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(Western Texas) Tamales; A Primer for the Uninitiated

Uncle K grew up in Brooklyn and slightly upstate NY in the Hudson Valley. They were a very traditional Irish-Catholic family with very “traditional*” methods of cooking the ever-loving-hell out of whatever they ate. Steak? Well done. Brisket? Only if it was corned.. and boiled for roughly fourteen hours, with cabbage added at the second hour to boil for twelve. Seriously, it was grim.

Raised on Frito Pie and house salsa, I was just another white girl from Texas, and I wasn’t prepared for his lack of understanding of Mexican or Tex-Mex food. He thought he hated it. All of it. It was “too spicy.” It was foreign. Then it all changed when we moved from New York to rural western Texas. He stuck to fajitas for the longest time, until realizing that he loved beef or cheese enchiladas with our characteristic chile colorado (a savory but not spicy deep reddish/brown sauce predominately spiced with dried chiles or chili powder). Carne Guisada, a rich and spicy beef stew, will warm the coldest toes on a blustery day. What’s not to like?


(Incidentally, please don’t think TexMex isn’t “authentic” - it is a wholly authentic regional cuisine, born out of the rich and fabulous culture we’ve built in our fair - if much maligned - state. It is not authentic Mexican food, but it IS authentic regional cuisine, much as Creole or Cajun cuisine is not “French.”)

But what changed his entire outlook were tamales. In the tradition of all handheld foods, tamales are simple, hearty and delicious. But when I say simple don’t be deceived. They’re tedious to prepare (generally taking a minimum of two days from start to finish), richly seasoned, and one hundred percent more than the sum of their parts.

So what is a tamale? In a nutshell, a coarsely ground type of corn meal flour, called masa harina (made from nixmatalized corn, ie, a dried hominy such as is used to make corn tortillas) is mixed with lard (traditionally, and preferred), seasonings (broth and/or chili paste) and baking powder (for a slight fluffiness we prefer in Texas). This mixture is spread on a corn husk (we buy them dried, then hydrate them in hot or boiling water for pliability), and a seasoned filling is added. The corn husk is rolled and folded, then the tamales are steamed for about an hour and a half. The result is a slightly fluffy but moist corn casing, surrounding a truly succulent filling, spiced to your liking.


Beef tamales can be delicious, and if you want to try them without the fuss of making tamales, Pedro’s Tamales make a fine product. But here, we simmer Boston butt pork roast with onion, salt, pepper, and the spices of your choice (I go simple, with cumin and chili powder) low and slow until it’s ready to fall apart. Reserving the broth for steaming later, chill the meat/broth and day one is complete.

So, with this mess of a kitchen, three days of cooking (one day for the pork, one day for the first two dozen, one for the remaining four dozen), and roughly 6 dozen tamales later, I can tell you that I”ve reached peak tamale deliciousness.


(I was told the only way to steam tamales properly was to cover the tamales with a towel, then a heavy lid, and who am I to argue?) The crime scene to the right is the detritus from several hot and mild dried Hatch chiles that I simmered until tender, then deveined and seeded before blending into a (seriously spicy) paste with a bit of the cooking water. This paste was added to both the pork and the masa mixture.


And the result? Unwrapped from its inedible husk, this, friends, is a tamale. Aka, possibly the most perfect Mexican/TexMex food known to man. If you feel you need to sauce a tamale, somthin’ ain’t right.


If you want the recipe, I can definitely add that, but seriously, this is tedious, and I have no idea how to make a small batch. That’s the thing with tamales - if you’re making them, you go big.. and sell leftovers. And if you’re smart, on day two (construction day) invite friends. Friends who like beer. Trust me on this.

OH! And here’s a small batch recipe from a website I am IN LOVE WITH lately!


*Hey, there are some things that are amazing when cooked for 92 hours. I just haven’t met many of them yet.

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