Archive for April, 2011


Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Making tamales tends to be one of those all day projects, so I like to get ready in stages.  The first stage is fixing a pork roast for dinner and using the leftovers to make my tamale filling. I prepared a large pork tenderloin roast in a slow cooker with onion, garlic, salt, chicken broth, and some freshly toasted and ground cumin seed. Once you get used to using whole spices that you toast and grind yourself, you’ll never be satisfied with stale pre-ground spices again.  The tools are as simple as a heavy pan for toasting and a mortar and pestle.

Fair warning… the measurements I’ve given are VERY rough estimates based on the amount of leftover pork I had. Also, tamales are not low fat and they taste best if made with lard. Yes, I said lard. Lard, lard, lard. I would love to go into my whole rant about the use of fats in our diet, but then there wouldn’t be time for this blog post. If you’re interested in my position on the subject, I highly recommend reading Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

Before beginning to prepare my meat filling and masa dough, I got my corn husk wrappers in a sink full of warm water.  By the time I was ready to start assembling my tamales, the husks were nice and pliable.

Oh, and one last thing …  I am relatively new to making tamales, and am by no means an expert. After making this particular batch I’ve already got plans to make some changes the next time I make them. For beginners, I’ve decided to experiment with adding some seasonings to my masa dough. Also, my family has decided that we would like less of the masa dough, and more meat filling.

Tamale Filling
2 pounds shredded pork
Olive oil and/or melted pork fat from the roast
2 large onions, finely diced
4 or 5 large garlic cloves, minced
1 heaping tablespoon ground cumin
Salt to taste

Heat oil/fat in a large heavy frying pan (I love my cast iron). Add onion and cook until softened. Add garlic and cumin and cook for a minute or two. Add shredded pork and some broth to the pan.  Cook until heated through.  You will want to use enough broth for a moist mixture, but not so much that it will be wet and runny. Salt to taste.  Be sure to taste your filling and adjust the spices as you see fit. If your meat filling isn’t full of flavor, you run the risk of bland tasting tamales.

Masa Dough (the recipe from the side of Maseca masa bag)
2 cups masa
2 cups lukewarm water or broth
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cups lard or vegetable shortening

Combine masa, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Work broth or water with your fingers to make a soft moist dough. In a small bowl, beat lard or shortening until fluffy, add masa and beat until dough has a spongy texture.

I just throw every thing into the bowl of my mixer at once, and beat the heck out of the whole mess until it develops a fluffy/spongy texture. In the future I’m going to precream the fat.

Assemble the Tamales
1. Place a layer of masa dough over a corn husk, spreading it out evenly
2. Place some meat filling down the middle of the masa dough
3. Roll it all up in the corn husk, bending the ends down
4. Use strips of corn husk to tie the tamales. This is an optional step, but I do it because I like to, and I find it easier to handle the tamales.

The last thing to do is steam these puppies! I stacked them in several layers in a big steamer basket I’ve got.  It’s really a big pot and basket from a turkey fryer which we’ve never used for frying turkey. We originally got it because it was perfect for fixing our Christmas lobster, and is practical for a host of other tasks. It’s indispensable when I do my summer canning.

Bring the water in the steamer to a rolling boil and place the tamales above the water.  Steam until tamales are done.  Mine took about 45 minutes.

Serve tamales with your favorite sauce (chili sauce, green salsa, etc.)

One last thought: Tamales are wonderful, but what do you think would be more wonderful? How about chocolate tamales?

Homemade Cider Vinegar

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Recently, I decided I wanted to learn to make my own vinegar. I happened to recall that Leslie, an online herbie friend of mine, had tried her hand at vinegar this past fall. After checking out her blog post on making vinegar, I also picked her brain clean, and she was kind enough to hold my hand over the several weeks it took to make my vinegar. A big “thank you”, Leslie! If you take a look at her post, you’ll notice that she was taught how to make vinegar by someone she knew.  Unfortunately, Leslie’s friend’s blog with the step-by-step updates is no longer available.  One of things I enjoy about the online herb community I’m involved with is the willingness to share knowledge.

What I love about this particular method of making vinegar is that it can be made in small batches, and utilizes apple scraps that would normally end up in my compost pile.  I used the chopped up cores and peelings of some organic apples I used to make a batch of apple crisp.

I decided to use an half gallon glass jar for this project, instead of my crock, so that I would be able to watch the whole process and take pictures.  In the future I will probably use one of my smaller crocks.  On a side note, it’s very important to use a container made of a non-reactive material like glass, crockery, or stainless steel.  Your finished vinegar is highly acidic and will react with a material like aluminum.

I placed the apple scraps in the jar and covered them with water. Next, I mixed in a nice dollop of raw local honey and about 1/4 cup of Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar that I picked up at the health food store.

The addition of honey helps get the first stage of fermentation going, where sugars are converted to alcohol.  I didn’t have access to a vinegar “mother” for this first attempt, so I used the Bragg vinegar to provide Acetobacter.  Acetobacter is an acetic acid bacteria required for the second stage of fermentation, where the alcohol is converted to vinegar.  In the future I will be able to start batches from the mother that developed in this batch (more on that later).

Once I had given the whole thing a good stir , I covered the jar with a piece of butter muslin and set the jar aside to start doing it’s thing. It’s important for the mixture to get plenty of air while the fermentation process is taking place, thus the use of a cloth cover.  If you don’t use a cover you might end up having problems with flies and such getting into your project.

Now, after the above warning to keep your project covered, I will admit to keeping my project uncovered for the first few days.   I wanted to be able to provide a few good shots of the process, and it had been cool enough that flies weren’t a problem.  I placed a little antique glass canning jar lid on top of the mixture to hold the apples down below the surface of the liquid, and still allow me to see what was going on.

Within 24 hours I saw the first bubbly signs that yeast were happily munching away, and fermentation was underway.

By the end of day 2 serious foaming was underway, and I could see the gaseous bubbles moving under the glass lid much like carbonation bubbling up in a glass of soda.


Once the primary fermentation activity had settled down, I covered the jar and set it aside for the next several weeks. When I checked it at week 3 I found a skim across the top of the liquid, which indicated the secondary fermentation was progressing along.

This substance that forms at the top of the vinegar is called a “mother”.  It contains the acetic acid bacteria that convert the alcohol to vinegar, and can be saved to start future batches of vinegar. As time passes, this bacterial colony continues to multiply and increase in mass.  By week 5, which was this morning, the mother had increased significantly, and my vinegar tasted sufficiently “vinegary”.

I removed the mother, setting it aside in a small dish, and strained the finished vinegar into a quart jar.  After tasting the vinegar, I decided that I’d like it to be just a little more sour, so I placed a small piece of the mother in the jar and will take it out when the flavor is just a little stronger.    The rest of the mother has gone into a small jar with a bit of the vinegar, and I will be using it soon to start a batch of white wine vinegar.