The Art of the Tamale


Having learned some of the basics from Luisa, I asked her to make tamales again so that I could watch the process. She told me through Marco that it was a two day process but she loved to make them. I had to work on the first day but I could join her on the second day.

On that first day she prepared the corn husks by cleaning them and soaking them over night in water. She also cleaned and soaked some black beans to go as a side with her tamales. She told me that she usually prepares the meat the night before but waited until the second day to show me.

We started by boiling chickens with onions, garlic, celery and carrots She threw some chili powder in with it. Luisa said the celery and carrots were her own touch which further verified my belief that regardless of tradition subtle changes happen any time a good cook gets a hold of a recipe based on that cooks preferences or in this case because of availability of produce. While that was cooking we cooked off the beans that she had soaked the night before. Once they were soft and cooked we set them out to cool and then refrigerated them. We also rinsed and then dried the corn husks

Once the chickens boiled we let them continue at a slow boil until they were falling off of the bone at which point we removed them, split them and then cooled them down. Chicken takes about 2 hours and pork as long as 4 hours but when cooled you should be able to shred the meat with a couple of forks. The veggies by this point are incredibly soft and she pureed them in a blender (another break with tradition) in some of the broth and then mixed the puree with the remaining broth.


She seasoned the shredded chicken with chili powder, salt, pepper and a touch of cumin (be careful here because there is usually cumin in most chili powders) and because Hector and Jorge liked theirs hot, she separated some of the shredded meat and add minced jalapenos to theirs. She also added enough of the chicken stock to moisten the meat but not enough to make it wet.

Next came the masa la maize or corn dough. Using a product called masa harina (corn meal) mixed with lard, chili powder (used more for color than flavor) and chicken broth added a little at a time, it was mixed by hand until the dough was smooth in texture and would spread easily on the corn husks.

The corn husks were laid out with masa spread in a thin layer (too much masa means not enough filling) covering most of the husk but not to the outer edges. The filling is then added. Luisa liked to stuff tamales with as much filling as they would bear but was mindful to make sure that she could completely wrap them in the husk. She folded over the top and bottom (think burrito) and then overlapped the sides.

She placed a raised rack in a roasting pan with water in the bottom that didn’t quite reach the bottom of the rack. She put the pan on the stove and boiled the water and then placed the tamales folded side down on the rack and covered it steaming them for about 15 minutes, until they heated thoroughly. They may sound hard to make but they aren’t. The process is time consuming but the end product is well worth it. We steamed a bunch right before the arrival of the slate brigade. We served them up with Mexican rice and black beans to the smiling faces of all who were at the table.

This was the beginning of my relationship with Mexican food.  Many of the things that I learned from Luisa still show up regularly in my southwestern dishes. I don’t use lard and tend to try to make some of these dishes healthier than they were first presented to me, but without learning the traditional ways first, there would be a disconnect from the true flavors of an absolutely amazing cuisine.

Over the years I learned about the difference in peppers, jalapenos, seranos, poblanos, pasillas, anchos (dried poblanos), chipotles (smoked jalapenos usually packed in adobo, a tomato vinegar sauce), casabels and magdelenas which we refer to as anaheims. I continue to pursue these flavors to this day and have a deep abiding respect for the traditions from whence they came.

Next up: The Desert Southwest.

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Bio:  Bob Zimorino is a full-time real estate agent with Lambros/ERA Real Estate, a retired Certified Executive Chef, a Musician with the popular local band Hellgate Rodeo, a dad, and a grandpa. He shares the experiences from his life that helped shape his careers and hobbies. His weekly “Taste It” blog is his take on the evolution of food in his lifetime.