When the Mrs. and I started dating our favorite place to go for dinner was Efrain's Taqueria in Hagerstown. Efrain's wife, Hannah, made the best tamales east of the Mississippi. They had a golden hue and a savory flavor to them that no other tamale I've encountered since could match. We loved those little corn-flour husk-wrapped meat-filled cakes de cielo that Efrain's catered our rehearsal dinner, and we got the very last tamales ever made under the Efrain's name. ¡Ayi, que doloroso!
Since then I have been working on my own recipe. Starting with guidance from cookbooks on hand and Internet resources, I have put together a toolkit of seasonings, masa, meat, cornmeal and veggies that has produced some mighty fine tamales, so much so as a colleague of mine from New Mexico said it as like being back in the desert when he tasted one. That's high praise. I was humbled, yet victorious.
But why do I write now of tamales? The once arduous task has been distilled down into the work of an afternoon and evening, surely there are no more tales of heroism to be told, of meats that flake apart at a sharp glance or masa so smooth and rich that you want to brush your teeth with it. No, dear reader, this is no tale of heroic effort or lengthy boasting of skill (though I can see where you might get that impression); it is a tale of discovery. Of mystery unlocked, problem solved. You see, I believe the missing ingredient to have been all a long a seasoning that has been hiding in the International aisle of my local supermarket. The one, the only, amarillo. It was $1.50 for a small container, so I bought some when I went for more corn oil and husks and vegetable stock and vegetables themselves to fill the hand-wrapped masa in husks.
I've tasted the unsteamed masa and it is good, but I haven't tried a steamed tamale yet to know if I've truly found the secret. If I've not discovered the true answer, I welcome your correction or insight, because I am in search of that tamale lost lo these 4 years. It's been a delicious and educational journey, señores, but if I could set down the ultimate recipe on paper I would gladly turn my experimental insight to other things. And now I want tamales for lunch. I think I will do that. Vaya con Dios, amigos.
UPDATE: They need salt. ay carumba.