Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hot Tamales

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This month’s Daring Cooks challenge was to make tamales! Yum! It was a perfect challenge for the season, as tamales are a customary Christmas dish in many households and are a perfect thing to make with a group.

We’ve made tamales before, once using masa flour to make the dough. Those were so dry, they were virtually inedible and unenjoyable to say the least. Since then, we’ve turned to prepared masa dough, which you can buy in many Mexican markets. However, inspired by the challenge, we decided to try again on making our own masa dough. Whew! success this time. And a good thing, as we have the rest of a 2 kilo sack of masa leftover..

For fillings, we chose to make green chiles and cheese and also chile colorado with pork. We wrapped the green chile tamales in banana leaves and the chile colorado tamales in traditional corn husks so that we could tell them apart. The recipes that Maranda provided also looked excellent, but we were stuck on making a couple of our old favorites.

Making tamales is a bit time consuming. Perhaps it gets easier with practice, but the process took the better part of an afternoon. This is why a group is good: you get to share the load and chat away the hours. On the upside, you get a lot of leftovers that are perfect for lunch later in the week. Tamales also freeze well, so its always best to make a whole lot of them.

The process is quite simple, really:

  1. Soak the corn husks
  2. Make the filling
  3. Make the dough
  4. Assemble the tamales
  5. Steam
  6. Enjoy!

1. Soak the husks

If you’re using traditional corn husks, soak them in water for at least four hours. They start out quite water resistant, but eventually soak up a huge amount.

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If you use banana leaves, they don’t need soaking – just be sure to give them a good rinse. Tear off sheets that are approx. 6-8 inches wide.

Both these wrappings impart a subtle flavor to the finished tamale. I find banana leaves a little easier to work with, but really like tamales with both these wrappers. You can find corn husks at most Latin American markets. Some will also carry banana leaves. The latter can also be found frozen or fresh at many Asian markets.

2. Make the filling

Whatever filling you make, it should be a bit wetter than you think is right. The first time we made tamales, our fillings were too dry – we made them the consistency of what you might eat plain. the filling shouldn’t be runny, but very very stewy.

For the pork:

We coated 1 1/4 pounds of pork shoulder with ground cumin, ground coriander, black pepper and salt, then roasted it along with a couple of diced dried chiles at 300 degrees F for about an hour and a half. The meat was fall-apart tender, then we cooled and shredded it.

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We then toasted a couple more dried chiles in a skillet, then popped them into a blender with about a cup of water and pureed until smooth. You want the sauce to be fairly runny – it will thicken as it stands. Mix the sauce into the shredded pork and you’re ready to go.

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For the green chile:

Roast a half dozen or so large poblano peppers (aka pasilla peppers) and about a dozen peeled and washed tomatillos separately until the skin blackens. Peel the skin off the peppers and then roughly chop and set in a bowl.


Blend the tomatillos with a good handful of fresh cilantro. It doesn’t need to be thoroughly pureed – we blend until the cilantro looks fairly evenly chopped. Add to the chiles.

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Grate about 1/3 pound cheese. We used Queso Oaxaca, which is pretty much like a mozzarella – choose something that will melt nicely.

Add the cheese to the bowl with the chiles and tomatillos, mix and season to taste.

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3. Make the masa dough

If you can buy masa preparada at a nearby store, go for it. Otherwise, pick up instant masa flour for tamales and follow the directions on the bag. We noticed that there were several masa options at the store: some were specific for tortillas, some were generic for anything, and one was designated for tamales.  I think we used the ‘good for everything’ kind the first time. I also think we skimped on the shortening. Not a recipe for success in our case.

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4. Assembling the tamales

Whichever husk you’re using, tear off small strips of a small or broken section so that you have ties to use to seal up your tamales. I like to roll the tamales as if I am wrapping glassware and the husk is the tissue paper; roll the tamale until it’s complete, then fold the top and bottom of the husk inwards and keep rolling. Of course, I only remember this after I’ve made a couple of dozen in various ways trying to remember what works best for me. Naturally, my preferred approach is not what we filmed, but the video is probably easier to understand than the description below.

Lay out the husk  with the narrow end away from you. The banana leaf should be positioned with the ‘veins’ pointed vertically.  Spread masa in about a 4 inch square right up against the right or left edge of the sheet, leaving a 1 or 2 inch edge on the other side to wrap. The masa should be about 1/8 inch thick. If your husk is too narrow, you can overlap two to make a large one or save the small one for the strips mentioned above.

Spoon maybe 2 Tbsp of filling in a column down the center of your masa square. Starting from the filled side, roll the tamale to encase the filling in your masa. Then fold down the uncoated tops of your sheet and continue rolling. Tie in the center to hold the parcel together.

5. Steam the tamales

Place a steamer insert in a large stockpot. Fill with water to just the level of the steamer. Place your tamales in the pot as you finish them – if you stand them up vertically, you can usually squeeze a few more into the pot than laying them flat. Steam on medium-high heat for 40 minutes. Check halfway through to make sure you still have enough water in the pot – you definitely don’t want to go dry on this.

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6. Enjoy!

We served our tamales with a cabbage, avocado and pepita slaw. And of course, a couple of cervezas.

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They were also great for lunch the next day:reheat tamales in the microwave for about 2 minutes.

Maranda of Jolts & Jollies was our January 2012 Daring Cooks hostess with the mostess! Maranda challenged us to make traditional Mexican Tamales as our first challenge of the year!


  1. Oh my word, that looks unbelievably good. You clearly know your way around a tamale! That slow cooked pork in the sauce - oh WOW.

  2. Your filling is mouth-watering! And now I'm hungry...

  3. Your fillings both sound delicious. Which did you like best? I want to try using banana leaves next, maybe do half half like you did.

  4. This is a phenomenal tamale post/tutorial. Your tamales look so so good, so good I wish I could grab one from the screen right now, especially the slow-cooked pork. I completely forgot about this challenge due to the holiday fracas. Bummed, but will make them soon :)