Odds and ends. Bits and pieces. Those little leftovers from previous meals that were too good to throw away but too small to make a meal, on their own.
Go ahead, take them out of the fridge and set them on the table. Imagine how they can be used to make a brand new meal.
The ingredients are like colors on a painter’s palette, or notes and chords, waiting to be arranged to make music. These are the elements of creation!
Some of my favorite meals have started this way.
Reinventing leftovers can be rewarding in many ways. There is satisfaction in knowing that good food won’t be wasted and there is the feeling of exuberance that comes from self-expression and creative thinking.
I made this dish way back in April, 2020, during a time when I was sheltering at home, in an attempt to stem the tide of the pandemic. If there was ever a time to think frugally, it was then. People were hoarding toilet paper, disinfectants and many store shelves were empty. What a time!
2020 has been one heck of a ride and I can’t think of a more suitable way to wrap up the year than by wrapping it up in tamales. Tamales might just be the perfect metaphor for 2020. I was fully prepared to offer a long lament about the year 2020, now that the year has finally come to an end, but I feel a greater need to close the door to the past year and move on.
Anyone who has made tamales knows that it requires time, dedication and stamina, beyond the scope of preparing a typical meal.
There comes a point in the tamale making process where it seems like it will never end and I wonder why I chose to make them, in the first place. The only thing that carries me beyond that moment of futility is a steadfast determination and a belief that I will find satisfaction, when the job is done.
I could go on and on about the agony and ecstasy of making tamales but, I don’t want to discourage anyone from making tamales. Making tamales is a rite of passage.
My method for making tamales takes two days. On the first day, I roast the meat and make the sauce. On the second day, I prepare the masa dough, assemble the tamales and then steam them.
Day one: Roast the meat and make the sauce.
Ingredients for the meat filling:
5 lb Pork butt (shoulder roast) (substitute with chicken or beef)
¼ cup cooking oil
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
1 Tbs coarse salt
2 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp cracked black pepper
3 or 4 bay leaves
2 Tbs dried onion flakes
2 tsp red chile powder
2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
2 cups chicken stock (or beef stock)
2 Tbs rendered bacon fat or rendered beef fat
Wash the roast in cool water and pat dry. Add the oil to a large Dutch oven and set the heat to high. Sear the roast on each side and then set it aside to cool. Discard remaining oil from the Dutch oven.
Combine all of the spices (cinnamon stick, salt, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, dried onion, chile powder and oregano) and grind them in a mortar and pestle.
Coat the roast with the blended spices and return the roast to the Dutch oven. Add 2 cups of stock. Cover the Dutch oven and place in a 225° oven for six hours.
Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and let the roast rest for about 20 minutes.
Shred the roast with forks and add some of the shredded meat to a large skillet. Add a few teaspoons of rendered fat to the skillet and set the heat to medium/high. Stir the meat for several minutes and remove to a large bowl. Repeat the process until all of the shredded meat has been fried quickly in the skillet.
Ingredients for the sauce:
20 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 chile de arbol, stemmed and seeded
3 allspice berries
1 tsp fennel seed
1 tsp sesame seed
2 tsp dried onion flakes
1 tsp garlic powder
1 ½ tsp salt
8 oz tomato sauce
Stem and seed the chiles.
Steep the chiles in hot water for at least 30 minutes.
Remove the chiles and place them in a blender. Add some of the water, used during the steeping process, to the blender.
Puree the chiles and strain over a large mixing bowl to remove the pulp.
Move the sauce from the bowl to a large skillet. Set the heat to low and simmer.
While the sauce simmers, toast the allspice berries, fennel seeds, sesame seeds and dried onion in a pan, at low heat. Keep the different items apart in the skillet because the onion flake will toast quickly and will need to be removed first. Continue toasting the other spices until they become fragrant.
Grind the toasted spices in a mortar and pestle and add the garlic powder and salt. Add the spices to the sauce.
Add 8 ounces of tomato sauce to the sauce.
Whisk and stir the sauce at low heat for about 15 minutes. Remove the sauce to a large bowl.
Return the shredded meat to the pan and set heat to medium. Add some of the sauce and mix. Once the sauce is thoroughly mixed with the meat, remove the meat and allow to cool to room temperature. Once the meat has cooled, place it in an airtight container or sealable storage bag and refrigerate.
Day two: Prepare the masa and assemble the tamales.
For the masa:
1 package of corn masa (4 lbs)
Lard or vegetable shortening
Water or broth
Follow the directions on the bag of masa. Most masa mixes call for the addition of baking powder, lard and water. The general idea is to add baking powder, lard and water to the masa and then mix to produce a fluffy, wet dough. I used water and added some chicken bouillon and dried Mexican safflower leaves, (azafran en flor), to give a warm color to the masa. I soaked the bullion and safflower in warm water before adding it to the masa mix.
Soften corn husks by soaking them in warm water for 45 minutes to an hour. A clean sink full of hot tap water will do the trick.
Add some water to a tamale steamer and place the steamer on the stove top. Set the heat to medium and cover the steamer with a lid.
Prepare a large area to assemble the tamales. Arrange the work space so that others can help assemble tamales. Each person will need to be able to easily access the corn husks, masa and filling, and a tray for the wrapped tamales.
Lay a corn husk down on the work surface.
Apply about 2 tablespoons of masa to the center of the husk and smear the masa out toward the wide end of the husk. Don’t spread the masa across the entire husk. You will want to leave the edges of the husk clean.
Place about 2 tablespoons of the filling on top of the masa.
Roll the corn husk and finish by folding the pointed end over and placing the tamale on a staging tray or dish.
Once you have prepared a few dozen tamales, place them vertically in the steamer, with the folded ends pointed down.
Steam for an hour and then turn the heat off. Carefully remove the tamales and stack them on a tray.
Continue steaming tamales until they are all cooked.
At this point they are ready to eat or, you might want to wrap them in aluminum foil, in sets of 3 or 4, to save for later, or to send as gifts for friends and family.
I like to take packs of tamales to work and give them to co-workers.
You can freeze foil-wrapped tamales for weeks or months. To reheat, remove the foil and place in a microwave oven for about 30 seconds, or keep them in foil and warm them in a conventional oven for about 20 minutes at 350°.
Tamales can be topped with enchilada sauce, smothered in a warm cheese sauce or they can be eaten just as they are, hot or cold.
Best wishes to all of you during the upcoming year! Keep your family and friends fed with delicious food.