, beating well between additions. Add only enough of the cool broth (1/2-2/3 c.) while beating to create a soft batter that is slightly pourable. To test for readiness, drop a teaspoon full in a cup of cold water. If it floats, the batter is read to be used. Season with salt according to your taste.
Prepare the tamales
Cut about 20 squares of the banana leaves — each about 8×8 inches. To prepare them for the filling, use tongs to hold them over a gas burner until they soften and become quite shiny. It helps to have one person doing this, and another on the receiving end, but is not necessary (just more fun). If you don’t have gas burners, then you can steam them one at a time until they’re pliable.
Spoon about 1/4 of the masa batter onto the banana leaf, positioning it in the center of the square. With the back of a spoon or offset spatula, spread the mixture to the right, forming a rectangle. Stop about an inch from the edge of the banana leaf. Spoon a bit of the chili-pork mixture on the extreme left of the masa rectangle. Then fold the entire right side of the banana leaf toward the center, which folds the masa over the pork. Fold in the bottom and top sides to the center, then continue to fold the remainder toward the original direction — left. Use a piece of cotton string to tie around the package and make a bow. Set aside and repeat until all the banana leaf squares are filled. You’ll have left over pork.
Cook the tamales
I used a large roaster pan with offset baking racks set inside. I placed the roaster over two burners on my stovetop and once the tamales were placed in a single layer on the baking racks, poured water from the tea kettle into the pan, being careful to not pour it on the tamales. With the heat on low, I covered the roaster with foil and allowed the tamales to steam about 1 to 1-1/4 hours. You’ll have to pull back the foil occasionally to make sure there’s water in the bottom of the roaster, so make sure you have a kettle simmering to add hot water when it’s needed.
To serve, unwrap the tamales and pour on some extra sauce. They’re delicious. I promise.
- I relied heavily on Rick Bayless’ book Mexican Kitchen, his website, Frontera Kitchens, and Epicurious for these tamales. The guajillo sauce is from Bayless’ book, but is a staple so can be found in a variety of places. Once you learn that onions and garlic are always roasted in their skins in a dry skillet and the chilis follow, there’s not much to it. The pork recipe was found at Epicurious, and originally used when it appeared in Bon Appetit a couple of years ago. The masa mixture and directions came from a few places — courtesy of Bayless and various packages of masa harina and masa fina.
- Pibil pork is simply slow roasted pork. In this case, it’s made with a citrus-based marinade to which spices and achiote are added.
- I’ve researched achiote before and was surprised to find there’s not much to it. It’s an ingredient with ancient Mayan roots that seems to be more of a coloring than anything else. If you’re as curious as I am — inquisitive, not odd — then you can learn more about it here and make your very own! I haven’t made my own yet, but I’ll get there.
- For the pork: I’ve made this on the grill, in the oven, and in a crockpot. The superior way to cook it is on the grill after it’s marinated overnight. No contest. The flavor is very good using the other two methods, but the consistency is perfect coming off a grill. If you do use the oven like I did this time, you will have a high brown on the exterior. Just check the interior temp, looking for 170 degrees, and you’ll be fine. You can make this ahead like I did, and wrap well to store in the fridge overnight. It’s worth the effort because outside of preparing the marinade, there’s no effort involved.
- I used two large portions of pork shoulder for this recipe.
- Guajillos are a type of chili. They’re spicy, but not “hot.” I find them bagged in the section of your grocery store that features Mexican spices. I’d double this recipe because it’s that good, and you can refrigerate or freeze what’s left over for later use. My friend considers it “gold” for the amount of processing it takes to create. It’s delicious.
- You can find masa harina in the flour section of your grocery store. It usually states that it’s for tamales. Basic directions for how to make tamales will be on the package. If you’re lucky enough to find prepared, or fresh masa, it usually comes in 2-lb. bags. The purchased masa is the same as what you’d mix with water from the masa harina. Create the tamale batter from this point with either to add the fat and salt.
- While we’re on the subject of fat — or in this case, lard — it’s personal preference. Bayless lays it all out and makes complete sense with respect to lard, and I’ve tried it. But I’m not used to the flavor and prefer the shortening. You may be horrified by the addition of fat, but if you look at just how much masa is on the outside of each tamale, then you know that eating one or two is clearly a good thing, and not the 5 or 6 you’d like to if no one is looking.
- You can make the pork and go without adding the guajillo sauce to it, but what the heck? It’s amazing sauce, so why not? But I hope you can see that if you can pull this together, then you can put whatever you’d like in a tamale, just like those who have made them traditionally for centuries — in fact thousands of years.