Time-Honored Tamales

A Family Tradition

Tamale means ‘I love you.’ People have been saying ‘I love you’ with these steamed treats for thousands of years.

Words by Kayla & Justin Butts  Photos By Rachel Benavides

Technically, the word tamale comes from the Nahautl, or Aztec, word tammalli, which means “wrapped.” Aztec women made tamales wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves for their husbands and sons when they had to travel far from home. The message wrapped up in tamales was, “Travel safe, eat well, come home soon, I love you.”

Tamales are a tasty travel treat, because they come in their own wrappers. Staying true to tradition, tamales can still be given as ‘I love you’ gifts during the holidays or spring break when many families are on the road.

Making tamales is a tradition in homes across Texas. Typically, the family gets together in the kitchen for tamale-making parties with a lot of laughing, talking, teasing, and catching up. The house fills with the wonderful smells of delicious food on the stove. As family and friends come and go, they are given tamales to take with them, to make sure they eat well as they travel home.

We keep our farm-fresh tamale recipe simple, just like the Aztecs. Tamales are made up of only three components: masa (ground hominy), filling (typically some type of shredded meat), and wrapped in a corn husk.

To make their masa, the Aztecs dried corn, then boiled it in wood ash, dried it again, then ground it into powder. We save some time by purchasing a nice bag of prepared masa harina, not to mention the corn husks, spices, and lard. These ingredients can all be found at a local grocer.

For the filling, the ancient Aztecs used frog, flamingo, fish, or rabbit. For our recipe, we use a beautiful pork roast from our own pastured hogs.

If you have family coming over, there is no better way to celebrate than to throw a tamale-making party. Everyone, even the little ones, can join in the fun. As guests depart, make sure everyone has a package of warm, homemade tamales in hand. When they open the wrapper on the road for that delicious taste of home, they will know that you love them.

Traditional Tamales

Makes: 3 dozen
Prep time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Cook time: 4 hours, 45 minutes

2-3 lbs. ham roast
1 large sweet onion, sliced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 T. chili powder
2 t. dried oregano
2 t. cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
One package corn husks

For Masa:
4 cups masa harina
1 t. chili powder
1 ½ t. baking powder
2 t. salt
1 c. high-quality lard

Place roast, onion, garlic, and spices in a large pot. Cover ingredients with water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer roast for about 3-4 hours, or until tender (alternately, you can place all the ingredients in a slow cooker and cook on low for 8 hours).

While the roast is cooking, submerge husks in a bowl of hot water for about an hour, or until pliable. Remove husks from water and pat or air dry. Tear thin strips from some of the smaller corn husks to use as twine to bind your tamales.

Once tender, remove roast from the pot and shred it with your hands or a fork as soon as it is cool enough to handle. Reserve the ham bone for another use. Using a food processor or immersion blender, blend the remaining cooking liquid ingredients until smooth.

Combine dry ingredients for masa in a large bowl. Using a fork or pastry cutter, incorporate lard into masa mixture until it resembles coarse oatmeal. Add enough reserved cooking liquid (about two cups), until a soft dough is formed.

To assemble the tamales, spread about 1 tablespoon masa thinly on a corn husk. Add 1-1 ½ tablespoons shredded pork in the center of the masa. Starting at one end, carefully roll the tamale and fold the bottom of the husk up, securing it by tying a strip of husk into a knot around the tamale.

Place the tamale open side up in a pot fitted with a steamer basket. Steam over boiling water for about 45 minutes, until masa is firm. Serve with your favorite salsa.

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