Simple Tamales


As a kid I inherited my fondness for tamales from my mother. I knew that I liked them but did not realize my true love until I visited Tall Dark and Handsomes’ family for the first time.

We arrived in Mexico the week before Christmas and fell face first into food and festivities. When we walked in the door at mom’s house we were greeted by two extraordinarily large pots of tamales. Tamales of all flavors, lovingly made by my new family. Tamales, and Mole, and Tequilla, oh my! My favorite was a seemingly odd combination of pineapple tamale covered in hot sauce. Each flavor of tamale had a light dough and a bold filling.

 I actually learned to make tamales from my mother who grew up in Texas. She made them in a mixer and sometimes our variations included wrapping the masa dough in banana leaves from outside.

I tweaked the recipe a bit when I prepared my last batch. Firstly, I did not have easy access to corn husks or banana palms so I steamed mine in parchment paper, a great tip from a friend. Secondly, I use broth and shortening instead of water and lard.

Tamales may seem daunting at first because of all the steps but truthfully, once the steps are mastered, they become a great opportunity to use a little leftovers (for the filling) to make a big meal that packs great for lunch. Be creative with fillings but be sure to use cooked ingredients. I have used pork, turkey, chard, corn & onions, headcheese etc.

 Dried chili paste + diced leftover holiday roast (be it squash, turkey or beast) = tamale filling

Make a chili paste by boiling  cumin seed, cracked pepper, salt and a few dried peppers (chipotle, ancho, etc….) Remove the chilies, remove the seeds and stems. Puree the seeded chilies adding enough seasoned water to make a nice paste or sauce.

Now for the tamale dough….

  •  4 cups masa flour
  • 1T baking powder
  • 2ts salt
  •  4c warm beef broth (or water)
  • 1c lard or shortening (butter flavored, why not?)

Mix together the dry ingredients. Using your hand or wooden spoon slowly stir in the broth. It may not be necessary for you to use all of the liquid. Do not mix until paste consistency but aim for more like soft dough. Beat the dough until combined and then beat the lard into the dough.

 The masa dough should be light in texture and dimple with your finger. You should be able to easily pinch and roll a bead of dough with your finger tips. Mix until combined without over working the dough.

At this point the dough can be wrapped and stored for 2-3 days in the fridge.

 To assemble tamales use husks, leaves, or parchment paper and spread dough 1/8”-1/4” thick onto wrapper surface. Fill with a heaping tablespoon or two of yummy flavors.

 Using the wrapper to assist you, fold the dough together so that it seals in the filling. Tuck the wrapper ends and fold up the tamale. Cook by steaming over boiling water for 30-45 minutes. Test for doneness by poking the packet, the dough should be firm.

 Because I couldn’t track down my metal steamer, I steamed this batch of tamales in a bamboo steamer. I stacked the baskets two to three layers high and rotated the steamer stack at least once during cooking.

You can now eat tamales with eggs, tamales for lunch, or alongside seared halibut with tomatillo salsa, yum!

If you have any leftovers, then tamales freeze wonderfully. Store for up to 3 months in a zippered freezer bag.