I've never aspired to be Suzy Homemaker. Slaving away in the kitchen while the ol' ball and chain tends to his own needs wasn't something I ever could imagine for myself. That's not to say I don't like to cook, but having lived with roommates for all of my 20s, cooking at home was the last thing on my mind.
That mentality sort of came to a halt once I got married a year and a half ago. Don't get me wrong, I didn't resort to the '50s just because I had a ring on my finger but the idea of creating a cozy home environment the way my mother had done for us was something I desired to bring into our New York City apartment. And in my family "cozy" means there's always tortillas on the comal and a pot of stew simmering on the stove.
Since they say "a way to a man's heart is through his stomach" (not sure who said that, but it's basically legit) I decided I would reel in Ryan, who I met through a mutual acquaintance a couple months prior, with some pasta carbonara. When he arrived on Christmas Eve from Chicago, in '09, I had a huge Italian feast ready for him. I'm not sure if it was the pasta or the spiked eggnog but it was on that first holiday, after he devoured the entire meal (he is easy to please, food-wise), that Ryan decided to move to New York. Two months later he was here! I must have the magic touch in the kitchen. Who knew?!
For our second holiday the following year, and now living together, I wanted to show him what a Mexican Christmas was all about. Surely a piñata party in our one-bedroom Upper East Side apartment wouldn't go over well with our neighbors. However, what I could attempt was a shot at my mom's delicious tamales that she cooks every Christmas.
The first thing was to phone up my mother and ask her to send me her beef tamales recipe, which required me buying cornhusks. This was the first of many "Ay Dios Mio" moments. Where was I going to score cornhusks in Manhattan? Sure, I could scour bodegas in Jackson Heights, but anything beyond 10 subway stops is a journey I'm not willing to take. And so she mailed them to me! Gotta love her.
Next was to buy the ingredients on her list, which included three pounds of cow shoulder. Yes, cow shoulder! Asking the butcher for cow shoulder was an ordeal in itself (I couldn't get the words out for some reason).
Her recipe noted something that read: "tres cucharadas de Royal." Three tablespoons of what? What is "Royal"? Apparently, it is a brand of baking powder. Not that I knew that without having to call her from the store aisle.
The strangest ingredient that I've obviously digested many (many) times in my life, yet have never cooked with or bought before until now was manteca a.k.a lard. "Ay Dios mio" moment number 3. The word alone is gross, but a lot of Mexican food contains lard; I've just never faced the actual product. And it's not nasty looking, it looks like very thick white butter, which it kinda is, in essence, except that it's more fattening. That's what lard means. If I'm not being clear, it's straight-up pig fat. But it makes Mexican food taste so damn good. I would not allow lard to stop me in my tracks. And I certainly don't question my mother's cooking. So I proceeded.
The meat filling and the leaves.
I began making the tamales a couple of days before Christmas Eve in order to freeze them and have them ready for the steamer on the big day. The entire process was taxing, but having my mom on the phone and walking me through it helped immensely. I made the masa in one pot (I didn't have bowls!) and the beef in another. Once the masa was ready, I placed it on the leaves, then put a spoonful of beef filling on top of it. I finished it off by closing up the leaves so that the masa surrounds the beef.
Once I completed wrapping up all the tamales, I counted about 40 tamales. This Christmas meal was intended for two! But trying to scale down my mom's recipe would have been impossible.
So on Christmas Day we had our "very good" tamales (his words), and I was quite proud of my achievement. Making tamales from scratch makes you feel like you can basically do anything.
And so we ate tamales on the following day, and the day after that. But around day four we reached our tamal limit and called it a day. I passed them out to friends, but still had a few left in the freezer, which remained there for more than a year until I tossed them out (didn't mention that part to my mom, of course).
I've watched my mom cook endless amounts of times, and for her cooking during the holiday was never about slaving away in the kitchen; it was about chatting, reminiscing, laughing and enjoying the experience of creating a meal for the whole family. Ultimately, it is that aspect of cooking that makes it worthwhile: the stories that come out of the creations.
The holidays remind me to continue the traditions that have been instilled to me by my family while celebrating them with others and forming a new history of my own. But have I attempted to make tamales since? Perhaps until my holiday crew expands to more than two. Until then I'll leave tamal-making to my mom.
Here's the beef tamale recipe directly from my mother, Alicia Cruz (makes about 40!)
The Masa and the lard.
6 pounds of corn masa for tamales 2 pounds of shortening (manteca) 4 teaspoons of "Royal" 2 Tbsp. salt 3 cups beef broth 3 pounds beef (cow shoulder, or substitute any preferred meat) 5 ice cubes 4 dried guajillo red chile peppers 3 cloves of garlic 3 tablespoons of flour to use as a thickening agent 1 onion (optional) 3 packages of leaves for tamales 3 jalapeñopeppers, split into strips (optional)
The meat is cooked in 2 liters of water, 1 clove garlic, half the onion and salt for an hour, then allow to cool in order to strip the meat in pieces. Fry the garlic and chopped onion in a little oil. Grind the chiles with garlic and onion then add the flour to thicken. Combine all of that into a pan where the garlic is and stir in broth until it becomes a thick substance of mole, then add the pieces of meat. Add salt to taste, and add jalapeños.
In another bowl beat the shortening with the "Royal" until creamy.
For the masa, in a separate bowl, add broth, salt, ice, creating a dough and take a small taste of the dough to see if it lacks flavor. Add salt to your liking. Now add the shortening to the masa. Let it sit for 10 minutes. The leaves should be washed and soaked at least for 2 hours before and let them sit until dry.
Place a sheet to prepare the tamale and subsequently adding the meat filling and wrapping leaves. You may prefer tying with string or wrapping them in the leaves. Once you have placed the masa on the leaves (spread plenty) then add a spoonful of the meat filling, and close up the leaves.
Once all of your tamales are wrapped, add water (with a bit of salt) to the steamer, and place tamales inside. Make sure you check the water in the steamer throughout and don't allow it to dry out because the tamales will burn. Leave them in the steamer for two hours.