Tamales Mexicanos… I did it my way

Even though Mexican food is readily available in Houston, that doesn’t mean you get good tamales. For years I enjoyed the Rolls Royce of tamales, but most restaurants here serve tamales that are closer to a Yugo. My ex-mother-in-law made the best tamales I’ve eaten to date. She made them every year and would give each of her sons a few dozens to enjoy. I cherished those days, they only came around once or twice a year, so I had a lot of time to think and dream about them. Alicia was a generous woman, but she kept her method and recipe for tamales very close to the vest.¬† Fast forward some 15 years, you’ll find me trying my hand at recreating the coveted tamales.

Off to the interworld¬†I went looking for recipes and tips. I found lots and lots of them, all calling for chili powder as seasoning. For some reason, I can’t picture my mother in law dumping chili powder to season¬†her pork or chicken. So, I’m going to make this up as I go, combine some of the ingredients I saw her utilize in other dishes and see what happens. It all begins with the chilies. I used 3 different dried chiles:

  • Chile Ancho¬†is pretty mild by comparison to other dried peppers, it has a smoky fruity flavor. This isn’t surprising when you realize that Anchos are dried red poblano¬†peppers.
  • Chile Guajillo¬†also a mildly flavored chile, that seems to bring out the best in its companions.¬†Fruity, but with sweeter undertones than other¬†peppers. Interestingly, guajillos are also used¬†to make Harissa paste, a¬†condiment popular in North African dishes.
  • Chile Pasilla are very dark and wrinkled¬†like a raisin, they’re also pretty mild heat & fruity.

I used all three chilies a few different ways. First, to braise the pork and chicken. Yes. I made 2 different types of tamales, I had to. Both meats were cooked separately and slowly with onions, garlic, cumin, cilantro and 1 or 2 of each chili. I made sure to add plenty of water for braising, because that very broth flavors the masa later. Once the meat is fork tender, I allowed it cool before shredding.

I also made additional¬†chili sauce. One thing I remember about Alicia’s tamales, is that the dough was always very flavorful and colorful. For the chili sauce, I cooked the same aromatics: cilantro, chilies, onions, garlic, cumin and added tomatoes. Once everything had softened, I pureed and seasoned the sauce.

Now let’s talk about the masa. I opted to use premixed¬†masa instead of starting off with the dry corn stuff. But first I made lard. Yep, there’s a LOT of lard in tamales. The lard helps flavor the masa and makes it lighter, fluffier. So, I got some pork fat trimmings and rendered that fat down.

Before combining the lard and masa, I beat the lard until it was fluffy and added salt, pepper and pinch of cumin. I then worked the masa in and worked on its consistency by adding chile sauce and broth until it was about  the consistency of softened ice cream.

The tamales are cooked in corn husks, these are sold in packs and need to be rehydrated before use. Once they are pliable again, you can begin the exciting task of stuffing or making the tamales. Its not a difficult process, but it is a tedious one, which is probably why it is customary to have a few friends or family members pitch in at this point.

Once your tamales are stuffed, you can stack’em into a steamer pan. I took a vegetable steamer and placed it at the bottom of the pan, built a few layers with empty corn husks, this prevents the water from seeping through and ruining the tamales at the bottom and it also add to the flavor of finished tamales.

After about 40 minutes, you’ll end up with perfectly cooked, delicious tamales. Look at that gorgeous baby.

I also made some salsa and we sprinkled some queso fresco on top. I’m not offering a recipe here, I really kept adding and tasting things until they were right. I will say these weren’t quite Rolls Royce tamales, but I think I made it to Benz status.


There are lots more pictures, you can see them here.

Cookingly yours,


A blast from the past, aka a needed break

I have to admit, I’m pooped. I’ve overdone it yet again. I went cruh-ah-zee with it all and I’m now feeling like cartoon characters probably do when they go splat against the wall.

I literally haven’t stopped since I got back from Panama and the funeral. I hit it hard at work¬†and on the blog,¬†hurling myself at every possible distraction and project that would keep me moving. I’m like a¬†shark right now, constantly on the move, never resting,¬†always on to the next thing.¬†I don’t want this to be a woe is me post, I’m just trying to say I think I will slow it down a bit for the next few weeks. There will be posting, no worries, but I’m probably gonna mix it up a bit with new and old-er posts.

So what’s on the menu today? Well, you’re probably getting ready for the holidays. For most people that means lots of shopping, for me, its food¬†and menu planning.¬†What can I say, I love my food. So, I’m going to point you to a couple of old posts. Both of these showcase dishes¬†that¬†are ALWAYS present on a Panamanian holiday table. They also happen to be 2 of my absolute favorites. Ready?

There is ¬†Arroz con Pollo. There always is Arroz con Pollo, I think it may be a law, one I will happily and faithfully abide by.¬†When you see arroz con pollo on your plate, you know that the beautiful bright yellow rice is having a party of flavors with the chicken and the raisins and the olives and the capers and… The rice is having a really good time, trust me. Click the link for the recipe¬†and you can see the full photostream here.

Then there will be Tamales. Whether they’re filled with chicken, pork, seafood or a combination of all of those, you will find these at your Tia’s table. I love these so much, I need to make another batch. You can too, just click this link for the recipe, the food shots are here.

What is always present on your holiday table?

One tamale, two tamales, three!

So…, this was interesting. This was scary. This was exciting. This was rewarding.

I love tamales, particularly the Mexican and, of course, the Panamanian versions; I just never tried making either. The task seems daunting and too tedious to get involved. But then, I love a challenge and I was ready to take this¬† one on. I started with the ones from Panama ‘cuz, well. You know. That’s where I’m from.

Tamales¬†are usual fare for any celebration, Christmas, NYE, weddings, parties. In Panama, they come in a variety of¬†sizes, but most commonly they are large enough to make it a full meal. They’re made of corn, filled with chicken, pork and more recently, seafood. Ours are different in that they are cooked in a leaf from a plant called bijao. Don’t ask me what else it produces, because I have no clue. But the leaves look a lot like bananas leaves, however the taste is quite different. You know what’s sad? I don’t remember what they taste like. That’s depressing.

Unfortunately, the leaves aren’t available stateside, so I had to improvise and replace them with foil paper. I don’t much enjoy the taste banana leaves impart on food, which is why I didn’t use those. I also forgot to get prunes, but we will survive. I promise you. You know what I found out once I made this? It ISN’T as tedious as I thought it would be, nor was it all that time-consuming.

Are you ready? Here goes nothing–well, something amazing, but that’s not the saying. Y’know what I’m sayin’? This recipe will yield about 20-25 tamales, and they will freeze quite well.

Tamales Paname√Īos
2 lbs yellow corn hominy, dry
2/3 cp pork fat or vegetable oil
2 tsps sea salt
2 pkts Sazón

4 lbs pork short ribs
1 pkt Sazón
2 onions, chopped
1 large can tomatoes, diced
4 culantro leaves OR 1/2 cp cilantro, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsps sea salt
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tsp dried oregano
1 bottle beer
1 tsp habanero sauce (optional)

12 oz pitted prunes, about 25
1-1/2 cp seedless raisins
1 cp pitted olives
about 1/4 cp capers
1/2 cp roasted red pepper (pimentos), sliced
Aluminum foil cut into pieces about 6 inches wide

Now for the method; Although I’ve listed all the ingredients together, I will break down the process¬†for the different¬†components: preparing the hominy, then the pork, and putting it all together.


Corn time, baby!
Rinse the hominy and put it in a large pan, add the 2 tsps¬†salt and bring to a boil. Lower the temperature and cook for about 2 hours or until the grains are tender. Once it is done cooking, strain and rinse the hominy. Allow it to cool. Once the corn cools, you will need to run it through a grinder using the finest setting. I’m not sure if using a food processor would work, but it might do the job just fine.



For the piggy part.
While the corn cooks, prepare the pork. Cut it into 2-inch cubes and season it with salt and black pepper. Heat a medium-sized pan and add about 1 tbsp vegetable oil and brown the pork pieces and set aside. After browning the pork, add the onions, garlic and culantro and cook until the onions are softened. Then add the tomatoes, paste, oregano, Sazon make sure to remove the drippings stuck at the bottom of the pan. Add the pork back to the pan, then the beer and enough water to cover. Bring it to a boil, put a lid over it and lower temperature to a simmer; allow it to cook for about 45 minutes or until the pork is very tender.


Time to put it all together.
First off, pour yourself a glass of wine, preferably red. First, you’ll need to season the corn dough or masa. After you grind it, add the pork fat, the Sazon packets and about 2 cps¬†of the juices from the pork, don’t be shy about the onion pieces falling in. Knead all of this very well, you want to make sure it is evenly distributed. The masa’s consistency should be soft, but not runny.

The pork, it should be chunky, but not too large, so break it apart a bit and keep some of the pan sauce. Line up the raisins, prunes, pimentos, olives and capers.

Take a sheet of foil, spread about 1/3 cp or so of the masa over 2/3s of the sheet. Put a few pieces of pork close to one of the ends of the masa, put a couple of olives, capers, a prune and a few raisins. Now fold over the foil so that the rest of the masa covers the filling. Fold the foil like an envelope: first fold the top once, then the sides. Make sure to flatten the foil, you want it to be a tight seal.

Fill a large stock pot with water, drop 2 bay leaves and 3 cloves of garlic–no need to peel them. I did this because I don’t have the bijao leaves which add flavor to the tamales. This way the water will have its own flavor and will not just draw it out from the tamales. Bring the water to a soft boil and drop the tamales in one by one. Allow them to cook for 1 hour.

Remove the tamales from the water, lay them upside down to allow any water that might have seeped through to drain out. Remove the tamales from the foil packets and serve.