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 some Friday night No Trump:
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 would comfortably accommodate the process.
ME: No worries. We can 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, my friend Jim, an architect, shares my focus on planning.
First, Jim put together a great tamale 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 good division of labor.
Third, he assigned the task of keeping the crews flush with margaritas and beer.
Fourth, I checked to make sure the sides were all entirely or mostly do-ahead. 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 – PLANNING 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 project-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, at which point cooking is no longer fun. And these cooks were bridge-playing guests – not paid help. By moving steps into the do-ahead category, we would have a relaxed schedule:
- WEEK BEFORE: Jim did the planning and the shopping.
- DAY BEFORE: I did the all the prep that could be done ahead of time (stock, chili sauce, slow-cooked pork filling, black beans, prep for 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: Jim assigned and set up assembly lines for the pork and chicken tamales (one on either side of the kitchen island) with 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 steamer, and the second two teams began assembly of bean and sweet tamales.
- PARTY DAY 3:30: Bean and sweet tamales go to steamers. I get the side dishes going: reheat 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 prep dishes and set the tamale dinner buffet.
- PARTY DAY 5:30: We feast on a delicious south-of-the-border menu.
I suspect all this planning and regimentation 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 in the wee hours of the morning. And guests were able to enjoy the festivities and other activities – knowing they would step in when needed. The great smells wafting from the kitchen (and margarita refills for the kitchen crew) made it ever-so-easy to summon the bridge players from the tables when we needed them.
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 and beautiful color.
Mexican Rice (Arroz a la Mexicana)
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC
Serving Size: 8
2 medium tomatoes
2 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup oil, vegetable
2 cups rice, long grain
4 cups stock, chicken
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons parlsley, chopped fine
1. Cut tomatoes and onions into quarters. Peel garlic cloves. Add tomatoes, onion and garlic to food processor. Blend thoroughly. Set aside.
2. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add rice. Cook rice, stirring almost constantly, until it begins to turn a golden color.
Add pureed tomato/onion/garlic mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until the rice begins to get a bit dry.
Add the chicken stock, salt and parsley. Bring to a boil, stir once (scraping the bottom of the pot), reduce to a simmer, and cover. Cook about 15-20 minutes until all liquid is absorbed. Let sit 10 minutes. Serve.
3. 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.