Tamale party!

This weekend, I finally got to take part in my first tamale party. I’ve been wanting to do one of these for years and never had enough people willing to participate, and someone to let us use their kitchen, since I live in a tiny beach apartment. It was awesome!

tamales

The idea behind a tamale party is twofold: First and foremost, everyone loves tamales. Secondly, tamales are way too labor-intensive to make in small batches and by yourself. They’re not technically difficult to make, they just take FOREVER. If you make your own filling, and you make your own masa, it can take several hours of active work.

Long hours.

Standing up.

I am all for slow-cooking — in fact, I love slow-smoking meats and slow-simmering chilis and stews — but those kind of recipes take maybe 15-30 minutes of actual work, and then the other 5-6 hours of work are being done by the slow cooker or smoker.

Before this party, I made tamales exactly once. I made one dozen, and it took me about three hours from start to finish. Frankly, I don’t even know why people make recipes for one dozen tamales, because it’s simply ridiculous. If you’re going to make tamales — if you’re going to put a whole afternoon or a whole day into it — you better walk out of that kitchen with dozens of tamales. (Don’t worry, you can eat them now, or freeze them for later.)

tamale party

The plan was for all of us to show up with pre-made fillings (we all brought different types, more on that later), plus masa, lard, corn husks and some munchies and drinks to share.

From there, we’d make masa, fill the husks, and enjoy each other’s company over a few drinks while we stood around stuffing and rolling for a few hours. It’s a great way to make a ton of food of any type, but especially something as simple as tamales.

tamale party

How to make tamales:
Step 1: Prepare fillings and masa dough. Pre-soak husks.

Step 2: Spread masa on clean, dry corn husk.

Step 3: Spread filling on masa dough.

Step 4: Fold and roll the tamal. (Optional/Recommended: wrap in parchment paper.)

Step 5: Steam tamales for 45 minutes to one hour over boiling water.

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Obviously the process is much easier if you take a few shortcuts. Luckily, I live in San Diego, which is a foodie paradise for many reasons, not the least of which is its proximity to Mexico and complete access to impeccable Mexican food. A local Mexican farmer’s market has its own premade masa for tamales …

premade storebough masa dough

… and an amazing selection of husks. I guess ’tis the season.

corn husks at the store

So it’s not hard, but it’s time-consuming … However, making tamales doesn’t have to be a tedious process. Here are a few things I would recommend to make lots of tamales without such a headache.

Premade dough: To save time — seriously, saving like half of the time — we used the premade masa dough, but here is a good and simple recipe if you can’t find premade dough, or you just really want to make the dough from scratch. If you buy it premade, I’d recommend adding some good butter to it to make it creamier, tastier, and easier to spread.

Parchment paper, preferably pre-cut: especially if you’re a beginner and you have husks of various sizes, it’s very hard to make uniformly sized and shaped tamales. To keep the fillings intact and the cleanup easy, every time you wrap a tamale, wrap it in a sheet of sandwich paper or parchment. You can steam them in the paper, too.

parchment paper

Colored string: eventually you will forget which filling went into which pile of tamales. Tie them with different-colored strings (embroidery thread works great) to indicate which filling you used.

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Freeze them uncooked: tamales aren’t done until they’ve been steamed for 45 minutes to an hour. But if you’re making lots of them at a time, you can wrap them individually in parchment and freeze them in plastic bags, then steam them after defrosting. They’ll keep for months uncooked in the freezer.

Kitchen assistants: have lots. You’ll need all the hands you can get to help soak, rinse, dry and separate husks, to make sure the masa is mixed and tasty, to cut threads, spread fillings, pour wine, roll tamales, everything. Get the kids. Get the neighbors. Everyone can have a job to do.

sous chef Ben

Prep work: do as much as you can ahead of time. Pre-soak your husks for at least an hour, make your masa if you’re not buying it, and make your fillings the day or night before so they will be cooled and easy to use when you’re ready to spread them on  the masa.

I made four different fillings: a simple corn and cheese filling, a sweet pineapple filling, a smoked ribeye and mushroom filling (my ode to the classic British steak and mushroom pie), and roast duck and kale.

The last one was the simplest: I chopped some kale and marinated it — or, rather, stuck it in a freezer bag with fish sauce and black pepper on the way to the tamale party, then picked up a roast duck from my favorite dim sum restaurant and added the fatty, crispy duck to the salty kale.

roast duck and salty kale

The duck and kale tamales were delicious with homemade tomatillo salsa.

duck and kale tamal
Hickory-Smoked Ribeye and Mushroom Tamales

A few hours before the party, I seasoned some thinly sliced ribeye steaks and smoked them over hickory wood chips.

hickory smoked ribeye

I also marinated some mushrooms (again with the baggie) in some balsamic vinegar. I wanted to copy a steak and mushroom meat pie, and I think this finished tamale was my favorite.

steak and mushroom tamale

  • two (2) 1-pound ribeye steaks, very thinly sliced
  • 1 lb crimini mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tbsp black pepper, coarsely ground
  • 1/2 lb soaked wood chips for smoking (I used hickory wood)

Season the steaks with pepper and place on a piece of foil with a small amount of oil. Smoke over soaked wood chips for at least one hour at 350 degrees. Chop the mushrooms very finely and place in a freezer bag with balsamic vinegar and a few teaspoons of pepper. Once the steak is smoked, chop the meat finely and blend with the mushrooms (don’t forget the meat juices inside the foil).

Dessert tamales are some of the best varieties. Try this one (and others with fruit) topped with brie or mild goat cheese. This is a delicious one, it tastes like tepache. Mmmm …

Pineapple Tamales

pineapple tamales

  • one whole pineapple, cored, peeled and diced
  • one cone of piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar)
  • 2 tbsp each of ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, and ground allspice
  • 1 vanilla bean, split

Place the diced pineapple in a large bowl with vanilla bean and spices. Place the cone of piloncillo in a small nonreactive pot with 2 cups of water (enough to cover the cone) and bring to a boil. Simmer until the piloncillo is dissolved. Pour over the spiced pineapple mixture and let sit at room temperature for at least one hour. Drain liquid before adding to tamales.

cheesy corn tamales

Cheesy Corn Tamales

cheesey corn tamales

  • 2 12-oz packs of frozen yellow corn
  • 2 whole jalapenos (optional)
  • 1 lb Oaxaca cheese
  • 5 tbsp butter
  • salt and pepper

Put the corn, jalapenos, butter and spices in a large pot over high heat until the butter is fully melted, the jalapenos are cooked and the corn is starting to char. Season well (and taste to make sure). Add a hunk of Oaxaca (or thick, mild melty, cheese) while assembling your tamales.

tamales recipe card

Of course, you can’t properly enjoy tamales and good Mexican food without good salsas and hot sauces. In addition to my homemade sriracha and curtido, I also make a mean tomatillo salsa. If you like it can be totally mild, or with an added kick of jalapeno.

tomatillo salsa

Bonus recipe: Tomatillo Salsa

This recipe is a variation on one of my faves, this tomatillo salsa and crockpot carnitas recipe from 100 Days of Real Food. Mine is totally similar except I use red onion instead of white (just a personal preference), I add garlic, too, and I roast my veggies first.

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  • 3 lbs tomatillos
  • 2 red onions, halved
  • 2 whole garlic heads
  • juice of 2 limes
  • 2 jalapenos (optional, or just scrape out the seeds for less heat)
  • salt and pepper

Roast the tomatillos, onions and garlic uncovered, except for the garlic (put that on some foil and drizzle them with olive oil), on your grill or roaster. They need to char slightly over high heat until the tomatillos are soft. Let cool completely, for at least 20 minutes after removal from heat. Peel, chop, and mix together the tomatillos, onions and garlic, then season well with salt and pepper and add lime juice. If the mixture is too chunky, place into a food processor or chopper and puree until smooth.

tomatillo salsa recipe card

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Summer Favorites

If you are a regular reader of this blog, thank you.  Sometimes my daily or weekly food projects aren’t much more complicated than “hey, I smoked this tasty chicken,” so I don’t always do a full blog post on everything I make. I do not post often enough, so I thought I would remedy that by sharing with you some of the foods that have been pleasing crowds at Casa de Starbright all spring and summer long.

Also, if you are so inclined, I encourage you to check the links on the right of this page and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, which are updated far more often.

First up is the old standby: beer-can chicken. I do this all the time. It takes only a couple of hours to smoke, and every time it’s perfectly juicy and tender. if you have a vertical smoker like I do, you don’t even need one of those fancy racks … just manipulate an empty aluminum can snugly into the inside the bird, make sure you can see the tab through the top (see picture below) and then when you set the whole thing on your smoker you can work the chicken’s legs around so it’s sitting up on the can. Then you fill up the can with the liquid of your choice (pretty much anything except really strong liquor as that will just be a fire hazard), coat the outside with a dry rub and a bit of oil, and smoke it til the internal temperature is at least 160.

beer can chicken

This is the chicken I smoked on the Fourth of July, alongside a homemade pastrami brisket (just a corned beef brisket coated in brown sugar, black pepper, coriander and paprika, and then smoked), and a foil packet full of garlic, onions and other items.

I usually have a packet of something random smoking alongside of my meat. If I have a few extra cloves of garlic or jalapeno peppers, those will always get smoked. Sometimes if I have a huge surplus of onions or other fruits I will smoke those for a BBQ sauce, and sometimes I will also smoke the sauce ingredients with the meat the sauce will be used on, which is always delicious.

Here, I smoked a nice rack of baby back ribs … this is the “after” photo when they came off of the smoker, and before smoking they only had a very basic dry rub. On the top rack of the smoker I had a few small foil packets, containing red onions, whole heads of garlic, and two ripe peaches.

baby back ribs

After about an hour I took the fruit, onions and garlic off the smoker, and put it all in a pot on the stove with a large can (14 oz.) of crushed tomatoes, 2 cups apple cider vinegar, 2 tbsp. kosher salt, 2 tbsp. brown sugar, and 1 tbsp. each of black pepper, oregano, paprika, cumin and chipotle chili powder. The smoked peaches and onions had the same smoky flavor as the ribs, so it wasn’t too sweet, and the sauce complimented the meat perfectly.

ribs with peach BBQ sauce

And a couple of days later on some BBQ chicken breasts, served with roasted corn and some warm greens.

peach BBQ sauce with chicken

Of course, one cannot forget the cocktails! Homemade tepache is getting to be one of my favorites … it’s so simple, it’s delicious and unique … and it impresses the hell out of your friends when you tell them you just made your own alcohol.

tepache

Check out my first blog post here about tepache, back when I was just discovering it, but know that this is just as adaptable as any fermented drink like beer or kefir … adapt it to your tastes and style. I’ve tried it with a whole pineapple (you can re-use that boozy fruit later) or just the core and peel, and I’ve also added whole peaches to the mix. Te-peach-e is definitely something you should try.

I’ve also tried making it in my Korean fermenting crock, and lately with my new Farmcurious airlock cap set (see below), and if you are into fermenting at all, I would definitely recommend one of these cap sets. It makes fermenting anything really simple.

tepache fermenting

Of course man cannot live by meat and boozy fruit alone, so we must also make somewhat healthy snacks. I guess. Sorta healthy. It has fruit in it.

I subscribe to a number of websites wherein people send me samples of things. Like, all the time. At any given moment I have no less than a dozen sauces, glazes, toppings, jams, jellies, pickles, and various other things in jars, most of which I have not made myself. One of those jars happened to contain a salted caramel sauce for desserts, so I decided to see what it could do with some grilled fruit.

Grilled fruit skewers

Pineapples and blueberries happened to be both ripe and in my kitchen, plus a single slightly underripe peach. They made very lovely skewers, and were topped with the salted caramel glaze right at the end for a little extra sweetness. It was perfect.

Grilled pineapple and blueberry skewers

I also got to enjoy a number of awesome food festivals so far this summer, including a Greek festival  … where I may or may not have bought a hunk of homemade feta cheese the size of my head. There were no witnesses who are talking. However, I did entertain my guests with many, many, many feta cheese dishes for the next few days, including this  … well, can you even call this a “recipe” or a “dish”?

Slice a watermelon. Crumble some really good feta on top. The end.

watermelon feta

Seriously, that’s really all there is to it, and I could totally eat that entire plate right there. The slightly salty flavor of the feta is so perfect with the melon. I have also seen a number of variations on this dish, but all of them seem way too complicated to me. One called for freezing the slices of feta, then coating them in breadcrumbs and frying them, then serving those fried cheese squares in the most picturesque, Pinterest-worthy plating with the perfectly molded hunks of watermelon you’ve ever seen.

However I am a simple girl. Like my adorable niece right here. All she needs is some fruit to match her outfit, and look at that smile! She doesn’t even need the cheese! (But don’t omit the cheese unless you are also a baby.)

Moxie

This summer, I also started cooking with orzo for the first time, and I think it is going to be my go-to starch for cold salads from now on. Orzo is actually made of barley, so it’s extremely healthy for you. It also cooks up in no time, chills really quickly, too, and then takes whatever flavor you give it. And it holds its own with hearty veggies. What more can you ask for?

Orzo salad

This tasty salad is a 1-lb packet of orzo, boiled about 6 minutes in salted water, then cooled, and tossed with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, green peas, diced carrot, sautéed yellow squash, sliced red onion, and bits of leftover pastrami.

Tepache

Many of you may remember my last blog post (or you can read it here) about all of the fantastic things I discovered I could make in my awesome fermenting crock. In the few months since I have had the crock and have been researching cool things to make in it, I discovered two very important things.

1) Fermented food is awesome; and

2) Alcohol is technically a fermented food.

Yeah. I know. I practically found out about some drink called Tepache by accident, and then I didn’t believe that the only ingredients were pineapple and sugar. I was literally standing in my kitchen, carving up the fresh pineapple, shaking my head and thinking to myself that this was a waste of a perfectly good fresh pineapple. Luckily they happened to be on sale for like a dollar, and they were insanely sweet and fresh, so I figured what the heck. I put the chopped pineapple in my crock, with the peel and core and all. Not the spiky part on top, though.

I simmered in a few cups of water (depending on how big your vessel is, see below about what sort of containers you can use**) with some piloncillo (again, adjust this to your tastes, how much you are making and how sweet that pineapple is) until the sugar had dissolved. Then I waited until it cooled and poured it into the crock. I added a cinnamon stick, a nutmeg seed and a few whole cloves to the crock as well.

Four days later, it was bubbly, foamy, and smelled like booze. I strained out the fruit (oh yeah, keep it for a garnish or something, cause it’s pretty boozy, too) and ladled it into a few jars for easy serving. It was delicious!

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Especially in early summer in southern California, all of the ingredients for tepache are readily available and pretty darn cheap. I found the fresh fruit for about $1 each, and those packets of piloncillo and spices were about a buck each.

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I should point out here that there are literally hundreds of different ways to make this. A lot of people only use the pineapple rind and core but not the soft fruity part — personally I like it better with the fruit, so I can eat the yummy fruit later. It’s wonderful. You can also add spices — the first time I made it, I went a little too heavy on the whole clove (it can be a little overpowering if you’re not careful), and so I had to adjust the spices. But I definitely recommend one or two whole cinnamon sticks, and a whole nutmeg seed, too.

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The first time I made tepache, it took four days to be fully bubbly and ready (your nose will know). The second time, it was considerably warmer in my kitchen and the fermenting process only took three days. Just keep an eye on it and if it looks like it’s fermenting too fast, move it to a cooler spot.

I also found some recipes for making tepache by only fermenting it for two days, then adding beer to the mixture, letting it sit one more night, and then drinking it immediately. It just speeds up the fermentation process to add the beer, so do it if you need to, but otherwise, there is no need to rush it.

I also tried it once with one of those big, juicy, fresh peaches chopped up along with the pineapple and spices and sugar. It had a distinct peachy flavor and it fermented a little faster, in three days instead of four. I assume that had to do with the additional sugar from the peach.

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I used my awesome fermenting crock, but there is no reason you can’t make this with a regular mason jar. Of course, you’d need a pretty large one, or several smaller ones, and make sure that the fruit, spices and sugar/water mixture is evenly distributed among all of the containers if you use more than one.

If you use a mason jar, don’t seal it completely — cover the lid with a cheesecloth, or put the two-piece lid on the jar but don’t screw it in and let it sit loosely. In 3-5 days, you’ll notice the foam.

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This drink is delicious by itself, but it’s perfect for a hot summer day, over a glass of ice, mixed with a light Mexican beer (Tecate or Pacifico, etc.), and with a twist of lime.

Cheers!

tepache recipe card