The Tamalada: Part 5 – Seeing Red (sauce, that is)

Chiles Californias

One of the key ingredients in tamale-making is a good red sauce for either pork or beef tamales. It takes a bit of work making it from scratch, but it’s well worth it. I’ve seen people just add a can (shudders) of Las Palmas Red Chile sauce and I guess that works. I mean it doesn’t taste horrible, but if you’re going to go through the all trouble and expense of making tamales you may as well do it right.

dried red chiles

This red sauce is very versatile and perfect for pork tamales, beef ones and you can even use it for chicken or turkey tamales if you want (great way to use that left over Thanksgiving turkey). If you have any left over, it’s good to pour over the tamales. You can poach eggs in it (that recipe another time), you can pour it over burritos, you can use it as a base for a type of mole, you can make enchiladas mineras with it, you can turn up the heat with more chiles and use it as a salsa for chips, the list goes on and on.

roasted tomatoes

Some people use ancho chiles, I use Chile California like my grandmother did. You can try either or a mixture of the two. I think the California is a little more subtle in taste, yet rich in depth. It imparts a beautiful brick red color that appeals to me and looks well on the cooked tamale (okay, so I get caught up in the aesthetics). The ancho is a little darker in color and sharper in flavor. You decide.



About 1 pound dried chile Californias (prepared as per instructions listed below)
1 head of garlic, peeled
3 bay leaves
2 onions, quartered and roasted
about ten Roma tomatoes, roasted and peeled
salt to taste
about 10 peppercorns
¼ c. ajonjolli (sesame seeds) toasted
1 whole nutmeg
½ c. pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
some of the broth you cooked the pork or beef in
1 tsp. of lard (it’s only once a year!) or, alternatively you could not skim the fat off the broth you cooked the pork or beef it
about 1 c. of the water you cooked the chiles in

Place the chiles in a large stockpot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to low and cover. Let simmer for about an hour, then remove from heat and let cool. Do not throw out the water.

Once the chiles are cool, take a sharp knife and slice right down the middle, exposing the seeds and veins. Remove all the seeds, the stem and the veins. Using the knife, scrape the chile pulp from the skins and put into a bowl. Set aside.

Roast tomatoes on either a comal or in the oven. If I’m doing a few, I use a comal. If I’m making a lot, it’s easier to do big batches in the oven. I simply place them onto a baking sheet and pop into a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes, then take out, turn them over and put them back in again for another half hour. You can do the onions the same way. I find it easier to roast the onions in the oven than on a comal.

Once the tomatoes and onions are roasted, let sit until cool, then peel the skins from the tomatoes. The skins should slide right off. Set aside.

Coat a heavy cast iron skillet with a bit of olive oil or lard and let the pan get hot. Turn down the heat to medium. Add the sesame seeds, bay leaves, whole nutmeg and pepitas. Watch out because the sesame seeds will pop. Fry till nicely browned and the bay leaves and nutmeg have released their fragrance. Remove from heat and let cool. Take out the nutmeg and throw it away.

In a heavy duty blender or food processor add the sesame seed mixture, the chile pulp, the tomatoes, salt, onions, peeled cloves of garlic, the chile water and a bit of the broth from the pork. Puree, adding more broth if necessary to make a thick, velvety sauce. Pour into a fine sieve and push through. I use a spatula to scraped back and forth, adding more and more broth little by little.

As you scrape back and forth, you’ll push all the liquid into a bowl and what’s left in the sieve will get thicker and thicker. When you have all you need, or it looks like it might get too watery toss out the pulp that’s left in the sieve and take the sauce you’ve made and pour it into the cast iron skillet you heated the sesame seeds in. Make sure there are no seeds in the skillet.Heat the sauce on low heat for about a half hour. The flavors will blend beautifully and the texture will get smoother and silkier.

Add the sauce to the shredded pork or other meat and heat. Reserve some of the sauce for pouring over the finished tamales.


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