December 21, 2011


On the last school day before winter break, Ryken's class had a party which celebrated the many holidays and cultures that are represented in their class.  I boiled some good old Ling-Ling potstickers to introduce the kids to a food shared at Chinese New Year.  Being that my son is in a Spanish bilingual school, the overwhelming type of party food was Mexican.  There were tamales, taquitos, and buñuelos alongside American party food like pizza and cookies.  It was quite a spread!

As the foods contained milk or cheese, Ryken wasn't able to try any of the Mexican foods.  (He did eat some safe Trader Joe's taquitos and a ton of potstickers!)  It was too bad because the making and sharing of these foods is in integral part of the holidays just as noodles, dumplings, and special dishes are to Chinese New Year.  Tamales, especially, are popular at Christmas time, perhaps, because they are too labor-intensive to do on a regular basis.  In our effort to educate ourselves with Mexican culture and in a self-serving attempt to get my Mexican food fix safely (seriously, I love tamales!), I decided to go for it and make tamales with the kids.

I made sure to have a couple of children's books available for my little chefs before or after the tamales were done.  Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto and Growing Up with Tamales by Gwendolyn Zepeda are excellent picture books that spotlight the importance of tamale-making for families at Christmas time.  They are both warm family stories that remind kids of the steps and love needed to make the tamales.

We visited a local Mexican market for the corn husks and masa harina (corn flour) although I'm pretty sure I've seen both at some bigger chain supermarkets.


Corn husks (an 8 oz pack contains roughly 50 husks)

6 cups masa harina (corn flour, not cornmeal)
4 1/2 cups vegetable broth
3/4 cup olive oil
3/4 tsp salt


Meat Filling
Adapted from Cindy Pruitt's chicken tamales recipe featured on Taste of Home's website
12 oz. of cooked ground or shredded meat  - I used one package of Trader Joe's Beefless Ground Beef (this does contain soy and wheat)
3 Tbsp oil
3 Tbsp flour or 1 1/2 Tbsp corn starch
2 Tbsp chili powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1 can of green chiles

Butternut Squash
1 medium butternut squash, roasted until tender
1/2 cup corn kernels (I used frozen)
1/2 to 1 whole taco seasoning packet (I like Trader Joe's which is gluten-free)
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp oil
salt to taste

  1. Soak corn husks in a large pot of water for at least 10 minutes.  Keep as many husks in water until you are just about to use then.
  2. For the dough: combine wet and dry ingredients thoroughly.  Mix until masa mixture feels fluffy and light.
  3. For fillings: mix each filling's set of ingredients until evenly mixed.
  4. Prepare a large stockpot with a couple inches of water and a steamer basket.  Make sure you aren't adding more water than the height of your steamer.
To assemble tamales:

  1. Tear 1/2-inch strips of corn husk to use as ties for your tamales.  You may want to sift through your husks and use small corn husks for the ties to save the larger one for making tamales.
  2. Spread out one corn husk flat on your plate or work surface with more narrow, pointed side facing down, closest to you.
  3. Spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons of dough in the center of the husk (it really depends on how big or small your corn husk is).  Flatten dough into a rectangle shape leaving an inch of husk around the left and right sides and a couple inches along the top and bottom.  We used our hands to do this.
  4. Spread a generous tablespoon of filling in the center of the dough rectangle.  
  5. Fold the left and right sides of the tamale husk over the center so that the dough completely surrounds the filling.  (I like to squish the sides of the dough together so that I know the filling is completely secure.)
  6. Use two husk strips to tie top and bottom of tamales closed.
  7. Add a layer of corn husks to the bottom of the stockpot/steamer basket.  Put one layer of tamales on top of the husks, then cover with a layer of corn husks.  Repeat as many layers of tamales and corn husks as can fit in the pot.  Securing place the lid on top to retain steam.
  8. Steam tamales over medium heat for at least 30 minutes until tamales harden.
While this was a multi-step process, fillings can be prepped in advance.  I really liked using Trader Joe's already cooked "beefless" veggie faux meat.  I imagine it saved me a few steps!  Rotisserie chicken like Costco's would also make a good, ready-to-use meat in the filling recipe.  My first grader was able to spread the dough and filling for several tamales before getting bored or frustrated.  (I tied them all shut.)  Overall, the tamales did take time but, just like what's shown in the books, this is a perfect activity to do around the kitchen table with family.

I made approximately 40 tamales with the above ingredients and had some butternut squash filling left over.  I thought both kinds of filling turned out well but the meatless meat filling was the big hit with kids and grownups alike.  My husband said these tasted just like the real thing which was a nice compliment being that traditional tamales are often made with meat, lard, butter, and/or cheese.

Whether you are making tamales, latkes, Chinese hot pot, or a Christmas ham, we at GetAllergyWise wish all of you and your family the safest and warmest holidays.  We will see you in 2012!

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