Alta and Grandpa

Alta and Grandpa

Don’t stand by my grave and weep,
For I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint of snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning, hush.
For I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circle flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand by my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die.

~Mary Frye/Hopi Prayer

 When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure. 

~Author Unknown

Alta "doing up" Grandpa's hair

Alta "doing up" Grandpa's hair

Last week, I learned that my Grandfather, Erwin LaVerne “Verne” Chambers, passed away. For the past week, I have spent time reminiscing, sharing memories of him with my family and loved ones. He was an amazing man, always outgoing, always making silly jokes, and he always had a story. He loved geneology, and he and my father spent hours discussing family and doing research, and they were always excited to “find” various relatives. When I was a little girl, I liked to “do up” Grandpa’s hair, putting my barrettes in it and playing with it. I remember his garden. I remember being young and sneaking strawberries when I wasn’t supposed to, and I remember the smell of the dill he had growing. To this day, dill always brings me back to Grandpa’s garden. When my younger sister was a toddler, and we came to visit, it was time for her to choose a cereal to eat for breakfast. She chose “Yucky Charms” (she couldn’t pronounce “Lucky”), so of course, at every subsequent visit, Grandpa would tell her that he bought her “Yucky Charms”, because she loved them so much! He loved to sing, and was likely a large influence in my Dad’s love for music, and mine as well. I could go on and on. He was a great man.

After reminiscing a bit, I got to thinking of how I can pay tribute to his life and the wonderful, profound effect he had on everyone around him. As I told my Dad, since food is my “thing”, why not find out some of his favorite dishes, and re-create them and blog about it? My Dad and Aunt had some great ideas, but one of the first things mentioned were canned tamales.

Dad's version of canned tamales

Dad's version of canned tamales

Dad's interpretation of nutrition and ingredients for canned tamales

Dad's interpretation of nutrition and ingredients for canned tamales

How to prepare canned tamales

How to prepare canned tamales

Canned tamales? Yuck. As you can see by my Dad’s unique contributions (he created a personalized label for canned tamales, so we could show a *ahem* fair comparison) these are not exactly gourmet. But apparently, when my Grandmother was away, Grandpa ate canned tamales. My Grandmother cooked all the time, of course, but she did not prepare Mexican foods, and especially not anything resembling tamales. Pretty funny, if you ask me, because like most canned, processed products, canned tamales are pretty gross. (Sorry to any of you that actually like these things.) Mushy, greasy stuff, wrapped in parchment paper. Appetizing. So I decided I would make real tamales, in memory of Grandpa.

I have always had it in my mind that tamales were a serious task. Tamales are usually reserved for the holidays, when a large group of people can be gathered to help, and it’s made into a big event. Thankfully, around here (in Texas) there is usually someone around that makes them from scratch (I have regular “suppliers” myself!), so you can buy a few dozen, but again, outside of restaurants, only around the holidays. But they’re so worth it, because there is nothing like a steaming hot, spicy tamale! Except maybe another one…or two…

Honestly, these were not all that difficult to make. Time-consuming, yes, but not difficult. Having a few people to help would, of course, make the time go by more quickly. I had some good music playing, (a little Bob Marley, B.B. King, ZZ Top, Pat Green, too many artists to name on the ipod!) so for me, it was relaxing and therapeutic. You can also opt to break the work up over two days, which is what I did. (I prepared the meat the first day, and prepared the tamales the next.) These tamales are made with pork, but if you choose, you can substitute beef brisket or chicken. I based this recipe loosely off of Diana Kennedy’s recipe, changing up the filling ingredients to suit my taste. (Which also included sending text messages to a friend of mine. Her Grandma makes tamales every year and they are the best I’ve eaten! Had to ask what type of chiles she used. Turns out – just chili powder, and then cascabel chiles as well. If you can’t find cascabel chiles, just use chili powder.)

I also made things easier by using my slow cooker for the meat. If you don’t have a slow cooker, simply add the ingredients for the meat in a large stockpot, and you’ll need a bit of additional broth, bring to a boil, and reduce to low and simmer for 2-3 hours or until the meat is fork-tender. But I strongly suggest the slow cooker if you have one, then you can dump everything together and leave it, saving your energy for the next day!

The amount of chili powder I use here makes the tamales pretty spicy. If you prefer a milder tamale, reduce the chili powder to 1/3 cup.

These turned out pretty tasty! My parents came over to help us eat them, and we all stuffed ourselves with as many tamales as we could. I honestly can’t think of what to change, except to consider making more next time. Certainly, there was no real comparison to the canned stuff! I hope that Grandpa would have enjoyed them as much as we did.

For the filling:

1 triangle of Ibarra or Abuelita chocolate

1 onion, chopped

5 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 c chili powder (a mix of half chili powder and cascabel chili powder)

1 ½ T cumin

1 t salt

4 c chicken broth

5 lbs pork shoulder, cut into 1 inch cubes

Additional chili powder, cumin, and salt (to taste)


For tamales:

2-3 bags (1 lb each) corn husks


For masa:

8 c Masa harina (I used Maseca brand)

2 c Lard or vegetable oil

1/2 t salt

4 ½ c pork broth


Add filling ingredients together in slow cooker and turn on low, cook for 6-8 hours. Refrigerate overnight if desired. When removing from refrigerator, skim fat from top. Reheat gently.

 Soak corn husks in water for at least 30 minutes or until pliable.

 Remove pork from broth and set aside. Strain broth and reserve, you’ll need this for your masa. Shred pork and chop until as fine as desired. Taste and adjust seasonings. (I added another 2 tablespoons of chili powder and about ½ teaspoon of cumin, plus a bit of salt.) Keep warm.

cooked pork, chopped and shredded, ready to go in tamales

cooked pork, chopped and shredded, ready to go in tamales

 Mix masa harina, lard, and salt together, and mix in pork broth, one cup at a time, until dough comes together and resembles cookie dough. (You should be able to roll a ball in your hands and it will stick together.) If it does not hold together, add more broth. If too sticky or thin, add more masa.


Masa, ready for tamales

Masa, ready for tamales

Remove corn husks from water and let drain on paper towels. Take a few corn husks and rip into thin strips. These will serve to tie together the tamales. This is an optional step, but it makes the tamales look like a nice little present.

 Now is the time you’ll want to set up your “assembly line”. Set up the corn husks, then masa harina, then meat mixture, and have a place to set the finished tamales.

 Spread masa harina on corn husks about 1/8 inch thick, leaving at least ¾ inch on each side of the corn husk, and about 2 inches from the ends. Add about 2 T pork down the middle of the masa harina. Fold the masa over so the ends meet, and then roll the corn husks up snugly (like a cigar). Fold the narrow end over, and tie with a thin strip of corn husk. Fold the other end over and tie this end with a thin strip of corn husk as well. Repeat with remaining ingredients.


Spreading the masa and topping with pork

Spreading the masa and topping with pork


Folding the rolled-up corn husk

Folding the rolled-up corn husk


Folding the other end

Folding the other end


tamales waiting to be steamed

tamales waiting to be steamed

Once all tamales are done, fill a large steamer with enough water so it just comes below the bottom of the steamer insert. Line the steamer insert with corn husks (this is so the tamales won’t get soggy). Place the tamales on end in the steamer. Place a damp cotton towel over the tamales and cover with the lid.


placing tamales in the steamer

placing tamales in the steamer

Bring water to a boil and reduce to medium-low, and steam for 1 ½ – 2 hours, checking the tamales after 1 ½ hours to see if the masa is firm and no longer mushy. When the tamales are done, remove them with tongs.

 Food 1611

You can serve them now, or you can opt to place them in a Ziploc bag and keep them in the refrigerator for a few days, or freeze for up to 6 months. To reheat, place in a single layer on top of damp paper towels and cover with more damp paper towels. Microwave, rotating the tamales frequently, until warmed through.

 Serve as is, or with whatever condiments you desire. We frequently eat them with hot sauce or salsa.

 Makes about 3-4 dozen tamales.


Filed under Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free, Main Dishes, Pork

23 responses to “Tamales

  1. Pingback: Quick scan of the net - corn cooker « living our present

  2. What a great tribute to your grandfather! I’m sure he would appreciate the sentiments and your uncanned tamales. I didn’t even know that canned tamales existed!


  3. Condolences to you and your family. Thank you for sharing those wonderful tidbits about your grandfather.

    I never knew canned tamales even existed. Though, I don’t think I’d want to eat one from a can. I had a friend whose mom make a pretty mean one. Probably the best I’ve tasted yet. I’m trying to get the recipe from here, so I can make my own.

  4. Alta's Dad

    He will very much be missed. Thank you for making the tamales for GrandPa. They were delicious!

    Love Ya!

  5. I was thinking of tamales the other day and – here you go posting about them! They sound really good … and I love the story that goes with them!

  6. I’m sorry for your loss! the tamales remind me pasteles which is prepared the similar way as the tamales. Looks delicious!

  7. I’m so sorry for the loss of your Grandpa. He left you with many wonderful memories to share with us which certainly put a smile on my face. I’m glad he inspired a fabulous tamale recipe! I’ve always wanted to try to make them because they are SUCH a treat. Thank you for a great story and I thank Grandpa for being your inspiration in putting this recipe together and giving it to all of us. Can’t wait to try them!

  8. Laura

    Your Grandfather sounded like a wonderful man. Thank you for sharing your memories of him and your yummy recipe.

  9. What a beautiful tribute, Alta… Nicely done. Makes me miss my granddad (who was not a cook, but still…) and makes me hungry for TexMex. Time to go inventory the freezer.

  10. My condolences on your loss. I lost my Grandfather September last year. I actually wrote about it in late December on my blog. The experience really threw me for a loop and I went through all these kind of feelings that I never thought I would have.

    Thankfully I did have some time. He was diagnosed with back cancer in August, and I spent the next month or so baking for him while he could still eat. We’d once been close, but moving away and the years apart created a distance in the relationship. Baking was the only way I knew how to reconnect to him. It’s funny how food can be that way.

    Anyways, I’m sorry for your loss. I loved to read about how your family shared food and memories to commemorate such an important person in your lives.

  11. Tamales- what a wonderful recipe to show people how to make. Many are so intimidated, as I was the first time I learned. Thank you so much for sharing your family’s treasure.

  12. Sorry for the loss.

    My grandma passed away 16 years ago and I barely remember her but I do remember she was the one who got me interested in cooking/gardening. There are certain dishes that bring a calm over me when I make them because they have great memory.

    I have been dying to try making tamales and your post is just the encouragement I need. Nicely done!

  13. I’m so sorry for your loss. He sounds like a wonderful and very doting grandpa. I love this tribute post of yours.

  14. A beautiful tribute to your grandfather. In high school, my choir sang a lovely arrangement of the Hopi prayer you include up top. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  15. What a wonderful post. I got teary-eyed. Thank you so much for sharing.

  16. Very interesting cooking there I am very curious …. 🙂 xx Rico|Recipes

  17. deem pirtle

    great tamales wondering can you make up the masa the night before and keep in the refrigator??

  18. tastyeatsathome

    deem pirtle – I have never tried, but I wouldn’t imagine any reason why you couldn’t. You might want to check the consistency and mix it a bit the day of, just to be sure everything is “ready to go”, but I think you could do that!

  19. Wow, was looking for a great recipe and ran across this page. We have been making tamales for a open air market here in Oregon this summer. We just wanted a change.
    These sound really good. I know “Grandpa” would have enjoyed them for sure.
    That brings me to the reason I’m leaving this comment. I to am a grandpa and great grandpa also. The “~Mary Frye/Hopi Prayer” you have on this page is awesome. I have made note to my family that it was to be read upon my death. It is exactly the way I feel about leaving this world. Thank you so much for this. Be proud, your tamales will be eaten this week in Oregon. In fact I’m going to call them “Grandpa Erwin’s Tamales”. Let his memories live on.
    Grandpa Dennis

  20. tastyeatsathome

    Grandpa Dennis – Reading your comment just made my day. I’m glad to have been an influence, and I hope that your tamales are wonderful! Thank you so much.

  21. Pingback: Gluten-Free Holiday: Christmas and Hanukkah Favorites – Tamales « Tasty Eats At Home

  22. I just cried while reading this….what a beautiful tribute. My dad passed away 4 years ago so I know it’s hard, especially at the holidays. I think it’s so neat that you decided to pay tribute to your Grandpa through food. That’s one of the reasons I so love making ice cream…my dad did too. I’m going to try your tamales. 🙂

  23. Hi Alta,
    What a beautiful memory of your Grandfather. I really enjoyed your Tamale post. I am always looking how I can improve my skill level with the Tamale. Thank you for sharing your heart and your recipe and hope you have a wonderful week end!

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