beef tamales

I kind of feel like these tamales are an emergency. Like I have to get the recipe out of my house and into the hands of the rest of the world STAT because they’re that good and everyone — YOU — needs them in their life. (Excuse the savior complex, food excites me.)

Seriously, though, when I made that comment about tamales being easy and that we should make them more often, y’all were like, Excuse me?? Tamales are easy? So then I had to make them again to see if they were as easy as I thought they were, and yes, I’m happy to report, they are. They are also extremely inexpensive and OUTRAGEOUSLY delicious. Plus, they freeze well and, with just a quick zap in the microwave, make fantastic emergency snacks. 

Usually, I veer towards chicken when making tamales, but what with all the beef in our freezer, this time I decided to try a roast as the meat base.

Roasts kinda scare me (still!), but this one was smack yourself simple: after a quick browning on the stove top, I covered it with water — a lot of water — added a sliced onion and some minced garlic, and then clapped on a lid and baked it for four hours, at which point I lifted the falling-apart chunks of beef from the gross-looking water (which gets reserved for the masa dough), shredded it, and doused it in the smoky, spicy red sauce.

Simple, right? 

Oh, wait. It’s the unusual ingredients giving you pause? That’s easy. Just look at it this way: maseca flour, dried corn husks, and dried chiles are cheap and they can live in your pantry or freezer indefinitely. Having these few items on hand is what switches tamales from the realm of Exotic to the realm of Everyday Accessible; once you’ve got them, the tamales practically make themselves. Promise.

Well, except for the shaping. I will admit that this step, done solo, can feel a bit tedious (unless you have a good podcast on, of course), so my advice? Assemble these when you know you’ll have a couple extra sets of hands available. A half hour of work should equal about 50 tamales, give or take a dozen.

Now are you convinced??

I don’t really know what else to say except that making these makes me inordinately happy. They’re so delicious and I feel good eating them. The flavors are unusual enough to make me feel special and yet they feel familiar in a primal sort of way, like soul food on steroids.

And the family loves them. For my younger son, they’re his snack-of-choice. Even when I think I’ve filled up his bottomless tank, he always has room for a few tamales. Example: The other day, for an ordinary clean-out-the-fridge lunch, I handed my son a plate of toast with sausage gravy, eggs, and peas, plus a mystery string cheese from the back of the fridge.

He fussed that it was too much, promptly polished it all off, and then he got five tamales out of the freezer and ate them, too. 

I guess what I’m saying is this: tamales are power food. Make them, eat them.

Amen and the end.

Beef Tamales
Adapted from a Food Network recipe by Tayler Florence.

There are all sorts of different ways to make the masa. Melissa’s recipe for chuchitos calls for only a bit of butter and salt in the dough — the flavor comes from the meat filling. Other recipes call for heaps of lard and a bunch of other seasonings. This recipe is a cross between the two extremes: I amped up the flavor with the beef broth and more salt, added some baking powder (because the recipe said to, but I can’t tell a difference), and put in a bunch of lard, and then I added extra maseca flour, too. 

If you don’t want to use lard, butter’s fine, and oil would probably work, too. 

The original recipe called for two ounces each of ancho and pasilla chiles; I know nothing about chiles and used ancho and guajillo instead, and probably not a full four ounces.

The meat and red sauce can be made ahead of time — it might be better that way — and leftovers can be frozen. I bet it’d be great in a stew.

The Components

  • Maseca dough
  • Dried corn husks
  • Red sauce
  • Beef
  • Some sort of steamer get-up
  • To round out the meal: curtido, beans, sour cream, salty cheese, extra red sauce and/or hot sauce, cilantro

the beef:
1 boneless shoulder roast, about 3 pounds 
salt and black pepper
a bit of oil (canola or olive)
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

Sprinkle the roast liberally with salt and black pepper, and brown it on all sides in a large Dutch oven. Add the onion and garlic and enough water to cover. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 4-5 hours. To check if it’s done, try to shred it with a fork: if met with resistance, let it go another couple hours; if it falls apart, it’s done. 

Remove the beef from the water, and reserve the water (and softened bits of garlic and onion) to use in the dough. Once the meat has cooled a little, shred it using two forks, and then rough chop. Mix the beef with a bunch of the red sauce (see below), reserving any extra sauce to serve alongside the tamales as a dipping, or spoon-over, sauce. The beef with red sauce can be made several days in advance, and any leftovers can be frozen. 

the red sauce: 
1 onion, sliced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and rough chopped
2 tablespoons cumin seeds, toasted
3-4 dried ancho chiles
3-4 dried pasillo (or guajillo) chiles
plenty of salt

Cut the tops off the chiles and dump out the seeds. Place the chiles, onion, garlic, and cumin in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 20 minutes until the chiles are soft. Working in batches, puree the mixture until smooth. Add salt to taste — do not undersalt! — and set aside. 

the dough:
6 cups maseca flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup lard, room temperature
1 quart beef broth, warm

Stir together the maseca flour, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center and add the lard, gently mashing it into the flour with your fingers, just a little. Add the warm garlic-and-onion beef broth and continue to mix with your fingers, gradually stirring in more of the flour mixture. Once the lard is incorporated, switch to a spoon and stir together until you have a fluffy, stiff (but not dry) dough. Cover with a damp towel and set aside. 

to make the tamales:
Prior to assembling, soften the corn husks in warm water for about 20-30 minutes. Put a little ball of dough in the husk and press flat. Add a small spoonful of meat. Fold over the dough to seal (it doesn’t have to be perfect), and wrap the tamales. This can be done however you like! It depends on the size of your husks and how much you fill them. Some people tie both ends like a taffy candy. Some people tie just one end like a bag. Some people wrap them up like a parcel. Some people don’t tie the ends at all, choosing instead to just fold them over. And some people wrap each one in parchment. Whatever works for you!

Set the tamales in a steamer basket, cover the top with a towel and then the lid, and cook over merrily simmering water for about 45 minutes. 

Serve warm — don’t forget to pass the extra red sauce — and refrigerate (or freeze) the leftovers. 

This same time, years previous: from my sister-in-law in Hong Kong: coronavirus at the two-month mark, the quotidian (3.18.19), the quotidian (3.19.18), piggies!, the creative norm, no buffer, family time, our house, lately, a fast update.

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