Originally posted July, 2006. I haven't made them in about a year (for some reason I seem to make them when it's really.damn.hot outside instead of during the winter like sensible people do) but the basic idea stands:
Forget about ordering them, bite the bullet and make them. After many years of feeling I was simply not up to it, I learned that it's not hard, just time-consuming. I made my first batch about three weeks ago, and they were so good (like, as good as the ones we buy locally during the Christmas season here in west Texas) that I followed them with another batch a week later, and might make more again this weekend. If you can't find husks or masa preparada (not the pre-mixed stuff, but the "kind of like cornmeal" bag) locally, I'm sure mexgrocer.com will help you out.
I roughly followed the directions found here: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/tamales/Cook_Tamale_Meat.htm
BUT, I spiced my meat differently, and used only pork the first time. (I used "boneless country ribs" with fantastic success.) I cooked the pork with a quartered onion, chilled it and shredded it the next day, and for seasoning;
Seed and remove most of the membranes from about 20-30 red chili peppers (chile japones or chili de arbol- the little bright red ones, about an inch and a half long and very hot - best to use gloves while you're deseeding!) and saute in about 1/4c of oil until the scent rises. Blend with a bit of broth or water until smooth - about 1/2 or 2/3c of broth, maybe. Pour over the shredded meat and warm through. This was irresistible - bright and hot on the tongue, quickly mellowing to a completely painless finish. By the time I reached for a drink after sampling the spice had cooled on my tongue. But of course, be your own judge. (My kids dumped sour cream on their tamales, deciding they were too spicy.)
I used lard in my masa and probably always will, but I'm sure shortening would work alright. Oh, and a friend told me to use a folded bath towel as a cover for my pot while steaming, that it'd let out just enough steam.
They were addictive, and a lot of fun to make, honestly.
We had quite a bit of leftover meat, which I froze and mixed with some shredded chicken in the next batch. Both batches were good - next time I'll try some sort of beef, but the seasoning will definitely remain the same.
The only real trick was keeping the masa at a good working consistency - it was extremely dry here the 2nd time I made them, and I had to periodically add a bit more broth to the mix to keep it workable. Next time I might mix a bit of the chili liquid in the masa for color, but I'm not sure. Oh, and don't spread the masa too thich - which is, granted, easier said than done, but it's also easier done than I thought it'd be!