While they’re delicious any time of year, traditionally, tamales are a celebratory food, made for occasions like Christmas Eve, quinceñeras, and weddings, explains tamale expert Edmundo Resendez. Drawing on his experience making tamales with family since childhood, Edmundo hosts the annual Talking Tamales show on KRWG FM, for which he is the director of development. He also shares that these tasty, filled, steamed pockets of deliciousness are about community and family because it takes a village to make tamales.
Tamales were first made by the Maya and Aztecs, who found them to be easily transported and could be eaten while on the march to war or out working in the fields. These and other Mesoamericans used fillings you won’t necessarily find today, like frog or seafood. Then the Spaniards came along and introduced pigs, leading to pork tamales, and a method of steaming rather than cooking the tamales in a pit.
A Family Effort
These ancient delicacies are labor intensive but offer the opportunity to bring family and friends together for a tamalada, a tamale-making party. Edmundo shares that he was the only boy in his family who joined the women to make tamales, both due to his interest in cooking and for the chisme, the gossip and conversation they shared while working. His first job was to stir the beans as the liquid evaporated, and when he was about 10, he graduated to the more complicated duty of spreading the masa on the corn husks.
Edmundo was born in Brownsville, Texas. He then lived for six years in Union Morales, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, where his mother and grandmother would cook the tamales over an open fire. They brought the tradition with them when the family moved to Houston when Edmundo was 5. When he was married and living in New Hampshire, Edmundo’s wife, Jeanne, insisted they keep the family tradition alive for their children. Today, they still make tamales for Christmas Eve with their two children, Donna, 22, and Carmen, 11, along with friends.
He says, “Donna and Carmen are part of the assembly line. Donna invites her friends to help. I am the head chef and now Donna and her friends are the ones gossiping. Carmen was just promoted to masa spreader last year.”
And an assembly line is what you need to create tamales! For the uninitiated, a tamal is a thick corn batter (masa) filled with any of many options, folded inside a corn husk, then steamed. So, duties include creating the filling itself, whether it be meat, beans, or vegetables, making the masa or getting prepared masa softened and ready to use, softening the corn husks (we have a tip from Edmundo), spreading the masa on the corn husks, adding the fillings, folding, tying (optional), then placing them in the tamale pot.
Edmundo explains, “Only one person is allowed to put them in the pot because they have to know how tight they need to be. It’s an art form. When I was a kid, my mom would typically do that.” He skips the tying step because if they are folded well and packed tightly into the steamer, it’s unnecessary.
He likes his masa softened and flavored with red chile. Not chile powder, but chile sauce made from dried red chile pods that he blends with his favorite prepared masa from El Indio Tortilla Shop, 150 E. Madrid Ave., in Las Cruces. Their masa is prepared with vegetable shortening rather than lard, so it works for vegans and vegetarians.
When Edmundo was growing up in Mexico, his family’s go-to filling was beans because, he explains, “We were poor.” Now he still makes some tamales with beans because his daughter Donna is vegetarian. Calabacitas — Mexican squash — are often used with green chile and cheese for a vegetarian tamale. For meat eaters, a chicken and green chile filling is a good option. Pork cooked with red chile is another very popular combination.
“We don’t make sweet tamales,” Edmundo says. “I never had dessert until I was older and it was offered in a restaurant!” But some people like these little dessert tamales that have raisins, brown sugar, and coconut mixed directly into the masa rather than as a filling. His family now enjoys tres leches cake after their Christmas Eve tamales, which he buys because they expend their cooking energy on making tamales.
For the seventh year, Edmundo will host a show on KRWG focused on tamales, which he co-hosts with the owner of Santa Fe Grill, Juan Morales. It’s an hour-long show modeled after Turkey Confidential that airs each Thanksgiving on National Public Radio, where tips are offered and listeners can call in with their questions or suggestions. Edmundo sees it as another way to share community . . . and tamales . . . around the holidays. Tune in to Talking Tamales on KRWG 90.7 FM and KRWG.org on December 15 from 1 to 2 p.m.
It’s About Community
Along with the result — delicious tamales — Edmundo says, “It’s about storytelling and talking together. Most people who call into Talking Tamales remember making them with their families. That’s where the chisme comes in. It’s a gathering of family and friends. The food is great, but the atmosphere and culture are really what makes it worthwhile.”
Edmundo’s Tamale Tips
- Make sure the meat, beans, or vegetables are completely drained and on the dry side. Vegetables release a lot of water, which will cause the masa to take longer to cook.
- Softening the corn husks is a step some folks forget, but they need to be pliable to fold around the masa and filling. Edmundo’s favorite way to do this is to place the husks in an ice chest, add boiling water, weigh the husks down, close the lid, and let them soak for about 30 minutes.
- He uses 10 pounds of masa to make four or five dozen tamales. (His mom buys 50 pounds!)
- Big Jim green chile is Edmundo’s favorite for tamale fillings because it has medium heat and is meatier. He uses a mild dried red chile pod.
- For sides, rice and beans are traditional, although if you make bean tamales, you probably won’t want beans as a side. Edmundo makes Spanish rice with vegetable stock and tomato paste, then adds some chopped onions and tomatoes at the end. His family tops the tamales with Mexican sour cream — crema — and uses lettuce and tomato as a garnish. Edmundo likes chile de arbol for salsa because it is spicier but use your favorite.
- Can’t make your own? Edmundo sometimes buys tamales from El Indio or Bosa Donuts in Las Cruces. His parents love the tamales from Roberto’s, so he freezes some and delivers them to Houston when he visits. He laughs and says that many find the best homemade tamales to be those being sold out of the trunk of a car in a parking lot!
- Edmundo’s mom reheats tamales on a comal (a griddle) on the stovetop since she makes hers with lard and cooking them this way gives them a crispy, fried surface. Edmundo prefers the easy microwave method: wrapping the tamale in a damp paper towel and heating it.
Juan Morales’ Holiday Tamales
5 pounds masa
2 cups melted lard
16 ounces pureed chile
5 tablespoons salt
20 Hatch red chile pods
3 cups water
5 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons granulated garlic
1. Pull stems off the chile.
2. Add chile pods to a pot with water to cover. Boil for about 20 minutes.
3. Place chile pods in a blender and add 3 cups of water and spices. Liquify and strain the mixture through a sieve.
4. Set aside in a separate bowl.
10 pounds pork cushion
20 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons salt and pepper
Water to cover the meat
1. Boil meat until tender. Cook slightly and shred. Save the broth.
2. Sauté the shredded meat in a Dutch oven. Add 3 cups of chile sauce.
3. Simmer for 15 – 20 minutes, stirring gently but frequently.
Make and Cook the Tamales
Buy cleaned and dried corn husks. Separate them and soak them in warm tap water in a large container. Measure the width of the husk, tearing off anything more than 6 inches.
Spread with a thin layer of masa and fill with 1½ tablespoons of red chile meat. Fold in each side of the corn husk over the meat portion so they overlap, then fold the top down. Place them seam-side down on a cookie sheet as you continue making the rest of the tamales.
Use an all-purpose 5-gallon pot with a lid and steamer insert. Pour four cups of meat broth into the pot and place tamales seam side down and stagger them in the pot, adding multiple layers of tamales to allow the steam to properly surround the tamales during the cooking process. Once at the top of the pot, any leftover husks can be put on top to trap the extra moisture for the tamales while cooking.
Cover and bring to a boil, reduce heat, and steam for about 2 hours. Remember during this process to ensure there is enough broth. To check if they are ready, pull one out and if the masa pulls apart from the husk, they are ready.
The 2022 Edmundo Special: Rosemary and Calabacitas
5 pounds of prepared masa
4 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped (or more depending on your palate)
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons black pepper
1 tablespoon salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon fresh or 3 tablespoons dried oregano
7 tablespoons olive oil
Sauté rosemary and other ingredients to taste. Massage into the masa.
1 pound each of yellow and green squash (remove seeds)
4 tablespoons olive oil
Asadero or Muenster cheese (optional)
Green chile (optional)
Sauté onion in the olive oil, then add the squash. Be careful not to overcook!
Assemble your tamales by spreading the masa, then add some of the squash/onion mixture, green chile, and cheese. Fold and steam your tamales over water or vegetable broth. If you’re making vegan tamales, skip the cheese (or try a vegan cheese substitute).
Enjoy with family!
Story by Cheryl Fallstead | Courtesy photos
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com