Every good Tico eats tamales for Christmas (Navidad) and this year I not only ate them, I learned how to make them. I also discovered why Costa Ricans only make tamales once a year – the labor intensive process takes an entire day and is exhausting! But the tamales are scrumptious and I’m going to teach you how to make them or at least make you tired from reading about it. Get jealous – I have 80 in my house right now, waiting to be devoured for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Are you ready?! These are going to be the best tamales you’ve ever eaten!
First, you begin by cooking what could be two separate meals in themselves:
1. Pork Soup (Sopa de Cerdo): water, 5 kilos of big pork chunks, several whole celery, several quartered red bell peppers, rosemary, oregano, cilantro, bay leaves, thyme. Cook all that in your massive stewpot (because everyone has a ridiculously large pot laying around).
2. Saffron Rice (Arroz con Achiote): rice, saffron, finely diced red bell peppers and celery, chopped cilantro.
While those bad boys are cooking, you prep and pre-cook all the veggies:
4 kilos of potatoes cut in half, boiled and peeled
A big bowl (6-8 cups) each of sliced carrots, tiny green beans, garbanzo beans, sweet peas, and sliced red bell peppers (don’t cook these!).
The next step is preparing the leaves that you will wrap the tamales in – plantain leaves (hojas de platano). They are sold in packages by the kilo, pre-smoked and pre-burned. Your job is to cut them up and clean them. These are different than regular banana leaves. Banana leaves are too flimsy – you might have seen banana trees with shredded leaves? That happens because they can’t stand up to the wind, much less function as a tamal wrap. Plantain leaves are sturdier and do not shred in the wind or the tamal stew.
First begin by removing the strong vein along the edge of the plantain leaf.
Then cut the leaves into smaller pieces, alternating between two separate sizes – one about 15 inches long and the other about 10 inches long.
Then clean those cut leafies with a rag – just lightly scrub the funk off each side. But rápido! rápido! – by this time the sun is starting to set and you are ready to be done. Patience – there is much more to do.
After the soup is cooked, the veggies are prepped, and the leaves have been cut and cleaned, it is time to move on to the final step in the prep work – preparing the masa mix.
Masa de maíz is dried ground corn and you can purchase it in Costa Rica pre-ground and pre-moistened, but you will have to grind it yourself if you live in the States. You can find the dried corn in Mexican tiendas (along with the hojas de platano…except they are probably banana leaves instead. Maybe triple wrap your tamales to prevent breakage if you only have access to banana leaves).
So gather up your masa (3 kilos), cooked and peeled potatoes, and set up a food processor next to the massive stewpot.
Start by blending together potatoes with the veggies from the pork soup and one coffee mug full of pork soup broth. Dump into giant mixing bowl and repeat process until all the potatoes are blended with all the veggies from the pork soup.
Now add all the masa to the blended potatoes in a massive bowl. Also throw in two giant handfuls of leftover meat grease from your local butcher shop. Mix really well with your hands. This is fun, it’s like being a kid again playing with your food.
Mix it good!
Mix it real good! …but not too much. It will look like this right before you use the blender to finish the job.
Run the masa mix through the blender, adding salt and chicken stock or bouillon (de caldo o consumme) to taste. Also add more pork broth if needed for consistency – you want it to be about that of creamy mashed potatoes. Empty all of this into yet another giant bowl.
Collect the pork out of the pork soup and cut it into large bite size pieces.
Now gather all the ingredients and set up your workstation for assembling the tamales. In the photo below, you are looking at a smaller, more manageable portion of each ingredient (maybe 1/4 or 1/5 of what was in each giant bowl). The ingredients were portioned out like this because there just weren’t enough behemoth bowls or enough counter space to handle the enormous quantity of ingredients.
Assembling the Tamales
Take a small plantain leaf and place it on top of a big plantain leaf. Plop a large spoonful of the masa mix in the center of the smaller leaf.
On top of the masa mix, place a spoonful of rice, a piece of meat, a few garbanzos, a few peas, a pepper slice or two, a green bean or two, and 2-3 carrots. Make sure you get at least one of everything inside the tamal, but mixing up the quantities a bit can be fun to make a little variety in the finished product.
Fold the tamale. Raise the edges up lengthwise and fold them under twice like you would a paper bag lunch. Then lightly flatten, while you fold the left and right sides over the center. You end up with a nice-looking little tamale package.
Take two of these tamal packages and tie them together with natural jute string to make an even cuter tamal package. You can also start singing “green leafy packages, tied up with string, these are a few of my favorite things.”
They cook better in pairs.
When the last tamal bundle is tied, they are ready to cook.
Drop them into the humungous stewpot full of pork broth, add more water if needed, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, start the timer for 30 minutes (keep covered).
After 30 minutes of boiling, disconnect the heat, but it is okay to leave the tamales inside to cool off. Now you are ready for the next step, the final step.
Eat the Tamales!