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Tamales x 80

I spent a whole afternoon cooking 80 tamales with a 78 year old Tica woman (Costa Rican), Zayda. She spoke a few words of English but was more interested in teaching me Spanish. Between the process of cooking and my brain processing the bit of Spanish I've learned, I was exhausted by the end of the afternoon.

It was a true culinary and language immersion. The day prior to the tamale task Zayda sent me a grocery list. We decided to do the cooking in her more well appointed kitchen. My kitchen is large and uniquely tiled in citrus tones, including a six foot long lizard inlay on the kitchen's L-shaped island. But it is still lacking some of the kitchen tools I've become accustomed to such as a 12 -16 quart pot for cooking up two gallons of broth for the tamales, or another large pot for mixing up the maiz.

The maiz is a combination of corn flour, somewhat finely ground, maicena, which is cornstarch and the broth, to form a thick paste, creating the dominant starch in a Tican tamale. In addition, the ingredients in each tamale included a small strip of cooked pork rib meat - 3 kilos of this had been boiled as the basis of the broth, strained and cleaned of most of the excess fat.

Zayda and her Nicarauguan helper, Tinia, had the broth ready when I arrived, had the rice cooking and the potatoes boiled and ready to slice into wedges. They had the cilantro cleaned and chopped into dainty springs, the sweet red pepper sliced into strips, and the Ecruditos drained and ready. Ecruditos are available, ready made as pickled vegetables, either in a vinegar or a mustard sauce. We used the vinegar version. I brought the pre-cooked garbanzo beans.

While they were finishing prepping those ingredients I was cleaning the pork meat from the fat and cutting up plantain leaves to use as the tamale wrapper. These green fresh leaves come from the plantain, in the banana family and need to be cut from their six foot length down to 'squares' of 14" x 14" and 9" x 9", one of each for each tamale. We were making 80 tamales so that meant I had to clean, remove the coarse spine and tear the leaves into 160 pieces. That took about an hour alone. The leaves were covering the entire surface of Zayda's dining room table.

Next Zayda and I set out all the ingredients and she demonstrated how to assemble and properly fold the banana leaves into a neat envelope enclosing the ingredients. For nearly two hours we loaded leaves with the masa, vegetables, rice, beans, and cilantro, folding and packaging until all 80 packages were assembled into double packages and then those doubles were tied. This alone involved specific instructions.

Finally the tamales are steamed in a large pot for about an hour. When cooled they can be refrigerated or frozen. I have a nice stash in the freezer that we like to eat but also give as gifts to friends and Pedro the gardener.

PS Since that day, I've sampled tamales from a number of food vendors/cooks and none are as good as Zayda's.

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