January 11th, 2009 by Dawn

Tamale assembly

For some reason, I always thought tamales would be hard to make, but they turn out to be easy work with a group of friends over margaritas.  We first met Kathy around the holidays a number of years ago, and she promised that one year she’d share her recipes and show us how.  It’s been part of her annual Christmas tradition for years.

This was the year for our tamalada (tamale making party).  After one raincheck (snowcheck?) on account of Seattle’s crazy winter weather, we finally gathered at Kathy’s house just after Christmas.  Joining us and Kathy (our tamalera, or tamale expert) were a group of dedicated foodies:  Kathy’s husband Patrick (retired and part-time “volunteer” at Salumi), along with our friends Catherine (Queso y Vino owner, and food blogger extraordinaire), her husband Ken (wine distributor and chef), and Eric and Kye (IMO, the couple most qualified to write a food blog who don’t actually have one).

Everyone brought something to contribute, and when you have eight people this dedicated to food in one room, it turns out to make for some awesome tamale fixin’s.  Not only were we stuffed after dinner, but we each went home with ten kinds of tamales, plus sweet dessert tamales.

Eric and I brought Mangalitsa carne picada filling with red mole, along with the sweet tamale filling: golden and black raisins stewed in rum.  Everyone else arrived with fillings too: duck with mole, roasted poblano rajas con queso, chicken and green chili, roasted yams and queso, spicy pastilla mushrooms, pork rib adobada, mushrooms with epazote y queso, and carnitas.

Assembling the tamales

We made two types of tamale masa (plus the dessert masa, which was an adaptation of a recipe we found online).  Kathy started demonstrating with the sweet potato masa, showing us the secret she learned for keeping the tamale soft, fluffy and not too dense: at least 15 minutes beating in a stand mixer.

Next we made the lard version.  I had brought some homemade lard rendered from Mangalitsa fatback, which we mixed in with the fresh masa Kathy had purchased from the Pike Place Market outpost of La Mexicana Tortilla Factory.

Then we got to work wrapping the tamales, some with corn husks and others with banana leaves.  I thought there would be some kind of magic trick to wrapping them, but it wasn’t too difficult, and everyone seemed to develop their own technique and cute corn husk bows.

While we waited for the first batch to finish steaming (which requires almost an hour and a half), we noshed on homemade salsas, guacamole, and chips washed down with Kathy’s delicious blood orange margaritas.  Once the tamales were done, we sat down, enjoying them with red chili sauce on top and beans alongside.  They were among the best tamales I’ve eaten – I’m thinking that this might become a holiday tradition of our own.


For more photos of the evening, hop over to our Flickr stream.

Homemade Lard

Cut good quality leaf fat (preferred) or back fat into chunks.  Puree the chunks into a paste using a food processor.  Transfer to a Dutch oven or heavy pot, and leave it uncovered in a 250-degree oven for several hours, stirring periodically.  It’s done when you have a clear liquid with crisp brown cracklings on top.  Strain the liquid into containers and refrigerate up to three months or freeze up to a year.

Lard Tamale Masa
Adapted from Mexico: One Plate at a Time, by Rick Bayless

10 oz. lard or Crisco shortening
2 lb. fresh masa (4 cups) or 3½ cups dried masa harina for tamales mixed with 2¼ cups hot water (prep ahead of time and let sit for 20-30 minutes)
1½ teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1½ cups chicken broth

With a stand mixer, beat lard or shortening with salt and baking powder until light in texture, about one minute.  Continue beating as you add the masa in three additions.  Reduce speed and add one cup of broth, continue beating 3-4 minutes, then add the last half cup of broth.  Total mixing time should be 15-20 minutes.

Sweet Potato Tamale Masa

Roast one sweet potato (baked or diced).  Follow instructions above, adding half the potato at a time with the broth.

Red Chili Sauce
From Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking, by Elena Zelayeta

12 large dried red chilies. Using a few different varieties is best.
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon salt
4 cloves garlic
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce or 3 oz. can tomato paste
2 tablespoons canola oil

Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles and dry toast 3-4 minutes in a skillet to release the oils.  Add to blender jar and cover with 4-5 cups of water.  Soak for 30+ minutes.

Add the next four ingredients to the blender and blend on high for 3-4 minutes.  Strain.

Heat oil in a sauce pan or skillet.  Add chili mixture into the hot oil and cook for 4-5 minutes until the color deepens.  Taste for salt and/or sugar.  Simmer 15-20 minutes.

10 Responses to “Tamale-making”

  1. Matthew Amster-Burton says:

    I love making tamales, and like you I found it to be much easier than I expected. When you say the La Mexicana outlet, do you mean the Mexican Grocery, near Seattle Cutlery? I didn’t know they sold fresh masa; I’ll buy that next time. I used the Maseca masa para tamales, and it was fine.

  2. Dawn says:

    Yes, that’s the place. I didn’t know they had fresh masa either until Kathy introduced us to it.

  3. María says:

    The singular form of the word “tamales” should be “TAMAL”. Most English speakers incorrectly write “tamale”.

  4. Dawn says:

    Thanks for pointing that out, María. Indeed, I’m aware and should have posted the same disclaimer as Matthew’s earlier posting 🙂 http://www.rootsandgrubs.com/2008/12/26/mas-masa/

  5. Michael Natkin says:

    Hey Wrights! This is just the info I was looking for. I love making tamales but mine haven’t been coming out truly light. I’m going to get that fresh masa you pointed out, and beat it much longer and hope that solves the problem.

  6. Ronney Henson says:

    there is a press used for pressing the tamale dough onto the corn shuck, What is is called and what should I expect to pay for it.


    Ron Henson

  7. Dawn says:

    Hi Ronney,

    We don’t use a press, but simply spread the dough onto the corn shuck with a spoon. It’s easy and works really well!

  8. Cindy says:

    Hi Wrights, This looks like a great idea for a holiday get-together. Any chance you’d be able to share the recipe for Kathy’s blood-orange margaritas? Thanks!

  9. Kathy says:

    Hi Cindy — The margarita recipe I use is adapted from the Santa Fe Cafe. I substituted part of the sour mix with blood orange juice. Here’s the recipe. You’ll need to adjust for your preferred level of sweetness.

    2 parts tequila
    1 part Cointreau or other orange liquor
    2 parts sour mix (lemon w/ simple syrup, below, or 4 parts if you don’t add the orange juice)
    2 parts blood orange juice (fresh or box/bottle; Trader Joe’s sells bottled 100% blood orange juice)

    Sour mix
    3 parts lemon or lime juice (fresh, or I often use Santa Cruz pure organic juice)
    1 part simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water)

    Pour all ingredients over ice, shake and serve straight up or on the rocks.

  10. Derisa says:

    What is the difference in using fresh masa and dry masa?

Post a Comment