Earlier this month, the RoundTable’s Gina Castro learned how to make tamales from local experts. Check out the recipe below from Rocio Mancera to make tamales of your own this holiday season.

Some curious Evanstonians and I came in (a little too hungry) on a December winter night, ready to learn the art of tamale-making from local experts. Between our instructors, Rocio Mancera and María Rosario Mendoza, are generations of Mexican-style tamale recipes. 

Mancera and Rosario Mendoza are part of the Evanston Latinos Promotoras, a group of women who work on community health, specifically a project to promote racial healing in the city.

Tamales are one of the most traditional Mexican dishes. They can be traced to 8,000 B.C. (or even earlier). Over the centuries, variations of this savory, or sometimes sweet, dish have been devoured across Latin America and beyond. Tamales typically feature corn masa and can be filled with practically anything, from chicken or pork to numerous vegetables like potatoes, chilies and carrots.

If I’m honest, I have more experience eating tamales than I do making them. But I do have experience making pasteles, perhaps a sister to tamales. To make pasteles, my Puerto Rican family blended plantains and the root yautía until creamy for our masa. Then we added our meat filling, usually pork (until I became vegetarian and started using beans), and wrapped them in plantain leaves. 

The similarities between tamales and pasteles became clearer to me when I joined Mancera and Rosario Mendoza’s tamale-cooking class at the Pope John XXIII School cafeteria on Dec. 17.

The Promotoras (from left) Rebeca Mendoza, Rocio Mancera, Cynthia Lara, María Rosario Mendoza, Elizabeth Bruno, Dominga Leon, Nazarie De Jesús stayed up cooking until 1 a.m. preparing a Mexican-style brunch for Evanston Latinos’ annual fundraiser on Dec. 18. Credit: Gina Castro

Mancera began cooking tamales with her mother and grandmother at the age of 11 in Guanajuato, Mexico. They’d come together to cook tamales for Christmas, Mother’s Day and all the special occasions in between. The three-hour-or- so-long process fostered conversations and many laughs, Mancera said.

“I’d see all the recipes at once from my grandmother and mother and everyone in the kitchen,” Mancera said.

In turn, Mancera passed on her family recipes to her friends and three children: Jose, 20; Alejandro, 17; and Brenda, 12.

Rosario Mendoza passed down the recipes she learned from her mom to her daughter, Stephanie Mendoza, who is now Evanston’s city clerk.

Cooking pasteles alongside my mom and abuela in my abuela’s cramped Brooklyn apartment are among some of my favorite Christmas memories. These were the moments we’d talk and review the year.

Hearing why Mancera, a mom, and Rosario Mendoza, a mother and grandmother, loved these moments in the kitchen reminded me of the importance of savoring these traditions.

They learned the multistep, somewhat daunting yet rewarding process by watching their mothers and grandmothers. Each Christmas and special event was an opportunity to see the matriarchs use their hands – but most importantly their forearms – to mash the lard, corn flour and broth until creamy smooth. 

Rocio Mancera (right) showing us how to spread corn masa on a tamale. Credit: Gina Castro

For Mancera and Mendoza, making tamales is muscle memory. They sprinkled the perfect amount of baking powder and salt onto our individual bowls of masa without a measuring cup or teaspoon in sight. 

It reminded me of the hours spent mixing plantain masa with my abuelita. Measuring cups were always far from her mind, too. 

I remember sitting at the kitchen table stirring the thick plantain masa clockwise with a wooden spoon under my abuela’s watchful eye. My abuelita is somewhat superstitious. She’d say if I changed the direction of the dough too soon, the pasteles wouldn’t taste right. And I never doubted her.

So when Mancera or Mendoza took a quick glance at my corn masa and said it needed more muscle, I didn’t doubt them. I kept on kneading the dough with my hands until it reached the ideal fluffy, smooth texture.

Smoothing a thick layer of masa onto the corn husk is where the tamale masters can really show off. First, Mancera and Mendoza taught us to feel both sides of the slightly damp corn husk. One side of the husk has subtle vertical ridges and the other side is smooth. 

The smooth side is where you place a hearty dollop of dough. While balancing the husk in one hand, you use the other hand to smooth out the dough from the middle to almost the edge, then add in your filling. I added black beans and shredded cheese to my tamales. 

Mancera checking the boiling water for cooking the tamales. Credit: Gina Castro

Filling the corn husks and wrapping them was a bit tricky, and I won’t lie: Mendoza had to show me how at least three times. Mendoza has a way of making the dough spread like butter. She assured me that with practice, I could get there too.

While my classmates and I concentrated on making the thick masa spread, Ninth Ward resident Kathelyn Hayes hatched a playful plan to convince one of the Promotoras to invite her over for dinner – because eating tamales is far easier than making them. 

Toward the end of the multihour process, we were daydreaming about how delicious everything would taste once we were finally done.

No matter your culture, something about standing around a table with friendly faces, sharing stories (even with strangers) – feels like home.

Recipe for green chile tamales by Rocio Mancera (English)

Translated by Gina Castro

Ingredients

  • 2.2 pounds of masa harina, Maseca instant corn masa mix or La Guadalupana Masa Preparada De Salt – 5 Lb
  • 1 tablespoon of Royal baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons of salt
  • 2.2 pounds of chicken breast or pork shoulder
  • 2 pounds tomatillos
  • 6-7 green chiles or jalapenos, depending on your spice tolerance
  • Corn husks
  • Garlic
  • Onion

Directions

  1. Place the corn husks in a large bowl of warm water that covers them fully so that the husks soften.
  2. To prepare the chicken or pork, wash the meat very well and place it in a large pot. Season the meat with salt, garlic and onion. Add a good amount of water to the meat because you’ll need the broth for the dough. After an hour, separate the meat from the broth. 
  3. Wash the tomatillos and green chilies. Place them in another pot and put enough water to cover the tomatillos and green chilies. Cook this for about 10-12 minutes. Next, drain the water and blend the tomatillos and chiles. Add some garlic and salt to taste. Blend until smooth. 
  4. Pour the blended sauce into a hot pan with oil. Add the set-aside meat to the pan and let the mixture boil for 10 minutes. 
  5. Grab a large bowl to make the dough. Add the masa harina, 2.2 pounds of melted butter, two tablespoons of salt, a tablespoon of baking powder and the broth. Begin kneading the mixture with your hands. You can skip that part if you use the premade masa mix. The kneading is really important. Keep kneading the dough until it’s full mixed, spongy and slightly sticky. Cover the bowl of dough with a napkin and let it sit for about half an hour, so the dough can rise.
  6. Drain the water from the bowl of corn husks. Grab a corn husk and spread a spoonful or so of the dough on the leaf so the dough doesn’t reach the top of the leaf. Next, place your meat filling on top of the dough and wrap the tamale in a square shape.
  7. Follow the directions of your steamer. Add the amount of water it requests. Set the tamales vertically in the steamer over medium heat for about 1½-2 hours. To check if the tamales are done, see if the tamale is no longer sticking to the corn husk. 
  8. Finally, enjoy your tamales with coffee, milk, tea, champurrado or hot chocolate.

Tamales de chile verde por Rocio Mancera

Ingredientes

  • 1 kilo de masa para tamales blanca o puede ser harina de masa Maseca para tamales 
  • Royal Levadura en polvo
  • sal
  • 1 kilo de pollo o puerco   
  • 2 libras Tomatillo
  • 4-6 chile verde serrano es opcional si quiere jalapeño. 
  • ajo  
  • las hojas de tamal
  • cebolla

Direcciones

  1. Necesitamos una capotera y un paquete de hojas de tamales el primer paso es poner a remojar las hojas de tamal en una olla grande con agua caliente que las cubran para poder aséelas flexibles.
  2. Modo de preparación del pollo o puerco – Lave muy bien el pollo o puerco ponga en una olla grande. Ponga sal, ajo y un pedazo pequeño de cebolla. Debe tener bastante agua por que necesitará mucho para la masa. Retirar la espuma del caldo después de una hora de cocinar retire la carne. Deje enfriar la carne y desebre toda la carne y el caldo. 
  3. En otra olla ponga los tomatillos y los chiles verdes lave muy bien y después ponga agua hasta que se cubran los tomatillos y chiles puede poner unos 6 o 7 dependiendo si no lo quiere tan picoso se dejan cocinar alrededor de 10 a 12 minutos. Después, ponga en la licuadora los tomatillos y chiles escurridos no necesita el agua de donde cocino los tomatillos ya que los tomatillos tienen mucha agua ya. Ahora agregue un pedacito de ajo y sal. Licué hasta que este molido todo. 
  4. Después ponga en una cazuela caliente con aceite la salsa. En la cazuela después agregue la carne y deje hervir por 10 minutos hasta que suelte el hervor para que la carne se integre el sabor de la salsa.
  5. Después necesitará un tazón grande para hacer la masa.  Ponga el kilo de masa con medio kilo de manteca derretida, no tan caliente, agregue dos cucharadas de sal o al gusto y una pequeña cucharada de Royal y también el caldo y vaya amasando la masa con todos estos ingredientes hasta que la masa heche peditos. Es muy importante la amasada. Pruebe su masa para ver cómo está de sal si ya está bien. Deje repostar uña media hora o más o menos y cubra con una servilleta.
  6. De tela la masa escurra las hojas. De tamal y agarre una ponga la masa destendida por la hoja haciendo que no llegue hasta arriba de la hoja. Ponga en medio la salsa verde   Hay que envolver el tamal en forma cuadrado. 
  7. Y necesitarás una vaporeara. Pondrás agua hasta donde te indique. Para ponerlos parados y cocerlos a fuego medio aproximadamente 1:30 a 2:00 horas. Después sacar un tamal y ver que se despegué de la hoja es que ya está listo. Si no se despega tiene que dejarlos cocinar más tiempo. 
  8. Cuando ya estén puede disfrutar con café con leche, té, champurrado, o chocolate caliente.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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  1. Que buena descripción de la receta para tamales, me encanto la clase ! pero mas el entusiasmo de los alumnos . dispuestos a ensuciarse las manos batiendo la la masa y sus ganas de saber más. Es gratificante para nosotras sus emociones. Gracias, saludos!