Food & Drink

Making tamales: Labor intensive but worth it

Lisa Sanchez poses for a photo with friends Susan Hazelton, left, and Patti O’Hara while hosting her annual tamalada on Dec. 9.
Lisa Sanchez poses for a photo with friends Susan Hazelton, left, and Patti O’Hara while hosting her annual tamalada on Dec. 9.

When Boise resident Lisa Sanchez was a girl growing up in Burley, her mother and grandmother would often make tamales around Thanksgiving and Christmas, a Latino tradition.

They would braise beef and pork roasts with onion, garlic and salt. The meat would be shredded, chopped fine and then combined. It would be seasoned with red chile, cumin and more garlic and salt before getting wrapped in masa and a corn husk.

The tamales, which took about 45 minutes to steam, were served at a large gathering of friends and relatives known as a tamalada.

“I remember the delicious food, but for me that was secondary,” said Sanchez, 46, who last month won a seat on the Boise City Council. “What I liked was the people and everyone getting together and having fun.”

For the past eight years, Sanchez has organized her own tamalada, inviting friends and colleagues from her job as a case coordinator and paralegal for the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program, an Idaho State Bar service for low-income people.

She supplies corn masa — 50 pounds purchased from Casa Valdez in Caldwell — and dried corn husks for wrapping them up. Her guests bring the fillings.

Tamales have their roots in Aztec and Mayan culture. A Catholic tradition calls for them to be served through the Christmas season, beginning on Dec. 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, through Jan. 6, Three Kings Day. Typically, hundreds of tamales to last through the holidays were made at the tamaladas.

They are a source of fond childhood memories for Sanchez, whose late mother, Janie Espinosa Ortiz, and grandmother, Juanita Peña Espinosa, were expert tamale makers, she said.

Asked if she’s an expert tamale maker, Sanchez laughs.

“I grew up in a home where tamales were made, but I didn’t make them,” Sanchez said. “I’m a bit of a Tom Sawyer when it comes to making tamales. I convince others that it’s going to be a great party and I end up refreshing everyone’s drink while they make my tamales.”

Sanchez held her annual tamalada Dec. 9 at the duplex she rents just off State Street near Downtown.

Cathy Sherman, who came to Sanchez’s tamalada, said she taught herself how to make tamales. It’s labor-intensive, she said, but the results are worth it.

She said it’s even more enjoyable to make them with a group of people.

“It’s a great thing to do,” said Sherman, who along with her husband, Roger Sherman, made a couple of dozen tamales to take home.

Sanchez tells her guests to look for tamale recipes online and to fix whatever looks good to them. And she tells them not to get anxious if they haven’t made them before.

“You cannot make a bad tamale,” Sanchez said. “It will still be a tamale.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @JohnWSowell

Tamale dough

Recipes from the New York Times

24 dried corn husks

3 ½ cups powdered masa harina

2 ¼ cups chicken stock, approximately

1 cup lard, cut into cubes

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 ½ cups Shredded Red-Chile Meat (see recipe below)

Soak corn husks in warm water for at least 3 hours or overnight. Drain, separate the husks, then continue soaking.

Put the masa harina in a bowl, and add stock a little at a time until the mixture is crumbly.

With a mixer, beat the lard, salt and baking powder until light. Add the masa mixture, and continue to beat until the dough is fluffy, adding more stock if needed. The mixture is ready when a small ball of it floats in water.

Drain a husk, and pat dry. Spread 2 tablespoons of the masa dough in the center of the husk, then wet your fingers and pat into a 4-by-3-inch rectangle along the right edge of the husk, leaving at least 2 inches on each side. Put 1 tablespoon of the shredded meat lengthwise down the center of the dough rectangle. Wrap by folding the rectangle in half and bringing the right side of the dough over the filling. Continue rolling tightly to the end of the husk, then secure one open end with string or strips of corn husk. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

Prepare a large steamer by setting a steamer rack about 2 inches above gently boiling water. Stack the tamales, seam down, on the rack. Cover, and steam until the filling is firm and comes away easily from the husk, about 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Shredded red-chile meat

2 pounds boneless beef chuck, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder or chicken (thigh) meat, cut into 1-inch cubes

5 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed

1 large onion, peeled and quartered

2 dried guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed

2 dried ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon ground cumin

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


In a large pot or Dutch oven, combine all the ingredients except the cayenne. Add water to cover, and bring to a boil, skimming off any foam that comes to the surface. Partly cover, and adjust the heat so that the mixture bubbles steadily; cook until the meat is very tender, 1 to 2 hours

Transfer the meat to a bowl, and let it cool, then shred it with your fingers. Discard the bay leaves, and transfer the garlic, onion and chiles to a blender along with a splash of the cooking liquid. Blend until smooth. Add the sauce to the meat, and toss. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little cayenne if you want it spicier; you may want to overseason the meat slightly if you’re using it as a filling. Use, or store in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to a few months.