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One Latina defies critics and creates Lazy Girl Tamales

By Darlene Tenes

Okay, let’s talk about those Lazy Girl tamales. Many of you saw the article in the Mercury News that had a picture of my mom, sister and I making tamales entitled The ‘Lazy Girl’s Tamales’ mess with Latino tradition, which isn’t all that traditional, anyway.. Yes, I thought it was a bit of a long title as well, with possible grammatical errors and perhaps confusing. Nonetheless it talks about my Lazy Girl tamales which has caused some controversy. I’ll get back to that later.

Celeste Oda (l) joins her mother, Lily Tenes (center) and sister, Darlene Tenes in making tamales at their San Jose, Calif. home as part of a Christmas family tradition on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. Darlene creates a tamale she calls the "Lazy Girl's Tamale" because it only takes her a couple hours to cook. (Gary Reyes/ Mercury News)

After hosting 6 tamale workshops and plowing through over 100 different tamale entries for the Best Darn Tamale contest I think I’ve just about had my fill of tamales. The one thing I forget and then am quickly reminded of each year is how touchy people are about these little wrapped wonders. So let me get some things off my chest.

Mama’s Tamales
Every year we have a new batch of judges that taste the preliminary tamales and narrow it down to the top 25 to be judged on the show. Every year I tell them to keep an open mind when tasting and repeatedly say “These are not gonna taste like your mama’s tamales, because they’re not your mama’s tamales, they’re somebody else’s mama’s tamales.” And somebody else’s mama may be something other than Mexican such as Guatemalan, Salvadorian, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Cajun, a mixture of the above or just a really inventive cook. Oh and let’s not forget Texans (who think they are their own country) where everything may be big except their dinky tamales. Which leads me to…

Traditional Tamale
Time and again I hear the traditionalist say they only like “real tamales” made from pork, chicken or cheese. They can’t stand to see these new gourmet tamales filled with strange ingredients such as lobster, Portobello mushrooms, goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, coconut, pumpkin and chocolate. “That’s not a tamale!” they bellow. Well the fact is prior to the Spaniards arriving in the 15th century with chickens, pigs and cows they were most likely filled with what was native fare at that time such as iguana, snakes, guinea pigs, crickets and worms. Since tamales are estimated to be invented in 7000-5000 BC it was quite some time before so-called “traditional” tamales came about. I am sure those Aztecs, Incans and Mayans were not too happy when some crazy cook decided to slip some cooked pork in the family’s tamales. Shipping took its time and toll on many food items but with the invention of planes, trains, and automobiles, people began trading, sharing and bringing their favorite foods along with them for the ride. Cooks were bound to get inventive and next thing you know they are calling themselves chefs. The blasphemy of it all. Get me a guinea pig tamale now!

Tamal or Tamale?
Oh dear Lord I do not know why people spend any effort whatsoever arguing about this, but they do. One tamale in Spanish is a tamal, two or more are tamales. In English, one is a tamale, two or more are tamales. If you wish to write in English and use the Spanish words, italicize them. Of course next time you are speaking in Nahuatl you should use the correct word which is tamalli. The safest thing to do is just stick with ‘tamales’ because really does anyone eat or make just one? The smartest person in the room will just start eating and let the others discuss it into oblivion.

Here’s what to ask for to get a tamale when visiting other countries or regions:
Argentina – Humita
Bolivia – Humita
Caribbean – Conkies
Columbia – Bollo
Cuba – Tamal
Ecuador – Humita
Guatemala – Paches and Chucitos
Mexico – Tamal
Mexico (Michoacan) – Corunda
Mexico (Chiapas, Oaxaca,Veracruz) – Zacahuil
Nicaragua – Nacatamal
Peru – Humita
Philippines – Tamal
South & Central America – Tamal
United States (Cherokee) – Bean bread or Broadswords
United States (Mississippi & Lousiana) – Tamale
Venezuela – Hallaca or Bollo

Tamale Timetable
Tamales are not really difficult to make just very time-consuming. This is usually a two day affair. Day 1 – Get all your grocery shopping done, gather up everything you need for the next day and cook the meat. If you are having a crowd over, set up the tables and get your knife/spreaders and bowls out. Day 2 – Make the chili, prepare the masa, spice up the meat and start spreading. Finally, steam and eat. Just remember the masa is just as important as the filling and the filling is just as important as the masa.

The most important part of tamale making is spending time with your family and friends during the holidays. We were fortunate enough to have our Sanchez Family tamale tradition taped by CBS Early Show and they did a great job of capturing our family’s tamalada. We will cherish this video forever. Which is why, when the article came out about “Lazy Girl tamales” I was lambasted by some who articulated that I was a “white girl” bastardizing a long honored tradition, who knew nothing about tamales and was probably only used to eating frozen dinners. The reporter, Joe Rodriguez warned me to ignore “crazy internet people.” I found it all quite amusing since they had no clue about me or how the whole Lazy Girl tamale came about.

Lazy Girl Tamales
Okay here it is, the secret to Lazy Girl tamales. Have a reporter call you up and tell you that you have two hours max to prepare tamales. I said, “Are you kidding me? It takes two days!” His reply, “Well you got two hours.” My mother didn’t think it could be done. So I took the challenge and with a battle cry exclaimed, “I can do it! I’ll do in two hours what it takes two days to do. Then matter-of-factly proclaimed “but they are gonna be lazy girl tamales.” This meant, I needed to buy as many prepared items as possible, while still keeping it fresh. Following is really more of an itinerary then a recipe.

Go to a Mexican grocery store to buy a cooked rotisserie chicken, cooked carnitas, prepared fresh masa, salsa fresca, green and red salsa from the deli, Cholula hot sauce, corn husks, fresh veggies, Mexican cheeses (Manchego, Oaxaca & Panela) and chicken stock. Being overly ambitious besides making chicken, pork and cheese tamales I also made some Chocolate Raspberry Tamales so I picked up Abuelita instant chocolate mix, chocolate chips and raspberry preserves.

Heat up a tea kettle full of water. Broil Poblano peppers in oven. (To speed it up even more you can buy the canned roasted peppers.)

Get the pre-made fresh masa and doctor it up by adding a little hot sauce or salsa, some chicken stock and keep adding lard and whipping it until it floats. Yep, until that little ball of masa floats in a glass of water it doesn’t get spread on the husks. I used Cholula chipotle sauce in my masa for the carnitas and green salsa in the masa for the chicken tamales.

Place corn husks in a large metal stock pot. Pour the hot water over them to completely cover them and let soak for 15 minutes. This is quicker than letting them soak overnight. Remove your peppers from oven place in a plastic container or baggie to steam for a minute. This will help you to remove the blackened skin more easily. Cut open and remove the seeds and vein to help reduce the heat. Slice in strips.

Place the drained salsa fresca in a frying pan with a little oil or lard to cook. This is a great quick trick to do because it already has onions, cilantro, tomatoes, jalapeno and garlic to spice up your meat in a hurry. You don’t have to do this but I also added diced and roasted red, green & yellow bell peppers which I had pre-cooked. Split the salsa mix into two pans and add the chicken to one and the pork to the other. Add some stock to keep the meats moist.

Drain the corn husks. Set up your table with bowls of masa, corn husks, meats, roasted chile strips and cheeses. Spread the masa onto the husks, place filling in the middle section and roll.

Place in stock pot with steaming rack on the bottom and cook on stove for approximately 45 minutes. Ta Dah!

Apparently the reporter, photographer and copy editor just loved the way “Lazy Girl tamales” rolls off the tongue and decided it needed to be in the title of the story.

My sister Celeste summed it up as she was helping to spread and roll the tamales, “This doesn’t seem very lazy to me, it’s still a lot of work!”

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