At the start of the holiday season, we asked Crystal Willars Vastine where she's finding the best tamales these days.
A culinary-school graduate and Fort Worth dining expert, Vastine didn't hesitate. "I stopped looking once I realized that nobody can make them better than my mother," she said. And she should know: Crystal, along with husband Matt Vastine, owns and publishes Fort Worth Foodie magazine, the culinary-interest quarterly distributed in Tarrant County.
So we thought we'd put her opinion to the test, inviting ourselves to mom Gloria Willars' annual tamale-making party. The Fort Worth native and longtime nurse's assistant in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district learned to make tamales as a young girl at her grandmother's knee and has spent her life making them with an army of aunts and cousins. In recent years, she has taught many a willing niece, cousin and friend.
Without fail, Gloria and a host of family gather on a Saturday before Christmas to practice the timeless tradition of making tamales to share with loved ones at the holidays. This year, the group grew, as Crystal's new in-laws wanted in on the fun. When Crystal married Matt in August, she gained a new coterie of sisters, all of whom were eager to learn the ancient tamale craft.
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And as anyone who has even watched a tamale being made knows, this is not an undertaking for sissies. Between the preparation of husks, the masa (the cornmeal jacket within the husk) and the filling, the activity is simply labor-intensive. Then there's the assembling of the tamales, another task that requires copious amounts of skill and patience. Finally, the tamales are steamed and can be frozen or eaten on the spot.
At the Willars' tamale affair, work began at about 9 a.m. and lasted well through the afternoon, but Gloria had already made the brisket filling and the masa, easing the workload for Crystal, her cousin Melanie Willars, Gloria's buddy Sharon Gunter (the group's tamale veterans) and the new in-laws, former Fort Worth City Councilwoman Becky Haskin, Patty Ellis and Heather Minton.
"I may need a few more lessons before I really have it down," said Haskin, who found that more seasonings makes a masa much more interesting than she'd thought.
Gloria was clearly in charge, quick to show a newbie a better way to spread the masa on the dampened husks and how much filling to use. Having one director works the best, Crystal and Melanie agreed: One year, another aunt -- one of Gloria's sisters -- showed up, and the presence of two chiefs made for an intense atmosphere.
"When there are two of the aunts here, you just keep your head down and keep working," Melanie said.
This group got along harmoniously, with plenty of music playing, inspiring the occasional impromptu dance session.
When the 20 dozen tamales were finished and Gloria offered us a sample, along with her homemade salsa verde, we had to agree with Crystal: Finding a commercially made tamale this good might be impossible.
Gloria Willars' tamales
Meat filling (see note)
1 (6-pound) beef or pork roast
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
12 cloves garlic, chopped, divided use
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 cup chili powder
Note: It's best to prepare meat a day in advance because of cooking time. Left-over meat makes great taco filling.
1. Combine pork or beef roast, chopped onion and 6 cloves chopped garlic in a large pot; season with salt and pepper, cover with water, and simmer 3 or 4 hours, until very tender. Shred the meat and chop it. Reserve the broth in a separate container.
2. Add to the shredded meat the remaining 6 cloves garlic, cumin and chili powder. Combine and heat over low to medium heat. Taste and adjust with salt, if needed. If mixture is dry, add a little of the broth.
1 (8-ounce) package corn husks
5 pounds prepared masa
3 cups reserved broth from roasted meat, warmed
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 heaping teaspoon ground cumin
1 pound lard, softened in microwave
3 tablespoons salt, dissolved in a little of the reserved broth
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Note: Corn husks, masa and lard are easily found at Fiesta and Carnival grocery stores.
1. Separate the corn husks; they're packed tightly, and you'll need to remove the pieces of corn silk inside and rinse them clean. Then submerge them in a pot of simmering water. You may need to weigh them down with a coffee cup to keep them from floating; the softening process can take 2 to 3 hours.
2. Prepare the masa by kneading together in a very large bowl or pan the prepared masa, broth, chili powder, cumin, lard, salt and garlic powder. Keep working the ingredients until all the lumps are out and the masa has a spongy, light texture (like soft peanut butter).
3. To assemble the tamales, drain the husks on paper towels. Into each husk, spread 2 tablespoons of masa in the middle of each wrapper on the smooth side of the husk. Put 1 heaping tablespoon meat filling in the center. Pull the sides of the wrapper together and fold tip of wrapper up and over the sides you've brought together. When all tamales are filled and folded, stand tamales upright in steam pot, tightly packing them into the steamer together. Cook on medium for about 3 hours, replenishing water as needed.
4. You can freeze your tamales for at least one month. When you're ready to eat them, you have choices: Thaw overnight and warm, or warm from frozen. To reheat, either steam the tamales until warm or wrap thawed or frozen tamales in wet paper towels and put in a paper bag. Place the bag in your microwave and heat on high for 1 minute. Check to see if they're warm. Heat again until warm throughout. (Time depends on your microwave power.)
5. Serve with chili con carne or your favorite salsa.