Alibi V.17 No.51 • Dec 18-24, 2008 

Books for Cooks

Tamales by Daniel Hoyer

Deck the halls with steamy corn husks

I was pretty excited to have Hoyer’s latest book cross my desk. For one, his guides to Mexican cuisine are thorough and inspiring. And this is the best time of year for a book about tamales.

Growing up, my mother would sometimes include me in preparing Mexican dishes. We lived in different countries that at the time made procuring chiles and other ingredients difficult at best. But with the help of stateside relatives, packages of corn husks and mole would arrive in the mail. My mother would gather together with the other Mexican women in our community, each contributing skills and ingredients, filling our kitchen with lively banter that blended English and Spanish seamlessly enough to allow even my father to follow the conversation—if he dared enter the cocina.

From these gatherings came tamales, biscochitos and other treats that delighted me and our non-Mexican neighbors. In those days, in places far from New Mexico, real Mexican food was fairly exotic and drew curious and fascinated folks to our table in droves. These occasions instilled a strong cultural pride in me--there was something really cool about being Mexican.

Quite in line with the nature of tamales and their endless possibilities, Hoyer encourages readers to experiment by creating their own fillings and sauces.

Hoyer manages to capture this sentiment in his guide to tamales. He encourages readers to put on their own tamale-making parties, called tamaladas, not only because such gatherings make short work of the many steps involved in creating tamales, but for the camaraderie that inevitably results from a crowded kitchen.

He takes his time with this book, carefully explaining all the steps, ingredients and equipment. Hoyer goes into great detail over masa preparation and various wrapping techniques. He even provides step-by-step pictures to take some of the mystery out of these delicious bundles. Numerous recipes can double as taco or burrito fillings, which gives the book some versatility.

Hoyer pays tribute to the vast array of cultures and traditions that comprise Latin America, sharing recipes from New Mexico to Guatemala. Quite in line with the nature of tamales and their endless possibilities, Hoyer encourages readers to experiment by creating their own fillings and sauces. Using his book as a guide, even novices should have no trouble mastering tamales and inventing their own twists on this most loved and celebrated treat.

In many Latin communities, tamales are prepared and served to guests on Christmas Day. New Mexico is no exception. As in other parts of the world, friends and family are greeted with platters of tamales fresh from the steamer. The care and time required to produce them shows just how much trouble your loved ones are worth. Start by inviting your friends and family to your kitchen. Divide the steps and maybe pour some Margaritas. When you're making tamales, working together feeds more than just tummies.

Masa for Tamales

Makes 3 1/2 cups, enough for 24 to 30 tamales


3 1/2 cups masa harina (masa flour)
2 1/4 cups very hot water

1) Mix together the masa harina and water.

2) Cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes. May be refrigerated and kept for up to 2 days.

Basic Whipped or Beaten Masa

If using typically salty, commercially prepared broth, eliminate the salt in this recipe.
Makes 5 cups, enough for 24 to 30 tamales


1 1/4 cups pork lard, butter or vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon salt (if needed)
3 1/2 cups Masa for Tamales (see recipe)
2 cups chicken, pork or vegetable broth
1/4 cup Green Sauce (see recipe, optional)

1) Using a standing or handheld mixer, whip the lard until it is fluffy, about 1 minute.

2) Add the salt and continue beating while adding the masa in 2-ounce pieces (about 1 inch), waiting a few seconds between each addition while continuing to mix.

3) When about half of the masa is mixed in well, start alternating the masa with the broth until all of the masa and broth is used.

4) Add chile sauce or any other additions and whip until light and fluffy, adding more broth if the mixture seems dry.

5) Proceed to fill and wrap the tamales as directed in the Pollo Verde Tamales recipe.

Green Sauce

If the salsa is a little too tart, mix in about 1/2 teaspoon sugar.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups


1 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed
1 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 fresh jalapeños or serrano chiles, stemmed and cut in half (or 2 hot green New Mexican chiles or 1 habanero chile, stemmed and seeded)
1 medium white onion, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, toasted and peeled
1/8 cup chopped cilantro leaves

1) Place enough water in a pot or saucepan to cover the tomatillos and bring to a boil.

2) Add the salt to the tomatillos and cook for 10 minutes; drain.

3) Place everything in a blender and coarsely puree.
A photo illustration of Steps 3 and 4 in the Pollo Verde Tamales recipe
A photo illustration of Steps 3 and 4 in the Pollo Verde Tamales recipe
[click to enlarge]

Pollo Verde Tamales (Chicken and Green Sauce Tamales)

Makes 24 to 26 medium-sized tamales


24 corn husks
Green Sauce (see recipe)
2 pounds (about 4 cups) cooked chicken diced in 1/2-inch cubes
Basic Whipped or Beaten Masa (see recipe)

1) Soak the corn husks to make them pliable.

2) Mix the sauce with the cubed chicken.

3) Spread the masa about 3/4-inch thick on the smooth side of the corn husks. Cover the widest 2/3 of the husks, within 1/2 inch of each side.

4) Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of the filling in the center of the masa about 1/2 inch from the bottom edge (the widest part).

5) Fold one side of the husk over to meet the masa on the other side, roll up and then fold the tail.

6) Place upright in a preheated steamer pot or arrange on their sides, leaving room for the steam to circulate (use the extra husks to cover the tamales in the steamer).

7) Steam for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the masa has firmed somewhat and pulls away from the husks easily.