Hispanic Kitchen

Spice It Up!

Tamales with husks


Tamales, to me, are a food made with family, infused as much with spice and flavor as with the love and labor that is put into them. That said, these tamales, made with tamale flour, are simpler than you'd think. Here in Southern California, tamales can be found in a Mexican restaurant on every corner, but that fact made them no less impressive to the huge group that enjoyed them.


All over the Latin world, tamales are wrapped in both corn husks and banana leaves, each imparting its own flavor. The husk version reminds me of the social gatherings that took place in Mexico while my host family chatted in the kitchen, everyone adding their own bit -- more or less masa, heaping meat, or a minimal serving, tied husks or expertly folded -- they were a product of family and friends. Each person claimed that their tamale would be the tastiest, though we never knew who had crafted each one. Perhaps we just didn't care ... they were so delicious.


Thanks to the ancient Aztecs, from whom it seems tamales originated, these portable, tasty packages combine starchy corn masa and nutritious fillings that are packed with flavor. Mexican cooks, thankfully, carry on this tradition today, and are always certain to make an abundance -- everyone will want to bring some home.


So, on goes the tradition, my daughter in the kitchen with me, spreading the masa, then I add the topping (she didn't want to get her hands "dirty"), then into the sauna they go. A tamalera is your best bet for steaming, the fragrant process that cooks your tamales, and makes mouths water in anticipation.


Tamales can be filled with chicken, beef or pork for the carnivores, black beans or vegetables, or even served with sweet toppings as a dessert. This flavorful pork filling can be replaced, but I love the lightened up masa recipe, which can be used for vegetarian and meat-eating guests alike. Traditional tamale recipes call for lard as the fat, but canola oil replaces it for a much more convenient, already-in-your-pantry alternative.


Tamales Caseros

Makes 16 tamales


2 cups Maseca or other instant tamale flour
1¼ cup warm water
¼ cup canola oil
1 tsp each paprika, garlic powder, chili powder and cumin
¼ tsp salt
Corn husks



1. Boil water in a kettle and pour in a pan. Add dried corn husks, soaking them for 30-45 minutes. After soaking, tear one or two husks lengthwise into 16 strips, to be used to tie the tamales together. Set your tamalera, or tamale steamer to boil on the stove with water a few inches below the basket.

2. Measure maseca into a large bowl. Add spices, and mix with a fork to ensure that there are no lumps. Add water and oil, and stir to combine. Once the mixture begins to come together, mix with hands until a dough forms, adding more water if the dough seems too dry.
3. Separate the dough into 4 pieces. Break each piece into 4 smaller pieces to form a total of 16.
4. Remove one husk from the water and lay it on your work surface. Spread one ball of masa along the length of the husk, leaving about 2 inches on either end and 1 inch on either side. Top with ¼ cup of meat mixture (recipe follows), using less with smaller husks. Fold in edges and tie with strips of the husks.


5. Place tamales vertically in the basket and steam for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the masa peels easily from the husk.
6. Serve plain or tomatillo sauce (see below).


Puerco a la Frontera

Makes enough for 16 tamales, plus leftover
2 lbs pork loin roast or pork shoulder
1½ tbsps cumin
1 tbsp chili powder
½ onion, chopped
½ can pickled serrano chiles or mild green chiles, peppers only, chopped
water to cover


1. Place all ingredients, with water to cover, in a pot and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low and simmer for 2 to 2½ hours or until pork shreds easily.
2. Shred pork with hands or two forks. Set aside and allow to cool slightly before adding to tamales. Use hands or a slotted spoon to drain some of the juices.

Tomatillo Sauce
¼ onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 tomatillos, quartered
1 serrano chile, chopped
1 handful cilantro, coarsely chopped
¾ cup chicken broth
1 tsp olive oil

1. Heat oil in a pan, adding the onion to saute for 2 minutes. Add garlic and saute one minute longer. Add tomatillos, chile and cilantro. Pour in broth and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes or until tomatillos are tender. Using a stick blender (or stand blender), puree sauce mixture to a sauce.
3. Top tamales with sauce and serve.




Other recipes by Carolyn:

Camarones a la Criolla (Shrimp Creole Style)
Bistec Encebollado (Steak and Onions)
Ropa Vieja
Coctel de Camarones (Shrimp Cocktail)
Shrimp Tacos
Tacos de Carnitas
Sopa de Lentejas (Lentil Soup)
Pan de Bono
Huachinango a la Veracruzana (Snapper Veracruz)
Mil Colones Stew
Mofongo Relleno de Camarones

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Tags: chiles, cilantro, corn, salsa, tamales, tomatillo, maseca, pork, porki, recipe


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Comment by PATSY HAENELT on August 23, 2011 at 10:06am
Yes this has and always will be  a family tradition. My grandkids are into it now because of their dad. I have heard of this version with canola oil - thanks for sharing it sure is much healthier on us.
Comment by Maria Grussi on August 21, 2011 at 12:37pm
Being Guatemalan, these have always been my favorite.  My aunts and grandmother use to make these all the time and always made tons of them for everyone to take some home.  We have never used the tusk, we wrap ours in aluminum foil, but they still taste great.  Thank you for sharing this, I can't wait to make them myself.
Comment by Katherine Kane on January 20, 2011 at 11:37am
going to make tonight can't wait to eat them!

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