things you can do with lard, part 1: Tamales

So the pork loin from Double H Farm weighed in at 13 pounds, and the Organic Butcher charged me for 10 lbs, figuring that giving me 3 pounds of fat would be good for business. I suspect that the butchers have plenty of miscellaneous animal fat lurking in the back of all of their refrigerators…

I cooked the pork loin for a group of students at the International Residential College at UVa, and when cleanup time came I hid away the large roasting pan filled with liquid fat, partially rendered lard, and crisp cracklings.  Of course I wasn’t going to throw it away, but what was I going to do???

I had never rendered lard before, and found scant information about it. I consulted the Joy of Cooking (always my first stop) and then Nourishing Traditions, but neither contained a real ‘how to’. I think there is a description of the process in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book but unfortunately that collection is not part of my reference library; if it were I could be well on my way to tapping sugar maples and cleaning everything on a weekly basis. Lacking a definitive procedure, I simply trim out the tiny bits of leftover meat (perfect for puppy training and old-dog nutritional supplements), set aside the parts that look encouragingly like pork belly, and cut the rest into small snow-white cubes.

My hands are quickly slick with fat, and even when I use scaldingly hot water to wash up, I am left with supple, delicious smelling skin.  As the cubes begin to melt in the pan, my house is filled with a delicious smell – not smoky like bacon, not meaty like chops, but just clean toasted fat – maybe a bit reminiscent of a nut pastry baking?  The experience is intensely sensual – the sense of slick, waterproof oily touch; light toasty delicious smell; the new taste of ‘pork butter’; the sight of a snow white blanket of fat; the soft crackling sound of melting fat. While I handle, cut and render the lard my thoughts wander to Richard and Jean and the Farmily at Double H, their pigs, the guys at the Organic Butcher, the IRC students for whom I prepared the pork loin, and my pork-loving food friends (always eager for leftovers and by-products).  Reflecting on the source of the food and admiring its clean character and clear flavors helps me to be thankful for the bounty of food and for the people who work to produce it and to enjoy it.

Both dogs are in the kitchen, trying to lick my hands and looking longingly at the stove. The lard cubes are slowly melting (with a bubbling sound) and I press on them with the back of a slotted spoon to keep them submerged in their own efflugence. Once the pile of cubes turns brown and seems stalled, I pour the liquid lard through a sieve and into glass jars and old pate containers, already earmarked for households I know will use them.

Marlena calls to invite me to dinner on Thursday night; “…with all this lard you gave me I decided I have to make tamales!” she says on the phone; the other use we can think of is pie crust, although I’m told the best lard for pastry is ‘leaf lard’ or the fat from around the kidneys; I didn’t see any kidneys this time around

Marlena’s great aunt, Tia Magda, taught her that the key to good tamale dough is to add the masa slowly, and to check the readiness of the dough by balling a bit and throwing it in cold water – if it floats, it’s ready. To that end we make smallish batches of dough in the Simon’s bright red Kitchen Aid mixer and try not to overmix the dough. We are using the recipe from the Joy of Cooking, but with some adaptations (of course); home rendered local lard, venison broth (using the leg bone, odd pieces of venison, and the liver as suggested in Nouishing Traditions), MaSeCa (corn flour, or masa, that has calcified limestone already added to it for flavor, preservation, and aid in digestion), and water.

Marlena purchased banana leaves at the IGA around the corner from her house – in her words, not a great store, but lots of ethnic ingredients.  She already prepared two fillings – picadillo with Gail’s ground goat meat (including olives, chile powder, and probably a soffrito of onions and garlic), and slow-roasted pork.  I brought queso fresco, canned jalapeno sauce, and Mexican hot sauce picked up at the Mexican tienda El Paso.   We cut pieces of banana leaf and sections of butcher’s twine, and begin shaping tamales.

This is my first time making tamales (or maybe my second?  it seems vaguely familiar, although I can’t remember doing it before, so it must have been a while ago).  Marlena demonstrates:  She begins with a smallish handful of the masa dough, squeezes it into an oblong ball, puts it on a banana leaf, and hollows out the center.  Then she stuffs the center with filling and closes the masa around it, folding the banana leaf around the tamale and continuing to wrap the leaf around the bundle.  Finally, she uses the twine to tie it like a little present.  I try to mimic her skilled movements, experimenting with different wrapping styles until I realize that it’s not really important.

We stack the tamales by type, pausing only to make new batches of dough.  We chat as we work, talking about lard, venison, raw milk, baby nutrition, mutual friends, and family.  I had always heard that tamales are typically served at celebrations; I had also heard that it is best to have many hands to make them so that it doesn’t take all day.  We move through this task fairly quickly (maybe because we have a lot to talk about?).  Thinking about it now, I wonder if tamales are good for celebrations because the work is done ahead of time, and the steaming is a fairly forgiving process whereby they can be kept warm and stacked in their little leaves until they are eaten, even if the eating takes several hours.  Also, no plates nor cleanup required – the banana leaf serves as biodegradable wrapper and plate, fingers are utensils.  Genius.

When all the dough is used up we pack up the tamales; Marlena keeps half for her dinner party the following evening, and I pack away the other half for a potluck I am attending.  While I am proud to take the tamales to a potluck, I worry that I won’t get to try each different type to compare flavor and moisture…ah well, I’ll have to rely on the honest opinions of the other eaters.  When I serve the tamales at the potluck, there are two vegetarians who are a bit disappointed to learn I have used fresh, local lard; the rest of the folks couldn’t be happier.


~ by a local notion on April 6, 2008.

2 Responses to “things you can do with lard, part 1: Tamales”

  1. Can we all use the “efflugence” more often?

  2. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Literal!

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