March 26, 2005

Someone's in the kitchen with Dinaaahhh!!!!

According to historical accounts, tamales evolved to become a self-contained ration of food for the soldiers of the Indian empires that occupied what is now Mexico, Central and South America. Variations also appear throughout the Caribbean. There are two basic kinds, both made with corn dough wrapped in corn husks and then steamed. One has a filling and sauce wrapped inside the dough, and the other type has the extra goodies mixed into the dough. These are usually sweet tamales.

Tamales are the ultimate anti-fast food. Theyíre simple enough to make (although it takes a little practice) but they arenít something you just slap together in a hurry. Tamales are cooking-for-the-love-of-cooking food.

You can also turn tamale making into a family event. There are plenty of things to do, even for the little ones. Making these in one day would make for a long but relaxed day in the kitchen.

Iíll list an overview of the process, and then put down detailed steps for each part. Please remember though, that Iíve done this a grand total of once so far. All I can say for sure is that the number of steps might seem intimidating, but they break down into easily manageable chunks and my results were spectacularly delicious the very first time.

I found this book: Tamales 101 (available from Amazon) to be a great help. Iíll be using this book as a reference and for recipes for a long long time.

(the rest is in the extended entry)

Since I was making these by myself, I spread the tasks over a few days. This also helps because you want everything cool when you put the tamales together.

Day 1: made sauces (took about an hour).
Day 2: made fillings (took about an hour).
Day 3: cleaned husks, made masa, assembled and steamed tamales (two batches took about 3 hours).

Essential kitchen tools and doo-dads youíll need:

  • A mixer. A stand mixer is even better.

  • Big bowls. Youíll need a couple at least, and several smaller ones.

  • Steamer. Our big spaghetti pot came with a steamer basket that turned out to be just about right. Those stacking bamboo steamers would work too.

  • Tongs. Youíre going to be dealing with steaming hot bits and pieces here. Avoid steam burns by using long tongs.

Other items you probably don't already have in your pantry:

  • Masa for Tamales. I found this in the Hispanic foods section of my local grocery store. Masa Harina is corn flour, and Iím not sure what the difference is, but I can tell there is one between regular masa and this stuff. You definitely want the masa for tamales.

  • Corn husks. Again, found at my local grocery store in the hispanic section. A package with about twice as many as I needed was around $3.00.

This first time, I made two kinds of tamales.

Chorizo Apricot Tamales

This is a Rocket Jones original. Iím sure someone somewhere has made these, but Iíve never heard of it, so Iím claiming them as my own.

1 lb chorizo (Mexican sausage)
Ĺ cup onion, diced
12 dried apricots
Red sauce (recipe below)
Masa dough (recipe below)

Soak the apricots with enough water to cover for an hour or two. Drain and chop. I cut each apricot in half the long way, then into thirds crossways, giving 6 pieces each.
Brown the chorizo in a skillet, when almost done drain and add the onion. Finish cooking.
Mix in the apricots. Let cool.

When assembling the tamales, put a heaping tablespoon of the filling into the middle of the masa, then add two healthy tablespoons of red sauce over the top. Fold the tamale and put in the steamer rack.

Steam for about an hour, until done.

Poblano Jack Tamales

This is a more traditional tamale recipe. My Salsa Verde turned out pretty mild, so I used Pepper Jack cheese for extra oomph.

2 large fresh Poblano chilies
1 lb Monterey Jack cheese (you can use Pepper Jack or even Cheddar or Colby)
Salsa Verde (recipe below)
Masa dough (recipe below)

Roast and peel the chilies. Turn the flame on your gas stove to medium high. Put the chilies on the burner rack in the flame and let char, rotating them with tongs so that they blacken evenly.

When completely charred, lay one in your palm on a paper towel (careful, they are hot!) and use another paper towel to wipe away the charred skin. Do all of the chilies, putting them into a small bowl with a lid to steam themselves for about 20 minutes.

Slice the chilies lengthwise, remove the stem and seeds, then slice into ĹĒ wide strips about 3Ē long.
Slice the cheese into about ľĒx ľĒ wide strips, also about 3Ē long.

When assembling the tamales, put two chili strips and a cheese strip into the middle of the masa, then add a good heaping tablespoon full of salsa verde over the top. Fold the tamale and put in the steamer rack.

Steam for about an hour, until done.


Red Sauce

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp minced onion
Ĺ tsp dried oregano
2Ĺ tsp chili powder
Ĺ tsp dried basil
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
1/8 tsp salt
ľ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried parsley
ľ cup salsa
1 small can tomato paste
1 single-serving can V8 vegetable juice
1Ĺ cup water

Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and sautť for a minute.
Add everything but the water and mix well.
Add the water, bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to low and simmer 15-20 minutes. Let cool.

Ted's Revved-Up Salsa Verde

My family preferes mild to wild, so there's always room to spice up my recipes to taste.

1lb Tomatillos
1 Jalepeno chilie, roasted, seeded and chopped
2 Poblano chilies, roasted, seeded and chopped
2 Green chilies (the kind used for chilies relleno), roasted, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup onion - chopped
2 cloves garlic - minced
2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp oregano

Remove the husk from the tomatillos and wash. Slice the tomatillos into wedges. In saucepan combine everything, including the chilies and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Let cool.

I like my salsa chunky, so I use a pastry cutter to break it up a little bit in the pan instead of putting it into a blender.

This recipe makes for heat about like medium salsa. You'll probably have leftover sauce, and it's great reheated and spooned over eggs.

Preparing the corn husks

Open the package of husks and run them under water. As they soften, separate each one and rinse off any dirt or silk you find. I discarded any that were especially yucky looking, but I assume that they were sorta cleaned before being packaged. Like I said, I threw away the yucky looking ones.

Important: Notice that there is a smooth side and a rough side to the corn husks. When you assemble the tamales, you want to have the rough side out.

Once you have a stack of washed husks, fill a big bowl with hot water, lay the husks in there and weight them down with a heavy pot or bowl. Leave them to soak for an hour or so.

Tamale dough (masa)

4 cups chicken broth
4 cups masa harina for tamales
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 1/3 cups combined total of lard, butter or margarine. I used a 1 cup stick of Crisco and 1/3 cup butter.

To make the dough, heat 4 cups of chicken broth or stock until lukewarm. I make broth using chicken base, so I just mixed it with hot water and it worked great.

Combine the masa, baking powder and salt together in a bowl, then add broth a bit at a time, mixing with a spatula to make a moist dough.

In another large bowl, whip the lard, butter and/or margarine together until light and fluffy. Longer is better, so donít skimp on the whipping, it makes for a lighter, less dense tamale dough. Start adding the masa mixture to the lard a bit at a time, mixing well between additions. Keep mixing and adding until fully incorporated. When ready, cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel until ready to use.

Assembling the tamales

Start the water in the steamer to heating. Itíll take time to reach a boil.

Take a corn husk and lay it flat on your palm (rough side down). Using an ice cream scoop, put a dollop of masa in the center of the husk (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of dough). Using a butter knife or small spatula, spread the masa in an even layer across the width of the husk, not quite reaching the top edge of the husk. Oh heck, hereís a crude diagram:

folding a tamale.JPG

Put your filling in the middle of that layer of dough - spoonful of meat or strips of pepper and cheese, and then a spoonful of sauce. Donít worry about being neat with the sauce. Now fold the right side of the husk over the middle, followed by the left. Finally, fold the bottom of the husk up, making a package with an open top. After the first couple youíll get the hang of it. Stand the tamale upright in the steamer. He looks lonely there, so make lots more and pack them in.

This is only one way to fold tamales. Itís easy and doesnít require a lot of extra steps, so thatís what I used. It worked well too.

Steaming the tamales

Because the method I used to fold the tamales left one end open, I stood them upright in the steamer basket. When the basket is full, crank the heat up to return the water to a boil and then cover the top of the steamer with a dishtowel.

Add water to the steamer as needed as it boils, and after an hour remove a tamale from the steamer with tongs. Partially unwrap the tamale from the husk and if it comes away cleanly then theyíre done.

Stack Ďem on a platter and serve with extra sauce on the side. Rice or beans and a simple tomato and cucumber salad are traditional side dishes.


This makes about 3 dozen tamales. You can store leftovers in a tightly covered container in the fridge, and they freeze well. To reheat, put into a microwavable container with a lid along with a tablespoon of water, then nuke 'em at 50% power for 3 minutes per tamale. Even better is to resteam them on the stove for 10 minutes.

Posted by Ted at March 26, 2005 08:19 AM | TrackBack

Awesome! Thanks for the recipes and the detailed info and image. I love the tamale version they have in the caribean but was always unsuccessful in getting a recipe. Now I have three.

Posted by: Michele at March 26, 2005 06:55 PM

Ahhhh, memories... When I was growing up, my family was dirt poor and always looking for food that we could make in great quantities and freeze for leaner times. Tamales were tops on the list because it gave us kids something constructive to do and the ingredients were relatively cheap. Venison made for a damnably good tamale filling, especially the neck-meat and any leftover pieces. Added with a little pork fat to moisten, they were some of the best tamales I've ever had.

If you get yourself some venison meat I highly recommend trying it out in one of your tamale recipes. Just prepare like beef, and make sure it's fully cooked.

Oh great, now my stomach is growling...*drool*...


Posted by: Denita TwoDragons at March 26, 2005 07:13 PM

Hey, great post.

Suggestion on the peppers, after charing the skin, drop them into a medium size paper bag, one like you get groc. in. Keep the sack folded shut, to trap the heat, keep adding the peppers as you char them. Let them set a few minutes (five to ten I would guess, I never time it)then take them out and scrape the chared skin off.

The peppers are not so hot as to burn your hands at this point.

Also. a tip when buying the peppers, what ever kind you want to remove the skin from. Buy the ones with the least folds and wrinkles in them. Also the bigger the better to char.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Posted by: Papa Ray at April 1, 2005 04:40 PM
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