How To Make Handmade Tamales: From the Kitchens at Handley Cellars

For Handley Cellars first-ever vintage of Orange Muscat, we decided that the best way to showcase this fun, fruity, and very summery varietal was to pair it with something spicy to complement the slightly sweet elements of the wine, and something savory and unctuous to offer an excellent contrast to the wine’s floral notes. What better way to do so than with Handmade Pork Tamales with Salsa Verde? It seemed an excellent pairing that would also honor the Mexican heritage of our multi-talented Cellar Master Efrain Garcia, who spearheaded the wine making project for this first bottling.


A little bit about Orange Muscat: The Muscat grape family is comprised of hundreds of varieties, ranging in flavor and color (from white to almost black). It is one of the oldest grape varieties known to man, with limited yields and highly concentrated flavors that are perfumy and “musky.” Orange Muscat is a sub-variety of Muscat, which can be made in a wide range of styles from dry, to sparkling, to intensely sweet dessert wines. (Thanks to our winemakers and The New Wine Lover’s Companion for the wine education piece of this segment). Handley Cellars 2013 Orange Muscat, Mendocino County has powerful floral aromas of – what’s in a name? – orange and orange blossom, with hints of kumquat and allspice. While the nose suggests that it will be quite sweet, the actual impression on the palate is that it is slightly drier than you might expect. This bottling of Orange Muscat has 1.2% residual sugar, which puts it in the “off-dry” (or semi-sweet) category. In the mouth, there are flavors of white peach, honeydew melon, and a touch of orange blossom honey, which contribute to the fullness on the palate.

All of these glorious elements come together beautifully as an accompaniment to these delicious, perfectly spiced tamales. Yes, Alsace meets Mexico: who knew? It was a beautiful marriage of cross-cultural cuisine and flavors.


(For a printable version of this recipe, you can find it here on our Wine & Food page, or read below to join us for a more detailed account of the adventure, with more colorful photos!)

Although making tamales may sound like a time-consuming and intimidating process (we were right there thinking the very same thing, but fear not…) Erin, our resident Tamale Expert, showed us that it’s not nearly as complicated, nor as difficult as we feared (phew!) and it made for a fun group activity. (Travis and Lisa joined Erin in the kitchen with aprons and willing hands. Naomi documented the proceedings)

Ok, yes, we won’t deny this part: it IS a somewhat involved process, but many hands make light work, and we promise the end result is completely worth the effort. Also, since these are so tasty, you won’t mind having taken the time to make a large batch after you take your first bite. While they are an excellent party food, for the most obvious reason that this recipe makes enough to feed a crowd, they are also delicious and you’re bound to impress your friends with the fact that you put forth the effort to make them by hand. As an added bonus, tamales are naturally gluten-free, which pleased many of our wheat sensitive co-workers and guests.

We know from experience that if you are cooking for just yourself and your family, they won’t last long either, no matter how many you make, because they’re just that irresistible. In short, we’re certain you’ll be glad you made them in volume. Just in case they don’t get scarfed immediately after they come out of the pot, they do make for a perfect meal to freeze for later, so you can have your own stash of home-made convenience meals.

To begin, gather your ingredients. Your local Mexican market or the International aisle at your local grocery store should have some of the potentially harder-to-find ingredients:

  • 5-8 pound Pork Shoulder
  • 1/4 cup Kosher salt (we buy the big boxes from Diamond Crystal)
  • 8-10 cloves Garlic (1-2 bulbs should suffice)
  • 2 medium Yellow Onion, chopped
  • 4 Tbs Chili Guajillo
  • 8 dried Ancho Chilis
  • 4 Tbsp ground Cumin
  • 4 Tbsp Mexican Oregano (our favorite is by Rancho Gordo. We also love their Oregano Indio, which has an earthier, milder flavor. Delicious! You can use both, if you like)
  • 2 Tbsp Handley Seasoning Blend
  • 6 lbs. Tamale Masa (Follow directions on package) We used MASECA brand Tamal Masa
  • 2 cups rendered pork fat
  • 2 – 16 oz. packages dried Corn Husks
  • Heavy bottom pot for steaming
  • 1 large mixing bowl
  • 2 medium sized heatproof mixing bowls
  • Chef’s knife
  • Food-safe gloves (Optional)*

To make the Pork tamales, begin by de-seeding the chilies. Remove the stem and pull the seeds out with your fingers. *If you are bothered by the capsaicin, responsible for the heat in chilies, we recommend wearing the food-safe gloves while handling the chili peppers. Rinse the chilies and place in a sauce pan with enough cold water just to cover.  Bring to a simmer until the chilies are reconstituted and remove from heat. Allow to stand while you move onto the next step. Reserve the water.

Next, peel the garlic and smash. Remove the skin from and roughly chop your onions. Place the garlic, onions, chillies, oregano, cumin, and salt in a blender or food processor with just enough chili water to puree. You can eyeball this – you want just enough to make a thick sauce, so only add a little liquid at a time. Blend until smooth. Pour through a mesh strainer to remove seeds and skins.

Cut the pork shoulder into two inch chunks; don’t remove the fat. In a slow cooker, layer the meat and sauce from the previous step. Don’t overfill the slow-cooker! It will bubble over as it cooks and create a hot mess. You may need an additional slow-cooker (why not borrow one from a friend?) to accommodate all of the meat and sauce. Cook on the Low setting overnight.

The next day, remove the meat chunks from the slow cooker using a slotted spoon and allow to sit until cool enough to handle. Pull apart to shred the pork and mix it with enough sauce so it is moist, but not soggy. Pour the remaining sauce into a container and refrigerate. Later, carefully spoon off the coagulated fat (or fat cap) and reheat this to use for garnishing the tamales (or other Mexican delectables!)

Clean the corn husks by rinsing under warm water, making sure to remove any leftover dried corn silk. Soak in warm water while preparing the Masa. The husks must be pliable in order to keep from tearing during assembly. Prepare the Masa, as per the instructions on the package, using the rendered pork fat in place of the margarine. Remove the pork from its cooking liquid and reserve the liquid. Shred the pork and place in a bowl for tamale assembly. Once the corn husks are pliable, drain and discard the soaking water.


Roll a piece of Masa – gently – into a one inch ball. Set aside. Take one softened corn husk in your hand, with the wide end toward the tips of your fingers.


Place the ball of Masa in the upper middle of the corn husk and spread with your fingers, leaving space on either edge of the husk for rolling.

MakingTamale_LargePlace meat down the center of the masa. Roll from right to left in your hand until the masa meets and the husk has overlapped. Fold bottom end of husk upward. Place in steamer, standing, with open end facing upward. PlacingTamale_Large

Continue to place tamales in steamer, making layers if needed.


Repeat, repeat, repeat until you’ve run out of either masa or meat!


Steam, covered, over medium heat for one and a half hours. Check the steamer semi-regularly to ensure that the water does not run dry, adding as needed. To test for doneness, open a tamale and if the Masa peels cleanly from the husk, they are ready.

Meanwhile, as the Tamales are steaming, you can make the  Salsa Verde.


Gather your Salsa Verde ingredients:

  • 12 large Tomatillos
  • 1 large Yellow Onion, pealed and quartered
  • 6-8 cloves of Garlic, peeled
  • 8 fresh Pasilla peppers
  • 1 cup Chicken or Veggie stock (Optional: you may not need this)
  • One medium sized cookie sheet or half-sheet pan
  • A blender, food processor, or immersion blender

Heat oven to 450 F. Remove the papery jackets from the tomatillos and rinse. Rinse the peppers, as well. Place on a baking sheet with the onion and garlic. Roast until the peppers char and the tomatillos burst. Remove from oven.

Place the peppers in a heat resistant bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let steam for 10-15 minutes , as this will help to loosen the skins.

To remove the skins, gently pull from the pepper flesh and open the peppers to expose the seeds. Remove the seeds by wiping them out with your fingers. (Again, use food-safe gloves if you are sensitive to capsaicin, although Pasilla peppers are usually quite mild). Place the cleaned peppers in a blender or food processor. Add the tomatillos, onion, garlic and skinless, seedless peppers. Blend to a thick consistency. You do not want your salsa verde to be runny. Pour in a small amount of stock, if needed for thinning.



Congratulations! You are now a bona fide Tamale Maker, or dare we say expert?

Serve your friends and yourself. Enjoy with the Salsa verde and a cool, refreshing glass of Handley Cellars 2013 Orange Muscat. Cheers!


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