Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tamale time

Tamale-making has become one of my favorite adopted holiday traditions since moving to New Mexico ten years ago. Tamales, if you aren't familiar with them, usually consist of a dough filling wrapped inside a corn husk and cooked by steaming. The fillings might contain meat, vegetables or a corn flour called masa, or some combination of these, along with spices and sometimes cheese. Tamales have origins in ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures; today they are commonly eaten in places with  Mexican or Latin American cultural influence, New Mexico being one place where they are very popular. Many people make tamales around Christmas or other festive times.

Have you ever had a tamale? I'd never tried one before I came here, but now I really enjoy them. Our tamale-making day usually happens just before Christmas. The Bear and I make them together. I make up the masa filling (we like a meatless tamale, made up of butter and shortening, with masa, chopped green chile and corn kernels and spices). He does the wrapping, which I find a little tricky.

We either steam our tamales in a big stockpot with a steamer basket inside, or we cook them in the steamer basket part of our pressure cooker. Either way, they come out great. The masa filling cooks into a stiff little log, almost like a corn cake. You don't eat the husk; it's just a wrapper for cooking in, but you do want to scrape out the crusty bits of masa from the folds of the husk because those are pretty tasty.

Tamales are a fair bit of work, so you definitely want to make a big batch if you're going to do them. They're great for a party. Sometimes, the Bear takes tamales to his annual work potluck holiday luncheon and they're very popular. He always makes sure to leave some at home so he can enjoy a few himself! You can buy premade and frozen tamales in the grocery stores too, which is a nice way to try different fillings. I like chicken fillings better myself, but pork is another popular kind. I've never tried one, but I've heard of tamales with sweet fillings too, almost like a rice pudding or other sweet comfort food. We stick with the masa and veggie filling and eat them as a side accompaniment to meat, but you can experiment with almost any kind of filling, I think. The Bear likes to eat his tamales with warmed red chile sauce, for an extra kick.

We're fortunate that all of the ingredients for our tamales are easy to find in local mainstream grocery stores but you can probably find them in a Latin or Hispanic specialty market. The Bear wrote up his own recipe a few years ago, based on his experiments with making tamales at home. They're a little on the spicy side, but that's easy to adjust. Here's how we make our tamales, with his notes, if you'd like to give it a try...

Fresh Corn Tamales
1 lb. prepared masa (add water to dry masa according to package directions)
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening or lard
2 cups frozen corn or kernels from 2 ears fresh sweet corn, roughly chopped
2 large green chiles or 1 cup frozen prepared green chiles, thawed and well-drained
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
Dried corn husks, about 2 oz. (before use, soak husks according to package directions)

Combine the wet ingredients and fat together in a bowl. I use a potato masher to really amalgamate things, but a food processor would do even better.

Combine the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the dry ingredients gradually to the dough to get even distribution and good mixing. Working by hand, I sprinkle over the dough about a quarter of the dry ingredients at a time.

(He writes here about different ways of wrapping tamales, but you can wrap them any way you like, generally like a little package with the ends of the husks tucked under the tamale to hold it closed. If your husk is long and pointy, you may prefer to fold the sides inward and then fold the bottom tip upward; the top will remain open, so put it in the steamer carefully. With pointy husks, you can also use two of them with the flat ends together, as shown below, to get a package that is closed on both ends).

Use about 1/4 cup dough per husk (I use a cookie scoop).

Layer tamales inside steamer basket, or stand them in basket with open end pointing up. Steam tamales for 30 minutes.

Serve warm with condiments as desired, such as chile sauce, salsa or mole.

Our recipe yields a good 15-16 tamales (we often double the recipe, as we did here). We refrigerate them in a plastic container for up to a week and heat them in the microwave as needed. They're also easy to freeze and enjoy later on. I'm really glad we brought tamales into our holiday celebrations, especially since we make them together; it's something I really look forward to every year at Christmas time.


  1. that's really nice! it's so special to do things as a family like this, and as a couple too!!! Sounds delicious!!!

  2. They sound delicious. It's lovely to have some local delicacies isn't it. And so nice that you make them together as a festive tradition. CJ xx

  3. I've never had a tamale and it was really interesting to read about the process of making them. Thank you for taking the time to shar eall of this with us.

  4. I enjoyed your tamale story and think it's neat that you make them.. but they never rang my chimes. :-) I'm more of a burrito girl. And I looooove guacamole. ((hugs)), Teresa :-)

    ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉
    *M*E*R*R*Y* *C*H*R*I*S*T*M*A*S*!*
    ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉

  5. What an interesting recipe, and it sounds very delicious Jennifer. Wrapping it in the corn husks I imagine makes them steamed and soft. Merry Christmas to you and your family. xx

  6. Being a Texas girl and born in San Antonio, I'm very familiar with tamales. Love them. They are a big Christmas tradition there and there are specialty tamale places that make tamales only and sell huge quantities at the holidays. I think my favorite is black bean tamales with chili con carne over the top. So good! Fun and interesting post. Enjoy those tamales. Wish I had a few. :8)

  7. I learned how to make tamales when living in CA and made them with a small group of women which was fun. I have only tried beef tamales, but I am imagining your recipe is yummy, too. Thanks for sharing the recipe, Jennifer. xx

  8. These look delicious and fun to make. I'd love to give them a try but I'm not sure where to find the dried corn husks here. Maybe I could order them online or have a hunt next time I'm in London. Thank you for sharing the recipe. Happy holidays. xx

  9. Such a wonderful tradition. That is one of the things I do so love about blogging, learning so many different new things I have never come across tamales before. Wishing you and yours a wonderful Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

  10. These look very tasty. I've not seen anything like them here and would have no idea where to find the corn husks. It is interesting to read so many blogs that are trying out local traditions for Christmas from all different places. Thank you for sharing :)

  11. Never seen them before but they look interesting. We made mince pies yesterday as a big family affair and it is a lovely feeling. Jo x

  12. I've never heard of tamales, never mind tried them. It's nice that you've adopted local traditions and incorporated them in to your own celebrations.

  13. I have never eaten tamale but you definitely make them sound special and I quite fancy unwrapping one and taste it. x

  14. I've never had one...but they look delicious. What a lovely tradition.

  15. I had never heard of tamale before so I'm fascinated by your post. How lovely to adopt the traditions of the place you live.

  16. I'm surprised by all the people ^ that have said they haven't heard of tamales or tried one. I grew up eating them, but maybe that's because I have always lived in the Chicago suburbs (except for a 3-1/2 year stint in KY as a teen) and we pretty much have access to every kind of food imaginable. A nearby restaurant was making tamales for Christmas Eve...you could call and order them ahead of time to pick up and bring home. I was going to do so and totally forgot!

    I think it's fantastic that you and your husband make tamales together - great tradition!

  17. What a treat! Everyone loves tamales! Your tamales look wonderful! Merry Christmas, Jennifer!

  18. Again, I'm learning as I read your blog Jennifer! I've heard of tamales but was never really sure what they were. They sound delicious and I like that they've become a holiday tradition in your family. X


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