If you are going to make tamales, make a lot. The time investment warrants mass production and they freeze well.
Tamales are a labor of love, a time consuming process, with preparations starting one or two days prior to assembly. Tamales are delicious all year, but they are associated with the holiday season. The timing makes sense. Drafting an assembly line of family and friends speeds things up considerably. Also, the time spent in the kitchen with people you love makes the time invested, and ensuing mess, worthwhile.
Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 – 5000 B.C. The recipe spread from indigenous cultures in Mexico and Guatemala throughout Latin America. They became the snack pack of choice for the Ancients.
The Olmec, Toltec, Aztec and Maya civilizations viewed corn as sacred. It was a vital source of food. A bountiful harvest versus a failed harvest was the difference between life and death over the winter. As a result, they considered tamales to be the food of the gods, literally manna. They were always available during celebrations, rituals and festivals.
Women made tamales in large numbers ahead of big hunts or military campaigns. Hunters and warriors took them on the trail to be warmed and consumed as needed. These ancient people relied on these portable power bars to sustain their people when traveling long distances or to feed armies during times of war. Additionally, the recipe can be modified based on available resources. For example, the wrapping varies from corn husks, to soft tree bark, to edible leaves, like avocados or bananas.
Today, the most common variety involves masa (hominy flour dough) spread on a corn husk, filled with chicken, pork, beef, green or red chile, cheese, or vegetables. The recipe below is a traditional red chile pork tamale; however, I have included a video for green chile chicken tamales from Teresa’s Tamales in Cleveland, New Mexico above. If you have the opportunity to try one of her tamales, seize the moment.
6-pound roast and 2 pints of red chile sauce makes about 6 dozen (depending on size). Prepare the meat and red chile sauce ahead of time to allow time to marinate the shredded pork in the red chile sauce overnight (or longer).
Roasted Pork | Pork Loin, Shoulder, etc.
- 6-pounds pork loin, shoulder, etc. (about 6-dozen worth, scale up or down as needed)
- 2-3 medium onions
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
Slow roast pork in a crock pot or Dutch oven with onion and garlic. Add water to cover the meat. Bring to boil on high heat, then reduce to low and simmer until the meat is cooked thoroughly (about 2 hours in a Dutch over, longer in a crockpot). Add more water or beef broth as needed to make sure the pork stays moist and tender. Allow the pork to cool, then drain off excess fluid, cool, shred and marinate in the red chile overnight.
- 12 ounces dried whole New Mexico red chile pods, stemmed and deseeded
- 1/4 Cup olive oil
- 1/4 Cup flour
- 1 Tablespoon granulated garlic, or 3 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
- 1 Tablespoon kosher salt, plus more if desired
Rinse the chile pods at least 4-5 times. Soak them in a bucket or a large bowl for about 5 hours. Drain the water. Put the chile pods in a blender, pushing the down and adding water to the top. If you want to add water little by little, you can do that as well. Basically, you are blending the chile pods into a paste and adding water to turn it into a gravy. You will use the roux to thicken to the desired consistency. Heat in a large saucepan over medium heat.
Making a Roux
A roux is equal parts fat and flour, used to thicken gravy, soups, etc. Heat a 1/4 cup of oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat until it develops a watery consistency. Then, sprinkle 1/4 cup of flour evenly into the pan. Whisk the ingredients together continuously for about 5-7 minutes until it becomes a light blond color and smells slightly nutty (without getting brown). The roux needs to be cooked enough to get rid of the raw flour taste.
Add garlic and salt. Simmer the chile for approximately 20 minutes, stirring consistently. Do NOT allow it to boil. That can burn the flour in the roux. Taste test. Add more salt and garlic as needed. If you don’t need all of it right away, red chile freezes well.
Masa | Prepared or unprepared
Masa should be the consistency of peanut butter or thick icing so it spreads smoothly on the corn husks. If it is too thick, it is difficult to spread evenly. I once added lard to prepared masa. That was disastrous. The tamales were so well lubricated that everything slid out during the steaming process. If you have prepared masa, you don’t need to add lard. Follow the instructions on the package.
5 pounds of unprepared masa makes about 9-10 dozen tamales. 3 bags of corn husks is enough to cover that. Adjust based on the filling and chile supply.
- 5 pounds unprepared masa
- 1.5 pounds lard, whipped until fluffy with a mixer
- 2 Tablespoons of salt
- 16 ounces (2 cups) of meat broth
Soak the corn husks in warm water for about 2 hours prior to rolling tamales. Drain just before using them so they are moist and pliable, but not wet.
Spread masa about 1/8” thick on the widest section of the corn husk. I prefer a thin later of masa. However, if you like more masa, spread it thicker. Tamales are all about adjusting to personal preference. Add meat or filling in the center. Roll and tie, using strands of shredded corn husk to secure the corn husk. Stack them on end in the steamer and steam until the masa sets, approximately 1-2 hours.
If there are extras, tamales freeze well. Several one-dish, no mess meals should be part of the payoff.
To reheat: Take them out of the freezer when you are ready. Steam for 15-20 minutes.
Please leave your recipe modifications, suggestions, personal variations, or any questions that you have, in the comment field below.
If you live in an area where the only chile available is canned, you can order outstanding red chile pods, ristras and powders or frozen green chile from the Hatch Chile Store. They ship red and green Hatch chile nationwide. They have mild to hot varieties available and sell whole green chile as well as chopped. Each package is 1 pound, which is approximately 2 cups.