I probably won’t be starting a food blog, but tamales anyone?

I came to a very significant realization this weekend. I primarily think of myself as a pragmatist, but every once in a while I realize I have several hidden-to-me pockets absolutely filled with flights of fancy!

Some time around mid-summer every year…EVERY year–I begin to think about how lovely it will be to begin baking and preparing favorite Christmas goodies. High on my list is fruit cake, or some-such baked delight requiring a little extra time and planning.

And every year, we WAIT for fall! I’m still waiting. This weekend the temperatures broke above 90 degrees both Saturday and Sunday. Low humidity coupled with the deadly combination of high temperatures and seasonal Santa Ana winds have kept Southern California on fire alert.

It just doesn’t bode well for Christmas pudding!

This weekend I followed up; however, with a new adventure.  My friend Linda and I took a tamale-making class! Yes, tamales!

 Our class was offered by Tarascos Mexican Restaurant. Antonio was a very attentive and patient instructor.

Traditional foods of the Mexican culture are very strongly represented in Southern California, and for those of us who make our home in this region, bring on the tacos, enchiladas and burritos–and for a special occasion, tamales!

Tamales, a delicious Mexican dish traced back to the Ancient Mayan people, are prepared with a wide variety of meat, cheese or vegetable fillings surrounded by a corn masa dough,  wrapped in a corn husk and then steamed. Tamales in some Latin American countries use banana leaves as the outer wrapping.

We were provided prepared masa (dough), made from freshly prepared hominy. In the dried and powdered form it is called masa harina, and once reconstituted with water the dough is used in making corn tortillas, tamales and other Latin American dishes.

This was a hands-on project! Years of teaching preschool made it easy for me to relax with sticky fingers mixing masa with paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, salt and a final addition of  soy bean oil  into a thick, peanut butter-like texture.

The corn husks (ojas) had previously been soaked in warm water to soften them in preparation for the filling. Masa is first spread in a thin layer across the open husk, and then topped by roasted vegetables and Cotija cheese, or chicken and tomatillos or any combination, including a mole, the generic name for a number of Mexican sauces. We were provided the basic ingredients for this time, but there are endless possibilities for tamale fillings!

When the tamales were  prepared and enveloped in the husk, they were tied closed by a piece of the corn husk, wrapped in an additional outer layer of paper to hold them together in the steaming process, then placed in a large pot for the two-hour steam bath.

Due to the labor involved, tamales are more typically reserved for special occasions. There are many little tricks to making a well-crafted tamale, and I have a lot to learn if I’m going to begin making this a part of my holiday traditions. But the first efforts were not bad! They tasted great, and the lesson learned is to perhaps make the masa layer a little bit thicker so it will hold together even better.

Another lesson learned? Those who create food blogs have my admiration! It was a challenge to take photos with sticky fingers!

And to my family…it’s a good thing that I’m the only one who likes fruit cake, isn’t it? I’ll buy myself a nice cake and maybe some figgy pudding at Cost-Plus!

And next year I’ll be ready to make the Christmas tamales!

Tarascos Mexican Food
3319 W. Sunset Blvd.
Silverlake, CA 90026

76 thoughts on “I probably won’t be starting a food blog, but tamales anyone?

  1. I can’t believe how long your summer is lasting. That has to be a record. And it’s already snowing in parts of Canada so the difference is so vast. I’m about to start soaking my dried fruits in brandy in preparation for my Christmas cakes too. I try to get them baked before the heat sets in! xx

    • Thank you for stopping by and sharing, Helen! I have had tamales wrapped in banana leaves and the tamale was very moist! The ones I enjoyed were very sweet, although I don’t remember precisely what ingredients were included. I will make a point of coming over and visiting you on your blog! :-)

  2. That heat is incredible! We’re right into a full-blown fall/winter, but had a chinook wind today to warm things up, a false spring of sorts. I have never made tamales, so my hat goes off to you, you’re a woman of many talents! I always thought mole was the chocolate flavored sauce, so there you go, I’ve learned something new. Yes, photographing food is tricky if you’re doing it during the process.. my little camera is covered in flour! xx Smidge

  3. Your tamale-making adventure sounds like fun, Debra, and tasty in the bargain. My mother used to make fruitcake, but those days are gone: my brother and I claim that love of fruitcake is a generation-skipping trait…

    • I did have fun making the tamales, Sharyn. I’m hoping I can prioritize a weekend soon and give it a try before I forget some of the technical tricks that seemed helpful! It was hard to take notes with my fingers covered in masa! :-) I really have decided not to continue with the fruitcake effort. It is time consuming, too, and all candied fruite would be expensive. As you say about your mom’s thoughts on cooking fruitcake, “those days are gone.” I think it’s important to once in a while take stock of simplifying a bit! I think that time is now.

    • I have always wanted to make the tamales, and never prioritized the time, Koji. But I’m feeling ready for the challenge. You said you “used” to make them? No longer? I’m sure it was very time consuming and you may not have that time right now, but they sure do taste good, don’t they? I’ve had friends telling me to get with it and then to share! :-)

      • With four kids of varying ages and aging parents, it is tough to find a day to make them… Shredding the pork and preparing/simmering the colorado sauce took the most time. But your friends are smart… All they want to do is eat them! LOL

  4. I love tamales, but in South America where I am originally from we use banana leaves. Oooh, I feel like having one now! You and Nancy Hatch are always entertaining; you both inspire me with your adventures. :D

    • Tamales aer very good, but I wonder if you’d have a taste for them. I remember cooking a Mexican dish for my grandmother, who was born and raised in Scotland and wasn’t accustomed to certain spices. I asked her at some point what she thought of the tortillas in the dish, and her answer was, “Not very much!” I still laugh when I think of that. She didn’t care for any of it! So perhaps it is so regional…one of my fascinations is considering individual tastes according to what is “home” for each of us! :-)

  5. The weather is so weird right now, today is the first day I have actually felt cold, as if it truly is autumn. I know what you mean about the fruit cake, I’ve been holding off and now I’m thinking perhaps it’s a little too late now for a traditional brandy soaked one, just as well I’ve got a great quick boil recipe to use ;-) I’ve never had tamales by the way but they sound delicious!

    • If you think you’d have time and want to, I think your quick boil recipe would make a great post! Why don’t you think about sharing it on your blog? There may be many of us who want the fruit cake and don’t have the time. Listen to me giving you blogging advice…ha! I am selfishly motivated. You made my mouth water. :-)

      • I’ll do that, it’s really just a simple fruit cake that you boil up and it’s really moist. It doesn’t keep as well (so I can make it just before Christmas) but in our house that’s never a problem! ;-)

  6. Taking a cooking class with a friend sounds like fun, Debra, but tamales? That is a bit outside my wheelhouse. I do enjoy them and will order them frequently when out. I just never thought to make them. I think it’s because of the corn husk wrapping. Well, not so much the corn husk as the wrapping. One glance at one of my “custom” wrapped Christmas or birthday gifts would address any questions might have. So, though not for me, I salute your new found tamale making skills even as I wonder what time Taco Bell opens.

    • You’ve given me a chuckle, John. With what you make, a tamale would be nothing! I can guarantee. But I am not sure they are worth the effort when you make so many other wonderful things “from the ground up.” I was very slow…I would need to practice quite a bit to make them look more appealing, but I’m going to try. And now that I think about it, I’m also impatient with wrapping gifts. So perhaps this wasn’t completely thought through. :-) It does fit into my California history adventure, though, so I may stick with it just to prove I can finish a project. LOL!

    • I could share a lot about Mexican food, Kate. We love it and it’s plentiful. Very tasty, very inexpensive, and on every corner. There is an art to making these dishes well, though, and I’m not sure I’ll ever make them with great authenticity. Fun to try, though! :-)

  7. What a fun class to attend! Recipes with 1,001 variations are my favorite . . . and tamales certainly fit the corn husk in that regard.

    It’s definitely cool enough here today to get started on Fruit Cakes . . . 64 degrees! Rather unheard of at this time of year in Florida. Brr . . .

    • Was your cold snap due to storm-related weather changes, Nancy? I’m so concerned for the entire East Coast at this point. There are the worst points, of course, but with travel disruption I think the reverberations go beyond the flooding! I am looking forward to checking out more tamale recipes…I just know I won’t be sharing photos of my handiwork! :-) I can sure create a mess!

      • Not sure, but I expect that the cold snap is related to Sandy . . . along with the high winds and waves.

        It’s going to be some time before the East Coast is back on its feet.

  8. In our family, fruitcakes are the bricks that you keep passing on to someone else! Sorry about your weather. They are predicting 4 to 8 inches of rain today in our region. Wish I could send you some.

    • I have been thinking of you Kate, and hoping that the storm didn’t bring any damage to your home. Basically, I’ve been concerned about your safety, as well as others. The news footage is alarming to see. I am NOT complaining about our hot, dry weather. Not right now anyway! And someone will get a fruitcake they don’t want and give it to me! I’m just sure! :-)

  9. Fun times…I always enjoy a good tamalada, but eating them is even better. It is a lot of work, so it’s a great time to get the whole family involved! Glad you had a great experience and a great meal!

  10. Tamale making sound like a great skill to learn. Growing up in So. Cal. many of my neighbors made tamales for the holidays. Being from a family of mid-westerners, fruit cake was more on our menu than tamales but we reaped the benefits of our neighbors work. Our neighbor, Bea, brought over tamales for us every Christmas Eve. She has been gone for many years now but I still think of her every time I see a tamale. Great memories. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Maybe we need to have a tamale making party, Catherine! If I can get a little more organized, I may put that into effect. That would be fun. Shared clean up that way, too. :-) I enjoyed hearing your stories of your dad and his fruit cakes, too. Our “family food memories” can be a little bittersweet, I know. oxo

  11. …and who doesn’t love a good hot tamale! Yum!
    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I wish you Would do a food blog!
    -loyal NE reader (-:

  12. Dear Debra, your posting brought back vivid memories of my childhood and a yearly tradition. Few Hispanics lived in the Kansas City metro area in the 1940s, but if they were here, they didn’t reside in Independence. They were in the inner city in Kansas City. Fifteenth Street (now named Truman) was famous at the time for saloons and prostitution. It had been part of the”wide-open” town of Kansas City during the Pendergast era.

    Once a year, Mom and Dad would drive my brother and me over to 15th street. Dad would park the car along the street and then get out and find a tamale vendor. He’s buy several tamales from him and we’d gobble them down in the car. Oh! They were so delicious. Very warm and spicy. The vendor and his wheeled cart that opened from the top to reveal steaming tamales–Dad let me walk with him when I was around eight–enthralled me. For some time, I wanted to be a tamale vendor on 15th Street! Peace.

    • What a wonderful memory, Dee. I just love hearing that you found the tamales sold from the vendor with a cart. There is a return to street vendors selling food from street-parked trucks and I’m enjoying the variety of food options available for a quick bite! I’m sure if I paid more attention I’d find a tamale truck! Isn’t it interesting how our early memories are often the most warm and happy when we associate them with taste, and in this case, a shared family experience. I love that our 15th Street tamale experience was once a year. I’m sure that stands out for you as a special time. I’m so glad you shared it with us!

  13. Tamale is my usual whenever I go to a farmer’s market as most of them have it.

    A tamale-making class sounds very interesting. Now that I think about it. There’s not that many food that you actually “prepare”, you know what I mean.

    This post reminded me. I just learned the translation “ojas” when I ate one a tamale the weekend before last. LOL at lesson learned :D

    • You’e right about the tamales at the Farmer’s Markets! And they are always so good! I think making them from “scratch” is probably not very practical. I can buy excellent fresh tamales very easily. But it was fun, and I think I’d like to do it again, just for the experience. I’m not an outstanding cook…but you almost can’t go wrong with a tamale. :-)

    • I enjoyed sitting at a table with some women who had previously, although long before, made tamales with their grandmothers. It’s the little tricks and the experience of coming from a hispanic family with generations of passed down recipes that probably make for the best! But I have other friends taking classes to make hand-made tortillas, too. I may try that next. I just need to prioritize the time. I have no doubt that you’d do well with a good cook book and maybe a youtube video–in YOUR abundant spare tme! Ha!

    • It’s true, isn’t it Jayme. I’ve had Mexican food in other parts of the country and it is just different. Like all things regional, what we enjoy at home is usually the BEST! (But secretly, I think it really is the best). Tee-hee!

    • Stewart, you already had my admiration for your beautiful blog, but I kept laughing as I was making my “mess” and trying to take photos, thinking how simple my project was compared to what so many of you produce. But the main thing is that I had fun, and I did! They are time consuming, but I will no doubt make a large number of tamales to share with friends and family during the holidays. If I don’t, I will have that disappointment on top of not making fruitcake! Can’t have that!!

      • Taking the photos in provess can be challenging…wait ’til you try and handle a greasy camera… ;-)

        But don’t sell yourself short, tamales are a major project!

    • I can’t even think about Thanksgiving yet, and it’s getting close. We have many Thanksgivings that are hot enough to spend a majority of time outdoors, and to cook a turkey with the air conditioning on! Isn’t that a hoot? Oh well…it’s cheerful to live in all this sunshine. I will be making tamales again soon. It was fun. I probably won’t be sharing photos of the process, however! :-)

  14. Catching up on my blog reading is killing me today. First, Roger had langoustines that were drool-worthy, and now you with your tamales.

    One of the reasons I love to visit your part of the world is the food. The Mexican food is so authentic, and the Asian food is really hot when I want it hot. Here, I can ask for it extra hot, and it doesn’t even burn my tongue. :)

    • You’re right, Andra. The Mexican food in Los Angeles is truly authentic to at least old California. I’ve heard it said that it may not be what we’d actually find in parts of Mexico. That’s fine with me…it’s really good! I didn’t know that Asian food was much milder in your region. That’s interesting. You always give me ideas about what to write about…I really do need more time! LOL! San Gabriel is now the “seat” of Asian culture in Southern California. San Gabriel, Alhambra, and Monterey Park…Anthony Bourdain just did a “closeup” of one of our restaurants. It’s changed so much from when I grew up. I think you’d be amazed if I sent photos…so here I go. I need to credit you with ideas for some of my posts!

  15. It is hard writing and photographing about food! You notice that I have generally stayed away from that topic on my blog. I think you and I are in the same category when it comes to enjoying fruitcake. My mother-n-law has without fail makes her fruitcake every September and shares it with us. The only problem is that I am the only one in the family that will eat it. I do love it but I shudder at the calories that I am consuming. Oh well. What fun learning how to make tamales! !~Thea

  16. How fun! I come from a Mexican family so tamales were standard fare for the holidays. I make them once or twice a year- they are so time consuming to make, but I love them. I usually make veggie and smoked chicken tamales…getting hungry thinking of them! Here is a link to my caramelized onion & red pepper tamales http://wp.me/p1HOfc-hi and there is also a company in SoCal called Corn Maiden that makes great tamales and sells them at a lot of the farmers markets. Muy Bueno!

    • Thank you so much for the link!! I will definitely check that out. Tamales are time consuming and I think it would take me awhile to make them well…neatness for one thing, but what a special treat for everyone. My daughter’s husband is part of a wonderful Mexican family and if I get stuck I will need to ask for some private tutoring. Smoked chicken sounds great. I think that would be popular. I love vegetarian, so I’m eager to check out your recipe. Thank you, Eva.

  17. How fun that must have been, Debra. I haven’t taken a cooking class in so song and never one making tamales. Something for me to look into. For now, reading your post made me hungry. I hope those winds and heat die down soon. We’ve gone from hot to cold here, praying for the east coast.

  18. Going to a cooking class is such a fun thing to do with a friend. Thanks for including the photos – You’re a thoughtful blogger to wash your hands inbetween the mixing so you could take them.
    Do you think, now that you know how much work is involved, that you’ll make tamales in your own kitchen?

  19. Christmas tamales! Now there’s an idea Debra! This class looks like a lot of fun. I just love cooking classes. I’ve never attempted tamales and they do fascinate me. I bet these were terrific. :)

  20. I must confess to having only tasted Mexican food once, Debra, when a friend took me to lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Prague of all places. :-) I didn’t have tamales, but this tantalising post makes me want to try them.

    Talking of Christmas goodies, I made my Christmas mincemeat before we came up to Scotland and it’s delicious and so easy to make.

  21. Growing up in Texas, tamales are one of my favorite dishes. I’ve made them twice and found it difficult to end up with a tender outside that would still be firm enough to hold the filling.

    • I’m busy doing my homework to find a good tamale cooking pot, Karen! I’m thinking this is something I really can do…it may take a while to learn the techniques, but I’ll get there. By the way, I was thinking of you and your beautiful Maine home and the lake house. I do hope you didn’t experience any storm damage. I don’t think you’re home yet, but hopefully all will be well with your return!

  22. That’s so true and funny about the “every year I plan to” , I’m with you wholeheartedly Debra, plans and dreams and well then reality!
    Your day out sounds and looks like fun! I’d happily tuck into some Tamales be it Christmas or not !

  23. Here I am…the fruit making a cake!lol:) I also like fruitcake, but not something everyone enjoys. It’s a taste that needs to be acquired over time! Costco carries close to homemade as you can get, lots of fruits and nuts (in the cake, not in costco)!:)

    Your tamale making class certainly looks like fun! Was this a one time class?

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