Grandma Salazar's Tamales
March 27th, 2007

Looking around within our circle of dear and loved friends, it’s no secret, they are all food lovers and I really couldn’t imagine it any other way. Who would otherwise be willing to put up with our constant musing about everything and anything edible. Granted, not everyone enjoys to cook as much as we do, there are however – sort of ‘making up’ for the rest – a few who are just about as crazy as we are. Stephanie and David, our dear American friends are the best example. Over the two years they lived in our neighborhood, the term hospitality got redefined: Our very first dinner together at the Greek place just around the corner transformed into an ecstatic party with lots of broken porcelain, the ultimate food shopping tips were exchanged over hot chocolates at Tambosi’s, fabulous dinner parties were thrown over at Casa Kunstle and we found ourselves lucky recipients of freshly baked goods Stephanie dropped of just before heading out of town. When both finally moved back to Colorado, tons of emails were flying back and forth not short of the one or other recipe. Our first trip to the land of mountains was quickly booked and with it came some of the most memorable family feasts we remember. One event in particular allowed us to enjoy the most delicious tamales, and speaking of which I’ll stop right here, since this is my dear friend Stephanie‘s guest post:

When Nicky asked if I would mind sharing my Grandma Salazar’s recipe for tamales with d:d readers, I didn’t hesitate to say “yes!” In our family, Grandma’s tamales are like gold, and if you don’t like tamales before you’ve had hers, you will likely convert after you do.

Preparing tamales

The tamal (plural, tamales) has a long history in the Southwestern US, Mexico, Central and South America. Sources conflict on when the first tamales originated and in what form (some say thousands of years B.C.) but what is certain is that Latin cultures have fully mastered the art, and in each country and region you can find different interpretations of that delightful little package. The makings of a tamal reveal its ancient and rustic history. Maize is cooked in an alkaline solution, typically limewater, to separate the hull from the grain which is then ground and dried to become the meal we know as masa harina. This process is called nixtamalization and was developed in Mesoamerica, and used to sustain Aztec and Mayan warriors. Tamal filling varies widely depending on the region, and the creation comes wrapped in a corn husk or some type of leaf. In my travels, I have had savory meat tamales wrapped in corn husks spiked with ground chilies, large tamales wrapped in banana leaves, smothered in Oaxacan mole, sweet little dessert tamales with cinnamon and raisins inside, Costa Rican Christmas tamales with green and red bell peppers (void of anything “picante”) to celebrate the season, a Marin County white tablecloth version overlooking the San Francisco Bay, far too many poor renditions at various Mexican-American restaurants, and then there are Grandma’s.

Grandma Salazar

Anything my Grandma’s hands have touched is beyond delicious. She is a real-life Tita from Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate…a must read for all Foodies) – she was born to cook. When my Grandma, Maria Elucresia Herrera, entered the world “early,” in October of 1922, she weighed only 3 pounds. So, as the story goes, my great-grandmother, Jesusita, wrapped her little Maria up, and placed her in a shoebox near the wood-burning stove to keep warm. Well, this sweet little thing had plenty of fire in her blood, and has been thriving ever since. It is no wonder she is a natural in the kitchen. As soon as she could climb on a stool to reach the cupboards and stove, she was making biscuits for her father, Elfido Herrera. He passed away when she was just six, and her mother followed just ten years later. Maria and her six older brothers and one sister had to make a way for themselves, so they left the family farm in Questa, New Mexico, and moved north to Grand Junction, Colorado. At 17, while her brothers labored in the fields, Maria cooked for them and the other workers. In this part of the world, you could bet on a steaming pot of creamy pinto beans that had been cooked all day, potatoes fried with onions, and stacks of soft, warm, handmade tortillas.

Grandma Salazar

But Grandma’s tamales weren’t conceived until she fell in love and married her childhood classmate, José Olojio Salazar, in 1947. My Grandma said she never liked any tamales that she had tried, so she was determined to come up with her own recipe. My grandparents have always had a little garden where they grow the chilies, onions, and garlic that make their way into the tamales.

Family Salazar

Through the years, with seven children, 18 grandchildren, and now two great-grandchildren pulling at her apron strings, she has perfected her tamales. This November, “Joseph and Mary” will celebrate 60 years of marriage and 60 years of tamales. You can bet that our ten-month-old Sofia will be making tamales like her great-grandmother as soon as she can stand on a stool and mix masa!

Preparing tamales

A few tips:

The key to good tamales is to spread the masa (dough) thinly on the husk. I never get more disgusted than when I try tamales at a restaurant that are really just logs of steamed masa, with hardly any filling to speak of.

The more the merrier when it comes to making tamales. They are certainly labor intensive, but oh, so rewarding. If you can’t talk your friends or family into helping, there must be plenty of good music to get you through.

Plan two days for the project, and make sure you (or your neighbors) have enough freezer space to preserve the abundance.

If you are a pro, serve tamales like my Grandma or my mom does with beef or chicken enchiladas, refried pinto beans or tostadas, and some Spanish rice.

If you are planning to be a pro (moi?), start by serving your tamales with a Pozole soup (see here and here) which can be cooked all day or just simply Spanish rice.

We like to mix the beef and pork for the tamales, but if you’re a purist, feel free to go with one or the other.

Preparing tamales
View procedure step by step (in pictures), click here »

Day 1:

Cook meat (pork or beef, or both in separate pots) in a large pot of water (or in a slow-cooker filled with water) with an onion, 2 garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon of chili powder, salt and pepper. Cook for the day, 4 hours minimum. The more broth you can generate from the meat, the better!

After the meat is cooked (so that it falls apart and shreds easily), remove from pot, set aside to cool, and puree the onion and garlic with the broth. Season broth mixture to taste with chili powder and salt.

Shred meat finely with two forks (you can even chop it after shredding), and store covered in refrigerator separately from broth.

Soak corn husks in water overnight.

Preparing tamales

Day 2:

Rinse and clean corn husks thoroughly. Drain well and pat dry.

Season shredded meat with chili powder, salt, and cumin (optional) to taste. As you season the meat, add a small amount of broth to moisten meat, but it should not be runny.

For every 2 cups of masa harina (meal), add ½ cup of shortening or lard, 1tsp. of salt, and enough chili powder to make a pink dough. Add broth mixture a little at a time to masa and mix with your hands to get a smooth, spreadable consistency. If you run out of broth, you can use hot water, but you will wish you had plenty of broth. (If you use about 6 pounds of meat, you will likely use about 8 cups of masa harina in total).

Assemble the tamales: spread masa about 1/8 inch thick on corn husk with fingers, leaving about ½ inch border along the sides and 2 inch border along the top and bottom of husk. Use about 2 Tbsp. of shredded meat to fill the tamal (like a cigar). Fold sides until they just overlap, fold narrow end under, and place tamal folded side down. Grandma Salazar tears thin strips of the corn husks to tie a “little belt” around each tamal to keep it secure. Although this isn’t necessary, it does look the nicest and makes each tamal a little gift to be opened.

To cook, steam fresh tamales for 15 minutes or until masa is no longer sticky.

Store in freezer. Steam frozen tamales for 20 minutes. (This is a real treat a few days or a few weeks later. After you’ve recovered, it’s almost like someone else made them for you!).

Preparing tamales

Nicky’s resume:
A revelation, seriously, every bite made me go “mmmmhhhhh” and “soooo goooood”! Since it was our very first attempt making tamales (made only possible by one of Stephanie’s lush care packages) I was equipped with a fully charged cordless phone, prepared to give Stephanie emergency calls any time. But the whole process went unbelievably smooth (not quick mind you!) and we didn’t run into any problems or pitfalls.

I’m not sure, if their looks would be approved by a tamales pro, yet I believe their taste can hardly get any better. Per Stephanie’s suggestion, we made sure to use enough chili powder for the masa to add a nice kick, definitely recommended! We made about 30 of them and I’m already planing our second tamales session. Thank you Stephanie and Grandma Salazar for sharing your fantastic recipe :)

Preparing tamales

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Pork and/or Beef Tamales

Recipe Source: Maria E. Salazar

Required Time: 2 days (the ultimate in slow food)

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Ingredients (using 6 pounds of meat makes about 10 dozen tamales and will take over a large American freezer, so feel free to cut this recipe in half or more, but don’t decrease onions or garlic)

3 pounds pork roast

3 pounds beef roast

2 large onions

4 cloves garlic

1/3 to ½ cup chili powder or more (depends on heat of chili powder and spice tolerance of tamal eaters)

salt

pepper

cumin

8 cups masa harina

2 cups shortening or lard

Corn husks (2-3 packages for full recipe)

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