Posted by: webbhouston | December 12, 2008

Cooking with the kids

Yesterday was Kate’s birthday. She turned the mighty TWO.

To celebrate we made home-made pizzas. Since she cant eat dairy her pizzas were with soy cheese of course. She loved making them. She stood up next to me and spread the cheese and sauce then counted out twenty pieces of pepperoni to put down on her pie. We got pictures but I havent uploaded them yet so you will have to wait for that… In this post I am going to discuss our last cooking experience with Kate. Making tamales.

Tamales are a very old dish that comes from Mexico. It is basically corn masa with spices, filled with meats and other random things. I usually make two or three types of tamales. One set of savory and one set of sweet. I love sweet tamales because I put in raisins, vanilla, cinammon, and whtever else i want to add to the mixture. Savory ones are a great way to use the leftovers from the week, just stuff them in the tamales and you are done.

There are as many different tamale recipes as there are tamale makers. There is no real super skeekrit and special tamale recipe out there that is better than all of the rest.. it really is a case of “i make what my mother taught me to make” or.. in my case since my mother couldnt make tamales to save her life… I make what people in real life and the internet have told me works and I mix all of the recipes up and make my own and it works for my family. Very scientific. I know. Be jealous of my accurate and exact measurements here.

Tamales a la Webb

The first thing you need to do is make the fillings. For my filling I started a few days before.

I made a pot roast that I didnt like, so I then cut it up and cooked it with potatoes and turned it into a beef stew. After a milion hours of being cooked (3 in the oven and 1 on the stove) the meat was falling apart and tender. We ate it alone on Saturday and it was to die for but we had tons of left overs which ended up in my tamales the next day. We also had some left over chicken from Friday’s dinner which was just roasted with some jalapeño and honey glaze. Again very tasty. The key to a good tamale recipe is making sure that the fillings are very tasty, maybe a little tastier than you would normally make a dish.. why? Well it’s simple. You only get a tablespoon or so of filling in each tamale, so it is diluted greatly within the masa that surrounds it. You want every little bit to count so make it tasty and worth it. This is a similar idea if you are making perogis, won tons, etc.

So this is what I started with.

Beef for filling

Beef for filling

I first roasted it in the oven with some veggies and spices for around 3 hours, then I cooked it on the stovetop with fingerling potatoes and…

  • chili powder to taste – i like mine spicy
  • cumin – to taste, i like mine smokey
  • garlic- to taste, I like to ward off vampires
  • tomato sauce not too much or else it gets too watery and you dont want a watery tamale filling
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • chicken bouillon with water or chicken stock, enough for all of your meat to simmer in for a good long while. around an hour or so. until it falls apart and tastes like delishousness (yes that is a word, well in my mind it is)

As you can see in the picture, my meat was already cut into cubes. This makes it cook faster and easier when you are going to stuff your tamales.

You can let this sit overnight in the fridge if you wish, I would recommend if you did because it makes it all taste better after the flavors have been allowed to intermingle.

The next day, you get up bright and early… you feed the chickens (or children), you make yourself a pot of coffee or cocoa.. or water like me. And you get ready for a long process ahead of you. The work starts now.

You will need:

  • a steamer – I have something like this.


This picture is from coking mexican, which I think is a great website really… take a look. A lot of it is more “Tex-Mex” than “Mexican” for my tastes but I have been know to be a big purist… so this might be why.

If you dont have a steamer like this you dont need to go out and buy one. Some empty pie plates with holes cut in them on top of an inverted bowl will work fine really. I do use this for more than tamales. It makes exiting hot pasta faster and easier, and i do steam alot of things so this works for me.  This is definately not a uni-tasker in my book.

You will also need:

  • tongs for picking up the hot tamales and
  • large spoon or spreader. Yes an item exists that works PURELY to spread tamales but it is useless in my book. I also like using my hands alot so I did most of the spreading with my two favorite kitchen tools. My right hand and my left hand.
  • Last but not least, the husks.

Corn husks are exactly what you think they are… dried husks of the corn plant. Please use the real ones. Please.

Before you start anything you have to take these husks and give them a good rise. Then put warm/hot water in a pot and submerge them in it while you are getting everything else ready. They need to get malleable and wet so that you can use them, they are of no use to you dry.

Drowned Husks

Drowned Husks

Next comes the masa preparation. If you are lucky enough to live in an area of town that has premade tamale masa, you can use that. If not it isnt that hard. Regular masa is what it starts off with. Just like you would use for making tortillas.

Then you add:

 paprika – for color
Salt to taste, at least a couple table spoons and remember this is going into the masa so here is NOT the time to skimp on the salt
Cumin – to taste s well
Chili flakes and chili powder, this depends on how hot you want it.. taste it and see. Some people take dried chiles like ancho chile and grind them into a powder and that gives it a little more flavor. that can be done as well. just use what you normally would use if you were making chili con carne stew. please dont use an awful powder that is nothing but salt and cumin. You know what? Just make your own.. seriously. it’s worth it and it lasts for a while. There is no reason to not use good chili powder. No excuses!!
Garlic powder- this depends on your tastes as well

To all of this you add some melted lard, butter, or corn oil. I have seen people use all three.  It is said that if you dont use lard they dont taste the same… well they are right. But I wont use lard in mine. Sorry. The amount of oil used isnt scientific to me.. you just use as much as you need so that it is the consistensy of a smooth peanut butter.  for this i use my hands. it is easier to tell when you have enough oil in it and to make sure you got it all.



This is the masa with spices on it, before mixing.. you can see that it is crumbly.



This is what it looks like after you have mixed it all together. I noticed that it was still a little crumbly but not too much. If you pick some up with your hand and squeeze it, it should stick to itself and spread easily.  This needed some more oil so I added a smidge.




Here it is, ready to be used.. and smooth like peanut butter.

Now you are ready to spread. With your spoon or spreader (or hands) scoop up some of the masa and put it inside of the tamale.

tamale beginnings

tamale beginnings

Spread it out so that it is in the middle of the husk in a thin layer, then put meat or other filling in the middle.

Tamale Middle

Tamale Middle

You roll them up lengthwise and tuck in the tail. Putting them in the steamer one at a time with the open ends facing up. I did mine laying down this time because Kate was helping me.

Tamale Final

Tamale Final

Now steam them for around 45-55 minutes. The house will start to small like tamales around the time that they are done. To test them pull one out and pull the husk open, if the tamale is solid and doesnt stay stuck on the husk then you are done. If not.. just send it back for a little while longer. Let them cool a little bit before eating them of course. that makes the masa firm up a tad more.
This is really easy to make, but labor intensive. Tamales are usually a group event… a few familes get together and make them because it takes so long that you want to be chatting with someone while making it. I made them with Kate. Here she is rolling up her tamales.
Kate be rollin

Kate be rollin'

Here she is squshing the masa into a husk
Kate be squishing

Kate be squishing

here are her little hands helping me out
Little hands

Little hands

I hope you all make your own tamales. Let me know how they turn out!! This is a great activity for the kids so have them join in the fun.


  1. What a great mum you are!

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