Cooking With Myra: Learning new skills in kitchen worth mess

Jan. 3, 2011 at midnight
Updated Jan. 3, 2011 at 7:04 p.m.

Basic Tamale

Basic Tamale

By Myra Starkey

I am in a cookbook club with a group of women who love to cook. Every month or two, we get together and take turns selecting a cookbook from which we try new recipes. Jerra selected the new Rick Bayless cookbook, "Fiesta at Rick's." I was perusing the pages when I came across some great tamale recipes.

I've had some tasty tamales over the years, both the traditional Mexican kind and even some unusual gourmet ones. I have just never made a tamale from scratch, and in fact, most people who I know make them, did not learn how out of a cookbook, but rather had that skill passed from their mother orabuela (grandmother). In my kitchen, armed with a cookbook and the necessary ingredients, I can usually accomplish anything I set my mind to, and I hoped a tamale would not be the exception.

I happened to be in Corpus Christi, so I sought out a Mexican grocery store in hopes that I could ask a few questions, purchase the supplies and start the process when I got home. The clerk was helpful, but only spoke Spanish, so I had to show her a picture and she eagerly helped me fill my basket with ingredients.

I selected last Sunday to mess up every horizontal surface in my kitchen including the chairs. Each surface contained some part of the process, though not necessarily in chronological order. I figured I was dressed appropriately in jeans, a white T-shirt and double aprons. I had divided all the ingredients into small bowls hoping that my organization would make the process easier. I called a friend in the middle of tamale madness hoping for some tips, and she said that you need at least three people to make tamales. I wish I would have had that information before I mixed up the masa, which is the corn flour that makes up the outer part of the tamale. The masa that I bought is very thick and requires being thinned to a lighter texture before it can be smeared onto the cornhusks. I discovered that you have to cover the mixer as you add the chicken stock because if you fail to do this, the masa globs may exit the mixer and get on the cabinets, floor and in your hair.

The first batch was a little messy with the masa spilling out of the corn husks, but by the next dozen, I was starting to get the hang of it. I started out making the roasted pork tamales from the cookbook, but I soon ventured into unknown territory and created a poblano crawfish tamale, which was excellent. I had two butternut squash and decided to make squash tamales with Monterrey jack cheese, and then went on to chicken with chipotle seasoning and then pork with orange colored achiote spice. I think that a creative cook could mix up all sorts of fillings for the core of a tamale.

My white T-shirt did not fare so well. Apparently, despite my best efforts to keep the shirt stain free, I was splattered with masa and achiote along with butternut squash. The preparation continued. I tried several techniques of tying one end of the cornhusk shell and leaving the ends open. I forgot to fill the steamer with water and had to run to the stove when the pot started to smoke. The crawfish tamales had a smoky taste, which I told my family was intentional.

I called over my neighbor Susan and asked her to try one of them. Other than being too hot for her taste, she was surprised this Louisiana girl could make a tamale. When my boys arrived home, they were skeptical, as well.

Spencer looked around the kitchen at the major mess I was making and asked why I didn't just spend the six dollars a dozen to purchase them.

I told him that you can't just buy crawfish tamales. My house smells like a Mexican cocina (kitchen), and I am so proud of my new talent.

As everyone was eating the tamales, they were coming up with more variations I could try next time.

Mastering a talent in the kitchen can give you cooking confidence. You may have to try a new technique several times, but you will get it right.

Whether you are making souffles or tamales, have fun and invite friends and family to join in. I am including a basic tamale recipe.

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or e-mail



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