Partly this has been borne out of anxiety about the future, but mostly it is simply pure interest - I am just turned on, for some reason, by the nitty gritty, day to day realities of growing, preparing, and preserving food for a family from the starting point of the local plot of earth that one has access to.
Most of this knowledge - though by no means all - has been lost to the modern American girl. I was lucky enough to have a father who gardened and a mother who cooked well and canned, and to have been raised for a few years on a farm where we raised chickens and milked goats. Even so, I keenly feel the loss of a huge body of knowledge. In another age, I would have been raised with all the knowledge I needed to grow, cook, prepare, and preserve food, as well as to doctor to my family with plants.
I would have been taught - by my mother, father, my grandparents and neighbors - everything I have instead needed to glean from books and to learn by trial and error about animal husbandry, gardening, soil amendment, cookery, and preservation. I have written before about...
...women's magic, true old fashioned feminine wisdom. Passed down from grandmother to granddaughter (or re-learned when the generational chain gets interrupted, as it has for most of us). Not-so-secret knowledge of how to make good food that keeps the family alive and healthy. Beyond food magic, of course there are the traditional feminine mysteries of midwifery, herbal lore, sewing and the fiber arts. Horticulture. Storytelling, history-remembering, child rearing, nursing the sick and smoothing the way for death. All essential, all capable of opening up into a lifetime of study and practice...
I'm an utter generalist, but even I have an area of expertise, and it's in the kitchen. I love being a kitchen witch. I love developing a store of useful, practical knowledge and elaborating it into art. I also, of course, like to eat. I like the feeling of knowing my family can depend on me to put food on the table - healthy, nutritionally balanced, delicious food - day after day. I really really like the process of learning about all the food related arts I've been learning about these last few years. I like being a competent housewife, goddammit.
Being in Mexico for a year will give me a wonderful opportunity to interact with women - my mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, and sister-in-law - who have original experience in these arts. It may not be the same kind of experience I would have learned from my German/Russian Jewish foremothers, had they been around to teach me, but it is authentic feminine wisdom, handed down from the ages, and I intend to learn as much as I can.
How to Make Real Tamales
Part of yesterday and all of today (so far) was given over to making tamales. From actual scratch. It's something I've always wanted to learn to do, and now my mother-in-law has taught me. Here is how we did it, step by step, start to finish. This pictorial recipe is as detailed as I can make it - I do believe that if you want to make tamales from scratch, this post will show you how. It's not easy, but it is fun if you have lots of help and the tamales are incredibly delicious. This is for real!
I can break the recipe up into three parts: the masa, the filling, and the process. Here we go.
1) The Masa
Buy three kilos of dried Mexican corn - available at Mexican groceries. Hopefully. We had to use "posole" corn, which Senora Maura said wasn't right, but which worked in the absence of the right corn. Also buy at least 1 cup of "cal." Cal is lime, and is a white powder. It looks like baking soda. Be careful with it, as it is actually a mild form of sodium hydroxide and will burn you if you aren't careful. Mix the cal with a quart or so of water. Use a spoon to blend and make a slurry. Set aside. Put 2 gallons of water to boil in a large kettle. When water is hot, add corn. Now take the bowl of cal-slurry and start pouring it slowly into the kettle of corn. Most of the cal will have settled to the bottom - this is good. Pour only the water off the top, do not add the semi-solid slurry from the bottom. That is too strong.
Let the kettle sit overnight. In the morning, test the corn. It should be soft enough to pierce with a fingernail, but still very much "al dente." The outside should be butter yellow and the inside chalky white. Rinse some and taste it - now you should barely be able to taste the cal - if it tastes strong, rinse the corn and let sit in fresh water for a while. Rinse and rub off the corn skins. They are very delicate and sometimes barely visible. Don't worry about getting every little bit.
Run the corn through your grinder. I used a meat grinder with the finest disk.
After the first grinding, the masa was still too textured for mama, so we added the other ingredients and ran it through again.
The other ingredients are a) a liter more or less of melted lard - in this case from our own pig. I'm afraid that if you don't have access to lard from a pasture raised pig, your tamales will suffer. The lard you can buy in the store is snow white and almost entirely flavorless. Good lard is golden yellow to light brown and has a rich, porky, unctuous flavor. Add your lard to the ground corn in a large kettle. Also add a biggish pint or so of strong pork broth (this comes from boiling the pork for the filling - see next section), and about 2 tablespoons of salt. Use your clean hands to mix and mash everything together. Run through the grinder again. More judgment is called for here - the masa should be thick and should easily hold it's shape when squeezed. It should not be dry or crumbly. It should be spreadable, like peanut butter. It will feel slightly gritty but not chunky. If you have a very fine disk or a different kind of grinder, you may be able to skip the second grinding.
While the corn is boiling, or whenever it makes sense, make the filling (2) thusly:
put 5-7 pounds pork roast (shoulder, butt, whatever you have that isn't too fatty or boney) into a large pot. Cover with water. Add an onion, roughly chopped, a pinch of cumin, and a few cloves of garlic. Boil at a fast simmer until very tender, about two and a half to three hours. Remove meat from broth. Broth will be used in making the masa. Meat, when cooled, should be shredded more or less finely. Set aside.
Make salsas. We made green and red salsa. Green salsa is made by:
simmering together 1 kilo husked, rinsed tomatillos, 5-10 whole serrano chiles, 2 cloves garlic, and a pinch salt. When tomatillos are quite soft, strain and put everything into a blender. Blend until smooth. Remove to refrigerator until ready to use.
Red salsa: Heat a few quarts water in a large pot. When hot, add 25-40 guajillo chiles and a small handful chiles de arbol (these are dried red chiles, available in most groceries and in Mexican stores. If you don't want it too spicy, omit the chile de arbol). Add two cloves garlic and a pinch salt. Keep hot but not boiling until chiles are soft - about one hour. Remove chiles to blender and blend on high until as smooth as possible. Pour result into a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and use a spoon to force as much paste as possible through the sieve.
Bring red sauce to a simmer and heat until somewhat reduced. It should coat a spoon. Meanwhile, put a few packages of dried corn husks to soften in warm water. When soft, and when all the components are ready (masa, salsas, and meat), bring everything to the table and call all your friends to help out forming the tamales.
The process (3):
You should have laid out in front of you a big crock of masa, a bowl of each kind of salsa, and a plate of shredded pork. You really ought to have, at a minimum, two people. The first person takes one of the corn husks and turns it smooth side up (it will curl upwards like a boat). Use a spoon to put a blob of masa on the husk - the size of the blob depends on the size of the husk. Use the edge of the spoon to spread the masa out in a thin layer, leaving a space at the thin end.
Now put a blob of salsa on the husk, and a little bit of shredded meat. Fold the husk in thirds - each side over the middle and the tip folded up. Place the folded tamal in a kettle fitted with a steamer basket. Put it in standing up with the folded side down and facing out toward the edge of the kettle (this is so that as you go along you don't accidentally start putting tamales inside of each other and opening up the husks.). When all the tamales are in the basket, remove the basket and put three or four quarts of water in the kettle. Bring to a boil. Then replace the steamer basket and cover tightly. Steam tamales for about two hours.
After a couple of hours, open up a tamale and check it (well, okay, a couple of times during the steaming you should make sure you aren't running out of water and add a little if needed.). The masa should be firm and kind of "sproingy" to the touch. It should not stick to your fingers.
Call everyone to the table and open a whole bunch of cold beers. Eat until you feel just the tiniest bit sick and wholly satisfied. Turn on a movie and relax on the couch with another beer.