8ARM chef Maricela Vega takes her tamale craft seriously. And those who’ve eaten them, whether at the East Atlanta farmers market, her Mechanicsville house supper club, or at her Chicomecóatl pop-ups, know it.
Vega’s mother taught her the cooking techniques behind a good masa and sees working with corn as continuing the family’s corn farming legacy in Mexico. Like prioritizing fresh ingredients grown in Atlanta over the typical meat filling in a tamale, Vega approaches sourcing corn very methodically.
Corn is the foundation of a good masa and, in the end, a good tamale.
She partnered with Buckeye Creek Farm in Woodstock to use their corn. “Farm manager Liz Porter has been farming for a few years, and she just loves the development of corn and seeing other people who appreciate it.”
Vega’s passion for the crop can be seen in the heirloom corn library at her home; five to six varieties from different people, as she’s been checking samples.
Aside from sourcing corn for 8ARM and the pop-up, plans for Vega’s Atlanta tortilleria (tortilla shop) are moving forward to provide locally sourced corn products within the city. She’s already looking for a small space around Old Fourth Ward, which could open later this year. “I want it [the shop] to have a little window where you could just pick up. That’s how it is at my aunt’s [Angelina’s shop in Mexico].”
Vega and Minero chef Arnaldo Castillo are in talks to develop more tortilla recipes. “We just want to start seeing the differences and how we can preserve the elements and taste that the corn can have without stripping it completely away.”
Making tamales is a process with a series of small tasks
Tamales are incredibly labor-intensive. The process is a series of small tasks that need to be performed almost simultaneously in order to assemble at the end. From the corn harvesting to the masa and the stuffing, every step is equally as important to the final result.
Between May and June, the corn crop starts to grow at Buckeye Creek. Vega says she starts checking in with Porter on the progress. “It’s an obsession.”
A checkpoint she doesn’t miss occurs around August, when corn on the stalk develops huitlacoche or corn smut — a gray-colored fungus which grows on the ears, seen as a delicacy in Mexico. It has a mushroom-like taste, adding a tangy flavor to Vega’s corn dishes.
Between October and November, the corn husks dry up high along the stalks and everything gets cut. “That’s why you see a lot of pozole and tamales at the end of the year.”
After receiving her corn harvest, Vega spends time shucking, removing the knob and separating the leaves. She’s then able to use the leaves to wrap the tamales. The corn itself goes in the freezer until it’s ready to be cooked.
“At my grandmother’s in Mexico, it would get really cold so, we didn’t have to worry about [the corn] going bad and we would eventually use it all up. But there’s a lot of moisture in Georgia.”
Vega uses a large manual machine at the Woodstock farm to separate the kernels. “It’s a workout, you have to crank it the whole time. We take turns doing it. It shoots the kernels out of one end and the cob out the other,” she explains. “It’s just amazing that people do this by hand.”
Back when Vega had a stand at the East Atlanta farmers market and during her pop-up days, she woke at 5 a.m. and was in the kitchen by 6 a.m. To be ready for market in the late afternoon, Vega allowed herself 12 hours to prepare the batch of tamales to be sold.
First thing in the morning, she prepared the dough, letting it ferment in the refrigerator. The day would be an ongoing checklist of getting and then preparing the leaves at the farm, cooking the filling in her home, and packaging everything.
Preparing the masa
Vega starts the masa process by washing the kernels and bringing them to a boil. Then she brings it down to a simmer, cooking the kernels down for 45 minutes to reduce and release the starches.
After simmering, Vega spends about 20 minutes rubbing the kernels in her hands to remove excess material. She then grinds the corn, adding more water and a secret ingredient: baking powder.
“My mom told me to add it to my masa, and it makes it more spongy. It makes my tamales nice and fluffy when you bite into them.”
Masa has a ricotta cheese texture by this point, to which Vega adds homemade vegetable stock with a fat like coconut or grape seed oil. She works it for about 30 minutes until it becomes more creamy and fluffy. Now the masa rests and ferments for one to two additional hours on the counter.
Simultaneously, Vega lays out corn leaves, removes all the silk, and soaks them in water for around 20 minutes to help the leaves get loose.
“Around this time, it starts smelling really good in the kitchen. It starts smelling like summer.”
While leaves soak and the masa ferments, Vega starts working on the filling. This is when she emphasizes the multi-tasking aspect of tamales and why they’re so labor intensive.
Creating the filling and assembling tamales
“If we were coming into town, we would already have corn set aside in the dry storage at my grandma’s. The pig would already be killed and all the tasks are distributed amongst different people”
Vega prefers seasonal fillings over pork — full of local vegetables, roots, and fresh greens that work together to form what she calls, “a rollercoaster.”
Between chopping, simmering, and waiting for it to cook down, fillings can take at least two hours. Depending on the type of filling Vega creates, she’ll prepare salsa verde, too.
“That’s my focus. When I’m putting my tamale filling together, it’s like, let’s see how many rides we can take them on.” With summer approaching, Vega plans to use zucchini, tomatoes, and greens as fillings to play off their sweet, acid, and bitter notes within her masa.
After the filling and masa are prepped, Vega lays down 50 leaves at a time to assemble tamales: leaf, masa, filling, close…repeat.
Vega will introduce her seasonal tamales onto 8ARM’s breakfast and late night menus soon. Until then, her tamales are available for purchase at Third Street Goods in Grant Park.