Sunday, February 12, 2012

Construction 101

I'm not sure why but I seem to be taking on cooking projects that are more like actual construction projects than simple, making fun dinner recipes. This is what happens when you cannot let something go to waste, like fresh okra. I still had some fresh from my okra pie quest. I wanted to use it in a non-traditional way (because okra pie is so yesterday...) and I also like to stretch my kitchen skills muscles. My first thought was to take the basics of shrimp gumbo and make them into a tamale filling. The cuisines of countries south of the US are largely unexplored by me so tamale making required some research. It looks fairly simple, make filling, make masa, place masa and filling in soaked corn husk and steam - VOILA! Right now all the righteous old school tamale makers are cackling at my naivety. My research did not scare me off from the process but it did change the course of the filling. You see tamales, in their final cooking stage, steam quite a bit, depending on the recipe you follow. I'm not sure how shrimp would hold up to that and I really didn't want to find out the first time I made tamales. So I shifted gears into thinking about a different filling to pair up with my okra. Traditional choices seem to be slow cooking a pork shoulder in many wonderful spices and then shredding the meat. But that's a lot of meat even with a small pork shoulder and pork didn't seem to be the right combo with the okra. Then I had lunch at a new downtown restaurant, The Tamale Wizard.


No, that's not a tamale but anytime a KC restaurant has soft shell crabs on their Fish Friday menu, you'll soon find me sniffing around. Actually it was the second time I had lunch here that gave me (stole) the inspiration for my tamale experiment. It was a delicious and juicy short rib taco. Short ribs would be a great pairing with the robust flavor of okra. With my filling choices and flavors decided, it was time to draw up a schedule and begin construction.
Recipe Construction Schedule
As you can see by my construction schedule, the short rib filling is an all day preparation. But that's ok because your crockpot is your friend when it comes to cooking short ribs.

short ribs 1

But first it's best to braise them in a little bit of oil. For this recipe I'm using 2 pounds of bone in short ribs, English cut.

short ribs 2

Once you've browned them on all sides (3 - 4 minutes) you're going to put them in your crockpot with 4 strips of bacon, a quartered medium onion, 4 cloves of crushed garlic, 1 cup sliced grape tomatoes, 1/2 cup cilantro, 1 bay leaf (I use fresh), 1 tablespoon each of cumin, chili powder & smoked paprika, 2 teaspoons each of coriander and kosher salt. Add 2 cups beef stock to the ribs and spices in the crockpot. If the stock does not just cover the ribs, add enough water until it does. Let that cook on low for 8 hours. Once 8 hours has passed, turn off the crockpot and let it cool down for an hour still in the crockpot. Then transfer to a container and cool completely until you are able to handle the meat. Shred the meat and discard the bones but save all the cooking liquid.


While your meat is cooking, you need to start soaking your cornhusks in a large shallow pan of hot water. Weigh the tamales down with a plate so they stay submerged. Corn husks come in different sized packages so you want to soak at least 25 for the amount of filling and masa this recipe makes. In my area, finding corn husks was fairly easy but your area may differ. Soaking can take 2 to 3 hours because you want those husks soft and pliable. Once they are soft, rinse off any remaining grit and set aside for assembly.

Your meat is cooking, your husks are soaking, you now need to start your masa. Masa is made from dried hominy and if you can find a place to buy corn husks, it's a sure bet they also have masa. Take 4 cups of masa and mix it with 2 1/2 cups warm water. It will be a dry dough at this point. Set it aside. In a bowl combine a tablespoon of kosher salt, 2 teaspoons of baking power and a cup of lard. Now if you are anti-lard, you can substitute vegetable shortening. I broke out the lard for this recipe. Mix in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer until light and fluffy. Now you're going to add the masa to the lard mixture a fourth of the masa mixture at a time, making sure the masa is well incorporated before adding the next. Once all the masa has been incorporated, add one cup chicken stock and beat for 5 minutes. Now for the important floating masa test.

floating masa

Grab a small ball of the masa mixture and drop it in a glass of water. If it floats, you're good. If it doesn't float, mix it some more and test again. Once it floats, cover the masa with plastic wrap and chill for an hour. After an hour pull it out of the fridge and add another 1/2 cup of chicken broth and mix well. Conduct second float test. Once it floats, your masa is ready for assembly.

Now for the last part of the filling puzzle, the okra.

roasted okra

Unlike the pie recipe when I used okra's slime, here I wanted to eliminate the ooze. Again, I heeded the wise words of Chef Virginia Willis, roast it and the slime will be gone. There's also another reason to roast okra. It just makes it better. Actually you can apply that little sticky bit of advice to almost any vegetable. You want to taste a vegetables' true flavor? Cut it up, coat it in a little bit of oil, sprinkle on some kosher salt and roast it in a hot oven until it caramelizes just a little bit and eat it hot. Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and all the leafy greens can be roasted. It's just good stuff. So that's what I did with the okra. Roasted in a 400 degree oven for not very long, you have to watch so it doesn't burn.

Let the assembly begin.

tamale assembly1

Here is the husk with masa dough spread out. Roughly you want a four inch square of masa about an inch away from the top and bottom of the husk.

tamale assembly2

Then you put your filling down the center of masa. I'm fairly certain I have too much mixture to masa in the picture above. You want to be able to roll the sides of the masa over the mixture and seal in the middle but those first tamales were just butt ugly things to behold. However, when you've reached this stage, there's no going back. So the general idea is to fold the corn husk over and roll it to seal the tamale. Then you fold the bottomed tapered edge towards the top. Some recipes call for tying the tamales with kitchen string, others don't. I tied and learned a valuable lesson. Don't tie too tightly because the tamales expand in the steam and your string will cut your tamale in half. Not pretty.

So all my tamales were assembled and ready for steaming. Not a hard thing right? Miss Think's She Can Do This With A Jury-Rigged Steamer had all the answers right? FEH! Unless you have a steamer insert in your kitchen job-box, just go buy one of these. It costs fifteen bucks and you can use it to steam just about anything.

This nifty little pot has an insert with steamer slits and hole in the middle that allows you to add water to your steamer without it getting all over your tamales. So you take your tamales and place them standing up around the edges of the interior of the steamer. Again, don't pack them in too close together so they have room to expand. Place a few extra soft corn husks on top of all your tamales to help seal in the steam. Add the lid and steam them for at least an hour and 15 minutes. Again, the steaming time varies recipe to recipe. I went two hours and the test is to pull a tamale out of the steamer and see if the husk pulls away from the masa easily. If it does and the masa looks and feels spongy, they are ready.

At this point you can eat the tamales as is but I hate wasting anything so I decided to make a sauce of all that lovely liquid that the short ribs cooked in. The first step was to bring the liquid and the accumulated solids to a boil. Reduced it down a bit. Then I hit it with my stick blender to incorporate the solids and let that cook down. Next I took the results of that and strained out the remaining solids. The strained liquid I put back in the pan and tasted. I found it a bit salty so I added a tablespoon of brown sugar and let it blend into the flavors over a medium heat for 7 - 10 minutes. Tasted again and found the saltiness was now balanced with a bit of sweetness. Still it was missing some heat and complexity. Added some healthy shakes of some wonderful ancho chili powder and again let it cook again for 5 minutes. Almost there. Another shake of chili powder and the juice of half a lime. Cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes and taste. Oh yeah, that's the flavor I was looking for. Add just enough beef broth to loosen the sauce up and drizzled it over my freshly steamed tamales.

short rib okra tamales

Oh my goodness, they may have been ugly, they may require many man hours of professional contractors but damn they are good. The sauce is just a tad sweet with a whole lot of spice and the meat and okra mixture is bold and hearty. Bless you leftover okra for a job well done. I think I'll give my crew a bonus.

New Toolbelts for Everyone!!


froggy said...

I'm totally impressed!!!
When I was home on a college internship I used to experiment every weekend with some new dish. My Dad started keeping a fire extinguisher handy...

Big Shamu said...

Snort. If I had a dishwasher, I would have worn at least one, possibly two out by now.

MakingSpace said...

I. am. so. hungry. now.

I can't believe you did this without a village full of Mexican grandmas helping you out. Maybe you ARE a Mexican grandma?????

Also, love the cooking times chart. ROFL

Big Shamu said...

Disclaimer: I am not a Mexican Grandma.
I think any Mexican Grandma worth her salt would giggle at my poor virgin attempt at tamales.

MakingSpace said...


Dani said...

*whimpering* my precious.

Buzz Kill said...

Float test - this was a construction project. No way I would ever attemp something this time consuming, but I'm glad you did. Looking at the ingredients and even if the mechanics weren't quite right, how could this not be good?

"I wanted to use it in a non-traditional way (because okra pie is so yesterday...)" That made me laugh.

Melissa said...

snow day! you have, again, inspired me! i WILL attempt tamales this weekend. loved this whole post. btw my butcher at price chopper told me this weekend that a crockpot has no enemies. :-)

Big Shamu said...

Dani, you can make these especially you have other hands in your house to help.

Yes Buzz, I couldn't proceed without my Masa Float Test Permit.

Yes, sadly two inches constituted a snow day here in KC. Melissa, like Dani, you have lots of extra hands to help you. Your butcher sounds like a very wise man. However he'll be sad to know I got those excellent short ribs from 888 International Market.