Tamales Made Easy, with the Pope

Who doesn’t love tamales?  I have fond holiday memories of hilarious Latino family gatherings where the purported purpose was to assemble a huge quantity of tamales.  When many hands are involved, it moves it from dull, repetitive work to a gregarious social occasion.  Of course, there’s the added benefit of a boatload of tamales for sampling and perhaps a stash for later home indulgence.

I’m a little put off by making tamales at home for a couple of reasons:  1) locating a supply of corn husks or other large leaves for the wrappers requires advance planning, and  2) the health consequences of the hefty amount of lard in the masa dough is problematic.

All of that changed when I considered Rebecca Wood’s recipe for Bolivian tamales in her inventive cookbook The Splendid Grain. Instead of using heavy fat laden corn masa, humitas begin with a brightly flavored combination of quinoa and red potatoes lightly bound with butter, garlic and chile powder.  This is not a bland dough that relies on a highly seasoned meat filling.  The simple filling is a fascinating blend of sauteed zucchini and onion, with black olives and toasted walnuts. Tamales 2 No question, humitas are an international taste event with plenty of zest and texture.

Once committed, I divided the work into a series of tasks easily accomplished over a couple of days.  Ahead of time I gathered corn husks from the Latino section of my local bulk market and while there I picked up more quinoa and a small supply of fresh walnuts.  At my neighborhood market I headed to the olive bar, happily sampled away, and selected my pitted olives. A day ahead I cooked the quinoa, toasted the nuts, found my steamer insert, and reviewed the art of tamale making.

husksIt is an art, if you don’t make tamales regularly.  Rebecca suggests soaking the dried husks overnight in cold water or in hot water for 1 hour.  I found that my husks softened nicely in hot water within 30 minutes. Ahead, I also ripped up plenty of long narrow husk strips for wrapping ties.

I put media coverage of the Pope’s visit on the TV and went to town.   Both the quinoa dough and the zucchini filling assembled easily, which left plenty of time to develop a tamale assembly process.

While crowds cheered, choirs sang, and the Pope kissed babies I made tamales. I spread a vertical rectangle of dough onto the flat husk from one side edge across to leave a 1″ border  on the other edge, and allowed a 2-3” border top and bottom. (I had scissors on hand to cut away excess husk.)  I spread a heaping spoonful of the filling in the center of the dough. To wrap it up, I carefully folded one side over the filling to the opposite side, overlapping the 1” border.  The top and bottom edges fold over one another, and the strip wraps around and ties in front to hold it all in place.  In my recollection, this was far easier than any of my previous tamales encounters. Go figure. I ended up with 16 or so 2×3” blessed tamales.

It seems most tamales steam for hours.  In this case, there is no masa cooking or heavy meat filling to contend with; everything is pre-cooked.  Miraculously, humitas need only steam to combine the flavors, about 45 minutes. Tamales While that happened, I cleaned up and had time to make a companion bean dish as well as fresh salsa. To my surprise, salsa was all that was really needed to complement the tamale.  The rest is just frills.

Bolivian Tamales

From Rebecca Wood’s The Splendid Grain, humitas are a Bolivian specialty similar to tamales, but lighter.

1    pkg  dried corn husks (6-8 oz.)
Quinoa Dough
1    cup quinoa, cooked
3    medium  red potatoes, peel, quarter
6    Tbsps  butter, divided
1    clove  garlic, minced
2    Tbsps  chile powder, or to taste, divided
sea salt and ground pepper
1    sm  onion, diced
2    sm  zucchini, chopped
1/4  cup  walnuts, toasted
1/2  cup black olives, pitted, chopped


  1. To prepare quinoa, rinse 1 cup quinoa, place in small pot with 3 cups salted water and bring to a boil. Cover with lid and simmer for 20 minutes, until tiny tails sprout on the quinoa.  Remove from heat and let stand briefly to absorb moisture.  Drain any excess liquid if necessary.
  2. Soak the husks in hot water 30-60 minutes. Drain and remove any remaining corn silk.
  3. For dough:  simmer the potatoes for 20 minutes, or until tender.  Drain well.  Stir in 5 tbsp. of butter, the garlic, 1 tbsp chile powder, salt and pepper. Mash until creamy.  Add the quinoa and stir to combine. Set aside.
  4. For filling: Heat the remaining butter in medium sauté pan, add the chile powder and cook 1 minute, until aromatic.  Add the onion and zucchini, sauté 5 minutes, until soft.  Add the walnuts and black olives and set aside.
  5. To assemble: Take a large husk or overlap 2 smaller ones.  Place about 2 tbsp of quinoa mixture on the husk and shape into a rectangle leaving at least 1 inch on one side and 2-3 inches at the top and bottom ends of the husk.  Bring the quinoa mixture close to the edge of the husk on the fourth side. Place the zucchini filling in the middle of the quinoa mixture.  Fold 1 side of the husk over the quinoa and filling to the opposite side, overlapping the 1 inch border.  Fold in the ends of the husk and turn the tamale over to hold the husks in place.  Tie with long narrow strips of corn husk.
  6. Steam for 30-45 minutes in a covered pot.  Serve hot or room temperature.  To reheat, steam for 5-7 minutes over boiling water. Makes 16-18 tamales.

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