When I lived in Mexico, my host family tried to fatten me up with breakfast tamales, eggs, and sugary Abuelita hot chocolate. I first fell in love with tamales there because the leisurely meals let me discuss current events in Spanish while making fun of my fellow American exchange student, who answered every question with a monosyllable si. Later, I would learn how to make tamales for Christmas Eve with my father-in-law. The tamales taste even better the next morning, with coffee. In San Francisco, where I live, the best tamales can be found at La Palma Mexicatessen. It’s the only spot in the Bay Area that grinds fresh masa in house from GMO-free corn—a fact I learned from Theresa “Terry” Pasion, one of La Palma’s owners. The shop has a huge multi-ton grinder, and a ginormous truck delivers tons of corn every two to three weeks.
My go-to order at La Palma is two dozen chicken and pork tamales. Holding the warm bag makes me ravenous and guarantees that my next three meals will be amazing. La Palma uses fresh masa with white corn, blue corn, and cactus, as well as sweet masa in strawberry and cinnamon flavors. The prepared foods they make from this masa include tortillas, sopes, huaraches, gorditas, and tamales. For filling, there’s also carnitas, chicharron, chile Colorado, chicken, and salsas. Sadly, guacamole and avocado salsa are both off the menu these days.
I set out to learn how to make La Palma’s chile verde tamale, which is a bestseller. La Palma is always busy, and the staff is so adept at keeping a rapid pace that we had to get them to slow down for our questions, which led to laughs from the crew. Pasion’s sister and La Palma co-owner, Ida Ibarra, told me that they make ten to 12 dozen tamales a day, and as many as 40 dozen leading up to Christmas. On those days, Terry said, “We pray we have enough.”
Fresh Masa Tamales
Lay out a corn husk flat on the counter.
Using large spoon or measuring cup, scoop ¼ cup of the fresh masa and place it in the middle of the corn husk.
Scoop a scant ¼ cup of meat on top of the fresh masa.
Fold and seal the corn husk on both sides and at the bottom. The husk works as an envelope to hold the ingredients together during cooking.
Roll a second husk around the tamale. This is especially important if you have put too much filling inside and will help avoid spillage during cooking.
Place the rolled tamales on a platter and continue until you have used the fresh masa and meat.
Fill pot with 1 to 2 inches of water until it is just below the steam holes (or basket). The water should not touch the tamales. Make sure there is water in the pot throughout cooking.
Place the tamales lengthwise (like dominoes) on the steam hole (or basket) so that the bottom end of each tamale is on the bottom.
Place a lid (or aluminum foil) securely on the pot. Steam by simmering over a low flame for 1 hour and 30 minutes (for smaller pots) to 2 hours.
The tamales are ready when you pull the corn husk. If the corn masa is sticks to the husk, they are done.
Unwrap two tamales and place on a dinner plate with sour cream and salsa. If there is extra sauce from your meat, ladle some on top of the tamales.
1 pound fresh masa
1 pound meat filling (braised meat of choice)
30 corn husks
Water for steaming (enough to fill the bottom of your tamale pot by ½ inch)
Salsa and sour cream for garnish
¼ measuring cup
Tamale pot or large pot with lid. If using a large pot, a steam basket (or clay plate, lid, or other hack) is needed to stack the tamales at the bottom.