Demystifying Tamales

My first tamale initiation happened in 2003, when I met a friend in Colorado who could make tamales in her sleep, blindfolded. Her name was Candelaria, and she happened to be from the same state in Mexico my husband was from, Dolores Hidalgo. Candy didn’t speak a word of English, and I had just enough Spanish words in my repertoire to make her my friend. Our sons went to school together and soon I found myself spending afternoons in her tiny kitchen, learning how to cook some amazingly simple, delicious food.

Candy taught me how mashed potatoes stuffed into fresh corn tortillas and fried made perfect tacos, and how shredded cabbage, mixed with lime and chiles, transformed into a spicy, crunchy side salad and condiment when money was tight. Her ability to eat well on a small budget was profound. For five dollars, Candy could whip up a feast.

When Thanksgiving rolled around, I asked my friend in broken, five-year-old Spanish, how she planned on cooking her turkey. “Tamales,” she told me. Candy was more than willing to teach me her tamale ways. We went to the local Latin market and purchased all the ingredients for less than twenty dollars. The Thanksgiving turkey was free, a program the city of Grand Junction, Colorado offered to needy families.

Once back in her kitchen, I watched in silent awe as Candy soaked the chiles in hot water, and then blended them with cloves of garlic, fresh tomatoes and some salt. The result was a vibrant smoky-red sauce, full of hot chile-seeds. Then, she got to work on the boiled turkey.

Yes, she’d boiled the entire twenty-five pound turkey.

She’d simmered it in water and salt with a whole onion for hours, and then let it sit until cool. In rapid succession, she removed all the fat, sinew, skin and bones from the meat, leaving tender, perfectly shredded poultry. She mixed the meat with the chile sauce and let me have a taste. It was so wildly different from the Thanksgiving turkeys I’d grown up eating. I loved the intensity of the red chiles and the tenderness of the meat. She had made it all look so simple. When it came time to mix the masa, she didn’t need a recipe. She poured a giant mound of masa into a bowl and scooped in the entire bucket of lard. The salt and baking powder were poured directly from their respective containers. Next, she added warm turkey broth to the mix. She just seemed to know when to stop. Then, in a matter of seconds, she had massaged several pounds of mix into soft, fluffy dough.

She was a one woman show, and I was mesmerized. In an hour she had mixed and assembled nearly fifty tamales. None were perfect. All had leaking red sauce bursting through the seams of each sloppily wrapped packet. She built a nest of ripped corn husks on top of the steamer and then layered tamales between more corn husks until the giant aluminum pot was filled. Once the stove was lit, she cracked open a beer and sat at her two-seater kitchen table and smiled. I’d never seen my friend more beautiful.

Once they finished steaming, they sat in the pot until she decided it was time to lift up the lid. All of it was a dance – a combination of steps and intuition that could not borrowed, but earned. The tamales were divine. Soft, flavorful dough that felt like delicate clouds of corn on my tongue, and an intensely spiced meaty filling, the flavor, a dynamic duo, all coming together in my mouth in a perfect, Mexican Mariachi of deliciousness.

I took the sacred tamale knowledge my friend had bestowed upon me, and transformed it into an offering of love for my husband a week later, using leftover, shredded roasted turkey meat from our own Thanksgiving meal. The first time he ate one, his eyes lit up. Mexican tamales are delicious and once you crack the code – they are simple to make and easy to enjoy. You’ll need to find a large enough steamer to fit at least a dozen, but you don’t need any other special devices. Most of the ingredients can now be found in your local grocery store in the Latin food isle, however, if they aren’t there – your neighborhood Latin market will definitely have what you need.

I have made some adaptations to my friend’s original recipe. The first change – I don’t use lard. I prefer extra virgin olive oil and found that it does wonderful things to the dough. Second –I don’t use dried chiles. I prefer the flavor of fresh chiles but you can use whatever you enjoy most.
Give it a shot one day – you’ll thank me if you do.

Easy Mexican Tamales – (24-30 tamales)
Felicity Huffman's What the Flicka? Demystifying Tamales
(Masa Dough)
6 cups of Masa corn flour mix for tamales (Make sure this is a tamale masa)
1 tablespoon of baking powder
1 ¼ tablespoons of salt
1 ¼ cups of extra virgin olive oil (or other preferred fat)
7 cups of broth or stock

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 14.5 oz can of fire-roasted tomatoes
1 habanero pepper (you can substitute this for a jalapeno pepper)
4 cloves of garlic
½ medium red onion
¼ cup fresh cilantro
¼ cup of water
½ teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of chipotle chile powder
1 teaspoon of Ancho chile powder
½ teaspoon of Mexican oregano

1 package of dried corn husks (hojas de maiz)
1 package of frozen banana leaves

Start early with the chicken and sauce. In a blender, combine the can of fire roasted tomatoes, habanero pepper (with seeds removed), peeled garlic, ¼ of the red onion (set aside the other ¼), the cilantro, water and all of the spices. Blend until smooth. Slice the remaining red onion into thin strips.

In a slow cooker (or a large pot with a tight fitting lid) add the raw chicken breasts, the sliced red onion, and the pureed sauce. Set the slow cooker to low and cook for 6 hours, until the meat falls apart at the touch of a fork and the sauce has thicken slightly. If using a stove-top pot, cover and set to low, and cook for approximately 2 hours. Shred the chicken with a fork and mix into the sauce. Remove from the slow cooker and keep in the fridge until it is time to fill the tamales.Begin preparation of your masa dough about two hours before you want to eat them. In a large pot set to medium on the stove, add the chicken stock. Heat the stock/broth until it is warm to the touch.
Felicity Huffman's What the Flicka? Demystifying Tamales
Now’s the time to clean out your sink and fill it with hot tap water. Add your dried corn husks. If you are using banana leaves instead – allow them to thaw on the counter for at least an hour before opening. They need to be rinsed in cold water a few times to remove any residue.

Mix the masa flour with the salt and baking soda. Whisk to combine thoroughly. Add the warmed chicken stock, and extra virgin olive oil. Stir with a whisk until the dough is soft and loose, like thick pancake batter. The dough will get thicker as it sits, don’t worry.

Take a 6 inch wide section of rinsed banana leaf or 1 softened corn husk and spread about 3 tablespoons of masa dough in the center. Use your finger or the back of a spoon to spread the masa down to about 2 inches before the bottom of the leaf. Add one tablespoon of the spicy chicken filling to top of the masa, dragging the meat lightly down till about ¼ inch before the edge of the dough.

Here is how you fold a tamale in five steps: First, fold the banana leaf or corn husk in half vertically (lengthwise according to the tamale) and reopen it. It will have closed the masa mostly over the meat filling and made the dough into a rough-rectangle shape. Now, wrap one vertical side of the husk or banana leaf over the masa, then fold the opposite vertical side over the first. Fold the bottom edge up and the top edge down. It’s really that simple. If you make the tamale too big, you’ll find that folding the husk/leaf is difficult, so be cautious.

To keep them closed after folding – simply lay them folded-side down. The first few tamales will undoubtedly be works of abstract art. As you continue to fold, you’ll find it gets easier. Keep folding until you run out of husks/leaves or masa. If you run out of filling, keep making the tamales, but leave them plain. My family loves them for breakfast with coffee. Tip: keep any ripped banana leaves or corn husks in a bag. They will be useful later!

When you’re ready to cook the tamales, get the largest steamer you have and fill it with water until it is about 1 inch from the steaming tray. You can also use a steaming-basket inside of a pot. Take the torn, left over husks/banana leaves and make a thin nest across the bottom of the steaming tray/basket. Place your tamales in one level across the nest and then cover them with more torn husks/banana leaves. Keep building layers until you’ve either stacked them all or you run out of room. Make sure to cover the final layer with husks/leaves before putting the lid on the pot.

Turn the heat on your stove to high and allow the water to come to a full boil. Once you see steam coming out of the sides of lid, set your timer for 30 minutes. Allow them to steam over high heat without removing the lid. If you have a smaller steamer, reduce your heat once it comes to a boil to medium-high, so you don’t risk running out of water before the tamales are done.
Felicity Huffman's What the Flicka? Demystifying Tamales
Once they have finished steaming, turn off the heat and leave the lid on the pot for another 15 minutes. Serve the tamales right from the pot once they have finished resting. They are delicious anytime, and make a great meal with a side salad. They are especially great for parties, as they are relatively cheap to make and can feed a lot of people at once.

Once you nail this recipe down, get creative. There are literally thousands of options when it comes to filling tamales. So there you have it – the recipe for making authentic, delicious Mexican tamales, easy. I can’t wait to hear what you come up with!