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Recipe adapted from Zarela Martinez, The Food and Life of Oaxaca (Macmillan 1998) -
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People in different parts of Mexico place tamales as an offering on their altars for the Days of the Dead. There is not one specific kind that is traditional. Rather, cooks usually make their own region's specialty.

María Concepción Portillo de Carballido, the well-known Oaxacan cooking teacher, introduced me to these pumpkin-enriched tamales from the neighborhood of Miahuatlán in the Sierra Madre de Sur. I included an adapted version of the recipe in my first book, but it is so good that it bears repeating - especially since the anise-scented, fresh hoja santa leaves are now becoming more available in the U.S. In the first version I wrapped the tamales in banana leaves to contribute a little extra fragrance. Now that I can put hoja santa into the filling, I follow Doña Concepción in using corn husks as wrappers.

If unable to obtain fresh hoja santa, either crumble the contents of two 1/4-ounce packages of dried hoja santa and sprinkle about 1 teaspoon over the filling of each tamal, or make an anise infusion (starting with 2 teaspoons aniseed and 2 cups boiling water) and add to the beans while puréeing, in place of the water. I use home-cooked beans, but this is a case where canned beans would be acceptable.

Yield: 16-20 tamales, 8-10 servings as a first course or light dinner entrée
  • 16-20 large dried cornhusks
  • One 1-inch piece canela (see Editor's Note)
  • 1½ pounds (about 3 cups) coarse-ground fresh masa, reconstituted masa made by mixing 2¾ cups masa harina with about 1¾ cups chicken stock (see Editor's Note)
  • 8-9 ounces (about 1 generous cup) lard
  • 2 cups cooked or canned puréed pumpkin or winter squash (drain if very watery)
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 dried Oaxacan pasilla chiles or dried chipotle chiles, stems and tops removed
  • 2-2½ cups black beans, or drained canned black beans
  • 6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 7 large fresh hoja santa leaves, or two ¼-ounce packages dried hoja santa (see Editor's Note)
  • Salt to taste


A steamer: Tamale steamers are available at Mexican or Latino markets. If you are unable to find this type of steamer, any steamer can be used just as long as the part holding the tamales is placed near the concentration of steam.

Place the cornhusks in a deep bowl. Cover well with hot water, and let soak for about 30 minutes.

Grind the canela in an electric coffee or spice grinder. Set aside.

Set aside about 2-3 tablespoons of the lard. In a mixing bowl, combine the remaining lard, the masa and salt to taste. When the mixture is smooth and silky, beat in the pumpkin purée a little at a time, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the ground canela, grated panela and salt to taste. Set aside while you make the bean filling.

Place the Oaxacan pasilla or dried chipotle chiles in a bowl, cover generously with boiling water, and let soak for 10 minutes. (It is not necessary to soak canned chipotles.) Drain well. Working in batches as necessary, purée the beans in a blender together with the chiles, garlic and about 1 cup of water (or enough to facilitate blending. Alternatively, purée in a food processor, reducing the water to 1/2 cup.) In a large, heavy skillet or wide saucepan, heat the remaining lard over high heat until rippling. Add the bean mixture watching out for splatters. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, stirring to prevent sticking, until most of the liquid is evaporated, about 5-7 minutes. Season to taste.

Cut or tear the hoja santa leaves into 16-20 equal-sized pieces. Drain the cornhusks and pat dry. Spread about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the masa mixture across the wide end of each husk and top with about 1½-2 tablespoons of the bean mixture. Top with a piece of hoja santa. Fold and steam the tamales and cook for about 45 minutes. Serve.

Editor's Note: Mexican seasonings like masa harina, epazote and achiote are available at Mexican and Latino markets. Also, check out The CMC Company, purveyors of Mexican seasonings and spices:

The CMC Company
PO Box 322
Avalon, NJ 08202
Tel: (1-800) CMC-2780
Fax: (609) 861-3065

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