Last week our bridge group (16 of us) descended on our kitchen to make tamales – with time off for a bit of bridge, loads of fun and, of course, some serious eating and drinking. How did a group of bridge-playing gringos end up elbow deep in masa? It all started with a side-conversation around Friday night bridge:
MY BRIDGE-PLAYING FRIEND, JIM: I have always wanted to try making my own tamales.
ME: Me too.
JIM: Since you need a lot of “hands”, it would be perfect for our bridge group.
ME: Yes, we certainly have enough adventurous souls and big eaters in our bridge group. We could do it!!
JIM: I’d be happy to research the recipes and put together a plan, but I’m not sure my kitchen will work.
ME: No worries. We’ll use my kitchen, your plan, and the bridge group for our tamale assembly work. We will sustain the cooking crew with margaritas and the end goal: a delicious south-of-the-border meal.
Surprisingly, nearly everyone in our bridge group was “game”. But with 16 cooks in the kitchen, we needed a good plan. Without it, we would be likely to have either a culinary disaster and/or an exhausted cooking crew at the end of the day. Fortunately, Jim, an architect, shares my focus on planning.
First, Jim put together a great menu.
TAMALE DINNER MENU
Margaritas and a Selection of Mexican Beers
Mexican-Style Black Beans
Mexican Rice (Arroz a la Mexicana)
Second, he put the tamale-making schedule together using solid and detailed planning and a division of labor.
Third, he assigned the task of keeping the crews flush with margaritas and beer.
Fourth, I incorporated the logistics of the side dishes into our plan. With 16 people in the kitchen stuffing tamales, there wouldn’t be space or man-power to work on the side dishes. With a few modifications, nearly everything could be do-ahead. Mexican crema, condiments, and black beans could be made entirely ahead, and the rice could be prepped ahead except for about 10 minutes of stove-top work.
COOKING FUNDAMENTALS – HOW TO PLAN A HANDS-ON COOKING PARTY WITH A GAGGLE OF COOKS. We’ve all heard the saying: “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. But is that necessarily so? I prefer “The more the merrier” mindset – provided you have a good plan to keep things organized.
Jim used his architect planning skills to put together an amazing tamale-making work plan (very abbreviated version below). In fact, he knocked my socks off with his great plan: five pages of detailed spread sheets, one a detailed timeline and the others tamale recipes — all of which were put to great use. (Where was he when I had my culinary business?? I could have used his over-priced help :-))
The only changes I made were a few tweaks to the work schedule by moving, not only the sides, but also some tamale fillings into the “do-ahead “category. My experience catering large parties told me that we did not want to overtax the cooking crew’s stamina as these cooks were bridge-playing guests – not paid help. With Jim’s plan and many do-ahead steps, we would have a relaxed schedule:
- 1 WEEK BEFORE: Jim did the planning, the shopping and some prep work.
- DAY BEFORE: I did the remaining prep that could be done ahead of time (stock, chili sauce, slow-cooked pork filling, black beans, prep for the Mexican rice, and soaking the corn husks)
- PARTY MORNING: Jim and I, and a few shifts of eager helpers, did the remaining prep (vegetables for fillings, chicken filling, condiments, and rinsing the soaking corn husks).
- PARTY DAY NOON: Time to get started on the tamales! Jim set up assembly lines for the pork and chicken tamales (one on either side of the kitchen island) with our ready-to-go components, Then he summoned the tamale-assembly teams to put everything together.
- PARTY DAY 1:00: The first two teams assembled pork and chicken tamales.
- PARTY DAY 2:30: Pork and chicken tamales go to the steamers, and the second shift teams began assembly of bean and sweet tamales.
- PARTY DAY 3:30: Bean and sweet tamales go to the steamers. While tamales are steaming (and crews are resting), I get the side dishes going: reheat the black beans, finish the Mexican rice and prepare lettuce/tomato/cheese and Mexican cream for service.
- PARTY DAY 4:30: Everyone pitches in to clear the kitchen island of prep. equipment, wash the dishes and set the tamale dinner buffet.
- PARTY DAY 5:30: Show time! We feast on a delicious south-of-the-border menu.
I suspect all this planning sounds a bit like a forced march. But the beauty of planning is that it reduces stress for everyone. With good organization, Jim and I could relax and not worry about calling people to dinner at midnight. And guests were able to enjoy the festivities and bridge, jumping in to help only when needed.
In fact, with Jim’s great planning and assembly humming along in the kitchen, the rest of the group not only had time for bridge, but even a walk on the snowy beach!
One of my favorite compliments to the tamales was the Mexican Rice. It has all the features of a great rice dish – subtle flavors, great texture, beautiful color and do-ahead preparation.
Mexican Rice (Arroz a la Mexicana)
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC
Serving Size: 8
2 medium onions
2 cloves garlic
1 15 ounce can diced tomatoes
1/4 cup oil, vegetable
2 cups rice, long grain, rinsed and drained
2 cups stock, chicken
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons parlsley, chopped fine (optional)
1. Cut onions into quarters. Peel garlic cloves. Add tomatoes, onion and garlic to food processor. Blend thoroughly. Reserve 2 cups and set aside. Save remainder for another use.
2. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add rice. Cook rice, stirring almost constantly, until it begins to turn a slight golden color.
3. Add 2 cups of the pureed tomato/onion/garlic mixture. Add the chicken stock, salt and parsley. Bring to a low boil, stir once (scraping the bottom of the pot), reduce to a low simmer, and cover. Cook about 20 minutes until all liquid is absorbed. The exact time will vary depending on stovetop and pot. Let sit 10 minutes. Stir and serve.
4. DO-AHEAD INSTRUCTIONS: Prepare through Step 1. Store puree in refrigerator until ready to proceed. Begin final preparation about 30-40 minutes before service. Step 2 will take about 5 minutes and rice will cook will you are preparing other menu items. Alternatively, complete the recipe, cool finished rice in a sheet pan, and freeze in a tight container or bag.