Tamales are a holiday tradition in Texas and elsewhere.  Traditional tamales begin with a dough called masa, made from nixtamalized corn (soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and then hulled) or a masa mix, such as Maseca, and lard (gasp!) or vegetable shortening, or even butter.  The masa is spread on corn husks or plantain leaves, with a few tablespoons of sweet or savory filling, folded up into a neat little packet, and then steamed until the masa is firm.

Tamales are eaten year-round, but during the holidays, they are extremely popular. Perhaps this is because making tamales is usually done in large batches — tens, if not hundreds, at a time — and is a nice way to bring generations together to assemble them.

There are several ways to get your tamale holiday fix.  Most Mexican restaurants sell them this time of year — some even set up tamale stands:

tamale stand

If you’re lucky, someone in your office has a grandmother or aunt that sells homemade tamales this time of year (if so, do yourself a favor and get a dozen or two).  You can also order them online — Texas Tamale Company has some nice sets that make welcome gifts, especially for out-of-state friends.  Or . . . you can make your own.

Yep, this year I finally learned how to make tamales.  I signed up for a Tamales 101 class with Sylvia Casares, owner of Sylvia’s Enchiladas and Houston’s unofficial Enchilada Queen.


The first part of the class was instructional, where we watched Sylvia prepare the several ingredients necessary to make the tamales.  Sylvia chatted while preparing chile sauce, pork filling, and masa, sharing bits about her life, Mexican food, and the antiques that decorate her attractive restaurant.

Complimentary beverages were served, including margaritas.

pina colada

Too young for a margarita?  A virgin pina colada will do.

Once all the components were ready, Sylvia showed us how to spread the masa on the pre-soaked corn husk, and how much filling to add:


At this point, the class moved to the dining room, where each person had their own tamale-making station:

And away we rolled!  One of the staff admired my tamales and declared them perfect:


We packed up our tamales for steaming at home (which, I must say, were quite tasty, with a perfect masa-to-filling ratio).  Before leaving we were also treated to a plate of enchiladas, a tamale, and a taco (which I unfortunately scarfed down without taking a picture).

Will I ever make tamales at home?  I’d like to think so, although on a smaller scale, and probably without lard.  I am also intrigued by the idea of sweet tamales, which Sylvia described to us, and which take significantly less preparation.  Perhaps this will become a new holiday tradition for my family.

In the event you might like to try your hand at tamales, or are interested in seeing what’s involved, I’m including the recipes from the class (there’s a separate recipe for each component). These recipes will make approximately 5 dozen tamales.  If making tamales seems involved, it’s because it is — that’s why it’s fun to do it with several people.  The fillings below (Pork Guisado and/or Pollo Guisado) can be prepared a day or two in advance.  Note that Sylvia’s masa is different than that used in most tamales (and also tastier), because it’s flavored with a chile sauce — most consist of only masa and lard or vegetable shortening.

Recipe type: Sauce
  • 5 guajillo chiles (stems and seeds removed)
  • 2-1/4 cups water
  1. Place water and chiles in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool for approximately 15 minutes,
  2. Using a food processor or blender, blend all ingredients until smooth. Pour through a strainer to remove any solids.
  3. Set aside to add to masa.

Recipe type: Sauce
  • 15 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • 5 chile de arbol, stems removed
  • ½ of a large onion, quartered
  • 5 cups water
  • 4 cloves garlic
  1. Place chiles, onion, and water in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes. Set aside to cool for approximately 15 minutes.
  2. Using a food processor or blender, blend all ingredients until smooth. Pour through a strainer to remove any solids.
  3. Blend garlic with ¼ cup water and add to pureed chiles.
  4. Set aside for use in Pork Guisado.

Recipe type: Poultry
  • 1 whole chicken, approximately 3 pounds, cut into 8 pieces, skin removed
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 large tomato, cored, seeded, and diced
  • ½ cup tomato sauce
  1. Place the chicken, water, and salt in a large stockpot and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove the chicken from the pot and shred the chicken into small pieces. Reserve the broth.
  2. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the garlic, peppercorns, and cumin seeds.
  3. Combine the shredded chicken with the ground garlic and spices and add to the reserved broth. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to simmer. Add onion, bay leaf, tomatoes, and tomato sauce, and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool
  4. When cool, drain most of the liquid and discard bay leaves. Cover and refrigerate chicken until ready to use.

Recipe type: Porl
  • 7-1/2 pounds pork butt (approximate yield after trimming fat is 4-1/2 pounds)
  • 5 cups water
  • ½ large onion, quartered
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 1/-12 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  1. Trim excess fat from pork. Dice pork into ½-inch pieces.
  2. Place pork, water, onion, garlic, and salt in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until very tender, approximately 1-1/2 hours.
  3. Remove pork from pot and set aside in a large saute pan. Reserve pork stock for use in preparing masa.
  4. Add vegetable oil to pan and saute pork over medium heat until edges begin to brown.
  5. Cover and set aside to cool.
  6. To prepare Pork Guisado:
  7. Add Sauce for Pork Guisado to browned pork pieces. Add cumin, oregano, pepper, and salt to the mixture. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.
  8. Optional: When cool enough to handle, shred pork by hand, which will make it easier to use for tamale filling.

  • 14 cups Maseca Instant Corn Masa Flour
  • 2-1/2 pounds lard (or vegetable shortening or softened butter)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1-1/2 cups Chili Sauce for Masa
  • 3-1/2 cups water
  • 3-1/4 cups reserved pork stock
  1. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well.
  2. Combine lard (or vegetable shortening or butter), pork stock, Chile Sauce for Masa, and water in a large sauce pan. Heat over medium-high heat to melt the lard, using a whisk to combine all ingredients.
  3. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients in 2-3 batches.
  4. Mix all ingredients and knead (with your hands or using an electric mixer) until dough is well-blended and light. This will take 15-20 minutes of kneading.
  5. Cover and set aside until ready to use.

Recipe type: Main Course, Pork, Chicken
  • 1 bag corn husks that have been soaked for at least one hour (soak in 1 gallon warm water, and weight them down so that they are submerged)
  • Prepared masa
  • Pork Guisado or Pollo Guisado (or other desired filling)
  1. Using a spackle tool or small spatula, place a lump of masa in the center of a corn husk (a little larger than a walnut, smaller than a golf ball).
  2. With the spackle tool, spread the masa evenly almost to the edges of the husk. The husk is triangular (i.e., wide on one end, narrow on the other) -- the masa should be spread on the wide end, approximately 4 inches toward the narrow end.
  3. Place a few tablespoons of filling down the center of the masa.
  4. Fold the sides of the husk, one at a time, toward the center. They will overlap. Fold the pointed end of the husk up over the filled part. Place tamale in a container with the tail side down (to help keep it from opening up).
  5. Repeat with remaining husks.
  6. To cook the tamales, place them in a pot with a steamer rack. Add enough water to cover the rack. Tamales need to be steamed standing up, with the open end facing up. (You can place a small bowl in the center of the rack and arrange the tamales around it.)
  7. Cover the pot and cook over low heat for about 1-1/2 hours. Then turn off the heat and leave pot on burner for another 30 minutes.
  8. When tamales are cooked completely, the husk will peel easily from the masa.





The last time we were in San Antonio, we made two side trips to places in the Hill Country that we have long been itching to visit.  First up — a day trip to Fredericksburg.  Although I envisioned leisurely strolling among galleries and antique stores, perhaps sampling some German food, we wound up instead spending the better part of the day at the National Museum of the Pacific War.  Not exactly what I had in mind, but for history buffs like my husband, this museum is a must see.

We did, however, stop for lunch first at the Farm Haus Bistro at the Fredericksburg Herb Farm, a quaint retreat for a peaceful getaway.


Inside the restaurant, it was as if time stood still.  Literally.  The service was embarrassingly, unapologetically slow.  I got the feeling that the restaurant is more suited to “ladies who lunch” than impatient tourists.  And by “ladies who lunch,” I mean “ladies who lunch in elastic-waist pants.”  Among the highlights of the gut-busting lunch menu were a starter of fried macaroni and cheese:

IMG_3781An enormous slice of quiche loaded with bacon, mushrooms, and herbs suspended in a cheese custard:


And a grilled pepper jack cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg and smothered in pepper jack cream sauce:


In fairness, there were a few salads on the menu, like this Grilled Salmon Cobb Salad:


I think I just had the wrong expectations for this place, which I had dreamed about visiting for years.  The food was fine and the setting was pretty, if cliched.  Certainly not the first of my fantasies that didn’t pan out.

Our next side trip was to visit some of the barbecue joints on the Texas BBQ Trail.  The trail is made up of a dozen family-owned barbecue establishments in Elgin, Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor.  Most of these are decades old, some more than a century old.   We’d heard about them for ages, and were curious to see what they had to offer.

Our first stop on the trail, and our favorite, was City Market in Luling.


Follow the sign to the dungeon-like pit room to place your order:



No plates, just meat on butcher paper.  As is true pretty much everywhere in Texas, pickles, onions, and white bread are complimentary (a jalapeno, however, will usually cost you).  There were a few obligatory sides (beans, cole slaw, etc.), but seeing as we planned to visit several restaurants, we passed on those.


The wood-paneled dining area seems like it would be a great place to meet (meat?) men.


Next on our tour was Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, which is housed in a building where barbecue has been sold since the turn of the last century.


Enter the blackened pit room, which has been “seasoned for decades,” and place your order: IMG_3738Then head to the dining room with your meat on butcher paper and make some new friends:


Incidentally, Lockhart is home to the Caldwell County Courthouse, a beautiful Texas courthouse, built in 1894.


Our last stop (we learned you can only eat so much barbecue in a day), was Kreuz Market in Lockhart, which started out in 1900 as a meat market.


The fire was going strong:

IMG_3742We dined on meat and sausage on butcher paper, and this time sprung for a side of green beans:


The dining room was big and bright, pine-paneled, of course:


Of the three barbecue restaurants we tried, this one was our least favorite — probably because there was no barbecue sauce — but don’t tell him:


So how was the Hill Country barbecue?  Our take on each place was pretty much the same:  smoky, chewy, salty meat.  On butcher paper.  Messy fingers.  Smoke-scented clothing.  Great guy food.  As we waited in line in each of the smoky, blackened pit rooms, I couldn’t help but wonder “Where is OSHA?”  Barbecue aficionados will go on about the smoke ring, the texture of the sausage and the crispness of its casing, the fat cap and moistness of the brisket, but it all kind of blurred together for us.  What we all agreed on, however, is that none of the restaurants beat our favorite Houston barbecue restaurant, Luling City Market.

Luling City Market,  located at 4726 Richmond Avenue, has been around a little over 30 years.


The interior is pretty basic, with a bar that sees a fair amount of action.

IMG_4349There’s a jackalope mounted on the wall, which after all these years in Texas, still makes me laugh:


Queue up, order a side or two, and then select your meat:



We always ask for lean brisket:


Don’t worry — it’s still served on butcher paper for an authentic Texas barbecue experience.


Pehaps our favorite thing about Luling City Market is this:


This mustard-based barbecue sauce is spicy, vinegary, perfect.


The sauce is available for purchase, and we usually have a bottle at home.


Recently, I found a recipe for Luling City Market BBQ Sauce on the interwebs, supposedly from City Market in Luling, which is where this restaurant sort of has its origins (purportedly, back in 1981, the owners enticed a City Market employee to come to the big city and be the pit boss, and he also brought the recipe for the barbecue sauce).  Having tasted both side-by-side, I can affirm that the recipe below is really, really close in taste to the original.  It’s a snap to make, and as an added bonus, it requires no cooking.

  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 5 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup yellow mustard
  • 3 tablespoons Louisiana hot sauce
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.
  1. Place all ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk together until completely combined. Do not cook.

IMG_4494The homemade version is on the left

Luling City Market Real Texas Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

The Farm Haus Bistro on Urbanspoon