Making Tamales with my Niñas

Every weekend, before we go to the commissary, I always ask the girls what they would like to eat for the week. While this usually results in responses such as Burger King or Chipotle from Gabriella, Elaina knows that this specifically refers to home-cooked meals. The follow-on question for Elaina is “What do you want to cook / bake with me this week?” Since she has advanced quite beyond macaroni & cheese and chocolate chip cookies, the possibilities of what we can make together are expanding exponentially. This week she wanted to make tamales, and since it seemed challenging and was new to me, that is exactly what we did.

“Keep going. Only a hundred or so more to go.”

A few months ago, Elaina was looking through our cookbooks and came across one titled “Tamales 101” (pictured below). I purchased this for their Mother in Sierra Vista, Arizona in 2008 when I was attending the Military Intelligence Officer Basic Course.

Like most of my cookbooks, only took 13 years to finally make something out of it.

Elaina had made tamales with her Mother’s family last Christmas (she was in charge of the filling), so she was pretty excited to make them with me. Before we thumbed through the book to see what recipes were available, we had to decide on the meat (chicken, beef, or pork) and the sauce (red or green). We eventually decided on chicken tamales with tomatillo salsa.

Stocking up on supplies (pun intended)

After getting the grocery list together, the next stop was picking up supplies and ingredients. Given the uniqueness of the recipe, there were quite a few things that we needed to get that are usually not in the house. This included corn husks, tomatillos, and instant masa, not to mention a giant stock pot to steam the tamales. The girls enjoyed the stop though, as they got churros, pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread), and Mexican candy for snacks and dessert.

Elaina had so much fun peeling and washing the tomatillos that she relegated me to picture duty.

While I tried to take some time to prepare, Elaina wanted to get right to cooking, so I put her in charge of the tomatillos. While they were sticky and some were rotten, Elaina had a blast peeling and cleaning them while I set up the kitchen to make the salsa and masa.

Just getting great use out of my kitchenware and appliances while making the tomatillo salsa and masa.

It was at this point where Elaina left me for about an hour, which was probably for the best. While the tomatillo salsa was relatively easy to make in the food processor (and tasted amazing), the masa was pretty difficult, but not for the reasons you might think. I have always heard that tamales were pretty tough to make, but I only think this is because a normal-size stand mixer is far too small for the amount of masa that you are making. I only made one batch (according to the recipe), but still could only fit half of the masa mix in the stand mixer at a time. Other than that, the whole process was pretty simple.

The tamale assembly line, with Gabby running the operation from her iPad.

Once I completed the masa, almost on cue, Elaina showed back up to get the tamale assembly line running. We would have preferred about three more people helping us, but I guess that is why tamales are usually made around the holidays.

We never really figured out how to do this right. By hand, spatula, or rolling pin, we both did pretty mediocre.

After a couple sub-par test runs, I showed Elaina how to spread out the masa. We tried a few different methods, none of which were particularly easy or successful (we would not find out until later that evening that it did not matter, because they all tasted amazing).

She looks like she is having a blast making these. Or maybe just because it is in gif form.

Next on the line was the meat filling, which Elaina excelled at due to being in charge of that station at her Mother’s house. No issues here.

Yes! Pile that tomatillo salsa on!

Moving to the salsa filling, I would say that Elaina was a little conservative with it, which was probably a good thing. Even though it was just tomatillos and jalapenos, the salsa still had a little kick, which made me at least a little worried that it would be too much for Elaina (it was not).

Well they seem to at least look like tamales on the outside…

After she was done with the filling, she slid the tamales over to me so that I could roll, wrap, and tie them. While the first few were very poorly constructed, we both got a lot better throughout the process, so the ones near the end were practically flawless.

Yep, the girls managed to turn masa into Play-Doh.

As I got the stock pot ready for steaming, the girls grabbed some of the remaining masa to play with. Because of course they did.

“Do you wanna build a masa-man?”

As along as they kept it at a table, I had no issues with this; once it made its way to the living room though, it went straight in the trash.

While they do not look like much, the tamales came out amazing.

After steaming the tamales for an hour, with that wonderful smell wafting through the entire house, they were ready. Needless to say, we were pretty excited, already having the table set and ready to dig in.

The moment of reckoning is upon us…

And they did not disappoint in the least. Considering that this was my first time making them (and Elaina’s first time from start to finish), we were extremely happy with the results. Elaina and I both devoured ours, with Gabriella abstaining (of course). We made so many and were so confident in the result that we even invited our neighbors over the next day to enjoy them with us, even sending them home with a dozen.

“Slow down, Kid! Leave some room for water, dessert, and air!”

From start to finish, this was an amazing experience. Deciding on what type to make, shopping for supplies with the girls, and making and enjoying the tamales with Elaina, we had fun throughout the entire process. I usually try to learn something first before trying it with the girls, as I do not want to be surprised or frustrated with the process or the result. For once, I threw that method out the window and had a great time learning something new alongside of them. While I do not necessarily recommend making tamales, I highly suggest trying something completely new with your little ones; you will likely not be disappointed with the result, and either way, you will at least have some amazing stories from the experience. I think next time we will make shredded beef tamales with red sauce.

An Empty Plate = Success!

Thanks for checking in on us.


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