My Tamales: Tiny and Pork Cheek Filled

IMGP4490My tamales have always had a bit of an inferiority complex, small in stature and slightly misshapen. What they lack in size they make up for with their tiny hourglass shape, stained glass jalapenos and beauty of flavor. When I first learned to make tamales I tried to make the big, traditional ones, I tried to make the creamy banana leaf wrapped ones, and yet the tamales that made me most enjoy both the process of making them (and trust me, if you’re going to make them, you want to love it) were these little squirts. A mix between the Southern U.S. style shape and the Mexican style flavors and dough, it comes together as a wonderful balance of light, fluffy dough, thick rich filling and the tiny crunch of an embedded jalapeno slice, loaning both its flavor and its bright color to enhance the tamales.

I make tamales by the hundred–and by I, I mean myself and anyone (generally my boyfriend) I can convince to help me–because it is a lot of work, it is messy and most of all it is busy work so it is nice to have someone to chit chat with. I started with the filling, using my Holy Shit Pork Cheeks with extra meat added, letting it stew all day while I was at work, scenting the house with a wafting, spicy aroma. While that hung in the air, spread on a sheet to cool, I prepared the dough. I use the recipe on the back of the tamale flour (masa) bag combined with freshly rendered lard from the Mexican market by my house. Here in lies the key, though, to light, fluffy tamales: Start your dough with the lard, put it in the stand mixer with the paddle on and whip the lard for a good couple minutes. When its warmed up and has taken on some air, add the masa in, slowly, then the salt and the stock. Keep whipping it with the mixer.

When your filling is cooled, stop the whipping and bring your the filling, the dough, and your corn husks (soaked in water for 30 minutes) to the assembly station. With a husk in one hand, place a jalapeno slice (I use the mandoline for thin slinces) in the center, then smear a small (palm sized or smaller, very thin) dab of dough. In the center of the dough put a tiny bit of the filling–seriously, a half teaspoon or so. Pull the two long edges of the husk together and then roll it over. Take the bottom of the husk and fold it up. Then using a strip of husk (you can often pull it from the broken pieces of husk), tie a bow around the bottom, holding the folded piece against the tamal. They end up about the thickness of two fingers. The top stays open ended, so when you steam it, the grow a little taller. I steam them for about 45 minutes to an hour, with their open ends sticking up from my bamboo steamer in a large stock pot.

In no way are the authentic, in no way are my tamales something traditional. They aren’t modeled after anything or based on anything. They are simply what happened when I took to the kitchen, and when they turned out to make me happy, I kept making them the same way. Sometimes I change my mind and try to make more typical tamales, and each time I grow frustrated and angry with the results. The only thing that calms me is a return to my own tiny, pork cheek filled, beautifully misshapen tamales.

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6 Responses

  1. i love the outline of the chile! so pretty.

    tamales are on my list, but i’m convinced i will utterly destroy them, so i prefer to eat other people’s delicious tamales.

    and where do you get pork cheeks?

  2. Hi Michelle–that’s why I do these little ones, they’re super easy to do, they just take a little while. I buy the pork cheeks from my local Asian market. Thanks!

  3. Better meats in Ballard has pork cheeks as well.

  4. these look awesome. my puerto rican friend makes tamales (like you) by the hundred – it’s usually for a holiday and they have more hands to help. you must be exhausted after tamale stuffing.

    pork cheek stuffed? heaven.

  5. So I took this recipe, and did tacos with it. I shredded the meat and set it aside. I added some tomatoes, aromatics, oregano, sugar, and cilantro to about a cup of the marinating liquid and reduced it a little and then soaked the meat in it. For a salsa, I used chipotles, tomatoes, garlic, onion, oregano, olive oil, and cilantro and pulsed it down to a chunky puree.

  6. […] is always on the look out for something new and adventurous – ranging from Ethiopian food to Pork Cheek Tamales and she believes that there is no animal part too scary, no dining method to exotic. And after The […]

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