Titillating Tamales

As you may have noticed, my blog tends to feature recipes inspired by Mexican and/or southwest cuisine. My partiality toward these flavors can be attributed to my growing up in Colorado, where these dishes were a staple of my childhood.  In addition to frequenting the many excellent and local Mexican restaurants, I was regularly invited to enjoy home cooked meals with my Hispanic friends and their families over the years. These meals would include everything from Menudo and Pozolé to more mainstream nosh such as tacos, burritos and enchiladas.

But today we are going to talk about Tamales! I always think about Tamales during the holidays. In modern-day Mexico, Tamales are eaten during festivities, such as Christmas, the Day of the Dead and Mexican Independence Day. So this Christmas, I promised my family I’d make homemade tamales for Christmas Eve dinner. No pressure, right?

So….What is a Tamale exactly?

I’m so glad you asked!

In Mexico, tamales begin with dough made of masa mix, such as Maseca, and lard or vegetable shortening (I use Crisco). Tamales are generally wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves before being steamed, depending on the region from which they come. They usually have a sweet or savory filling and are steamed until firm. Tamales can be made a day or two in advance if you are entertaining, or if you are making a big batch to keep on hand, they hold up well in the freezer.

I’ve made tamales once before- a few years back- and remember them turning out ok. So I decided it was time to try again. I think enough time had passed since I last made tamales that my brain forgot just how time consuming and tedious the process can be. Not that it’s an entirely fair comparison, but this “tamale amnesia” can likely be attributed to the same mechanism in the brain that is able to help a mother forget the trauma of childbirth, thus enabling her to birth even more children. And so I birthed more Tamales. For Christmas, I chose to make pork Tamales in a red chile sauce, but the pork can be substituted for chicken or veggies if you’re so inclined.

Ingredients (makes 24 Tamales):

There are three main components to my pork tamales:

  1. The Pork
    • 2 ½- 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder
    • Kosher salt
    • 1 onion, quartered
    • 4 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
    • 2 teaspoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
    • 2 bay leaves
    • 12 black peppercorns
  1. The Chile Sauce
    • 2-3 dried Ancho chiles
    • 2-3 cloves fresh garlic
    • 1 Tsp. ground cumin
    • 2 cups water (stock saved from boiling the Ancho Chiles or the reserved pork liquid)
    • 2 Tbsp. vegetable shortening
    • 2 Tbsp. salt
  1. The Dough
    • 1 cup solid vegetable shortening
    • 1 Tbs. kosher salt
    • 2 tsp. baking powder
    • 3 ½ cups masa harina for tamales with 2 ¼ cups warm water or more as needed
    • 2 Tbs. dried Mexican oregano
    • 1 Tbs. dried thyme
    • Zest of 1 lime
    • 24 dried corn husks

Make the filling:

Put the pork in a deep saucepan and cover with cold water (about 6 cups). Add 2 teaspoons salt, the onion, thyme, oregano, bay leaves and peppercorns; cover and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the pork is tender, 1 hour, 30 minutes to 2 hours. Transfer the pork to a plate and shred. Strain and reserve the cooking liquid; keep warm.

In a large saucepan, boil the ancho chiles for about 15 minutes or until softened. Drain the chiles and reserve the water. Rinse the seeds out of the boiled chiles. Put the chiles, garlic and cumin in a blender and blend well. Add the 2 cups of reserved water. In a heavy, large-size saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening over medium high heat. Add the drained chile puree very carefully because it will splatter. Reduce the heat to low. Cook over low heat for about 10-15 minutes. Take sauce off the heat. Combine the pork with the chile sauce.

Meanwhile, soak the corn husks in a bowl of hot water, using a plate to keep them submerged, until pliable, at least 1 hour.

Make the dough:

Place the masa in a large mixing bowl. Pour water and add the baking powder over the masa evenly. Add salt and begin mixing the masa with your hands. Add the shortening and the thyme, oregano and lime zest. Knead the masa once more. masa is ready when it starts to feel thick and compact. The dough should not be too dry or crumbly.

Tamale assembly:

Before you roll up your sleeves and get to work, pour yourself a big glass of wine, enlist the help of an amigo or two and crank up your favorite Spotify play list. You’ll need some good jams and conversation to get you through the lengthy tamale assembly process! Drain the husks well; pat dry with paper towels. For each tamale spread about 2 tablespoons of the masa mixture on each corn husk. You do not want to make the masa too thick. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the pork filling lengthwise down the center. Fold husk and secure with strips of corn husk. Place the tamales standing up inside the steamer pot.

Steam the tamales:

At this point, the tamales are ready to be steamed. Use a stock pot with wire lining or steamer insert. I used this steamer pot from Amazon. Add enough water as to keep it below the steamer. Add a few husks to prevent the tamales from getting wet. Tamales must be placed open side up along the inside perimeter of the stock pot. Place extra husks or a wet towel or paper towels on top the tamales and cover the pot. Steam for about an hour or until the husk peels away from the masa easily.

NOMS- You earned this one!!

Crafty/Artsy Outing Ideas

Well, the spring weather is finally here and I must admit that it was not an easy transition back to the office today. So, instead of continuing to wallow in my post-beautiful-spring-weekend-blues, I want to tell you about a few places that are guaranteed to take me (and hopefully you, too) to a happier place, Monday or not.

There is really nothing like a creative DIY project or craft to boost my spirits and take my mind off life’s daily stresses. There are several crafty venues in the city that I like to frequent, and in case you were worried that this would be a sober endeavor, some of these places even sell booze, or allow you to BYOB!

So grab your friend, kids, or lovah and boost your mood (and these local businesses) with a visit to one of these fine, crafty establishments in the near future!

All Fired Up (Cleveland Park)

I have been going to this place since I lived in the world’s smallest studio apartment in Woodley Park five years ago. God knows I had to get outta there from time to time. It’s a tried-and-true creative mecca where you can paint ceramics of all shapes and sizes. I am not kidding. You can find vases, spoon rests (my most recent project), robots, wine chillers, and more. One year I attempted to make all of my holiday gifts here. Note: painted ceramics are cute, just not practical for shipping…

All Fired Up is BYOB and it gets packed, so you should try to make a reservation if you can. Thursday is ladies night and all ceramic pieces are 15% off! If you’re looking for a delicious bite before, during or after, stop by Vace Italian Deli for a slice of some truly delicious pizza OR if you’re feeling spicy, you can find some Crab in a Bag right down the street!



SCRAP  (NE near Brookland and Rhode Island Metros)

I recently learned of this place while looking for an organization to donate my company’s old letterhead to and was SO IMPRESSED by what I found! I think their website sums it up best, “SCRAP DC is a project of SCRAP, a 501(c)(3) whose mission is to inspire creative reuse and environmentally sustainable behavior by providing educational programs and affordable materials to the community.”

So not only does SCRAP provide art supplies and crafting materials at a discounted price, they also host an array of art classes for adults and children. The educational programs cover everything from knitting to mosaics, and far beyond. They also have open craft nights twice a month, where you can go to enjoy the company of fellow creative-types and work on a project of your choice, with full access to their robust collection of discounted supplies.

To stay up to date with all things SCRAP, you can check out their blog here.


ArtJamz (Dupont Circle)

This place is so much fun and conveniently located right in the heart of the Dupont Circle neighborhood.  No pretense, just creative juices flowing in all directions. The self-professed “public art studio and lounge” boasts a bar, and a myriad of conveniently priced packages to paint, lounge, drink and consult their resident “roving” creatives.

At ArtJamz, you can go a la carte, or choose a package that includes 1.5 hours of studio time (all art materials included), 1 canvas and 1 drink. Packages range in price from $32 to $72 depending on size of canvas and number of people. Go to there.


The Torpedo Factory (Alexandria, VA)

This place. Is. Awesome. It is such a unique concept and is located on the beautiful waterfront in Old Town Alexandria. An outing to the Torpedo Factory and brunch at nearby Chart House (amazing bagels and lox!) is my idea of a perfect weekend afternoon! The Torpedo Factory is just that- a place that manufactured torpedoes in the early 1900’s.

Today, The Torpedo Factory Art Center houses more than 165 visual artists who produce artwork in a wide variety of media including painting, ceramics, photography, jewelry, stained glass, fiber, printmaking, and sculpture. Visitors are invited to join artists in their studios and observe their creative processes, with the option to purchase original work.

The Torpedo Factory also hosts their Second Thursday Art Night series, where visitors can browse open studios and galleries while enjoying refreshments and music (for free!) on the second Thursday of each month.


Sarah’s Favorite Recipe & Cooking Apps!

With about a ZILLION recipe and cooking apps out there, it is becoming increasingly overwhelming to decide which ones are right for your lifestyle and the task at hand. The trial and error can also cost you money= no bueno. If you are relying on your phone or tablet in the kitchen, you definitely need to check out my list of all-time favorites apps below.  Also- who doesn’t LOVE a Venn diagram? I hope this visual will prove useful in identifying apps that meet your individual needs.


Fooducate (Free, iPhone, Android) – If you’re trying to change your eating habits and eat healthier with fewer additives and better ingredients, Fooducate will be a great app for you. You can easily scan packaged food items and discover the truth about what’s inside. The app can also track your food intake and exercise.



Green Kitchen ($3.99, iPad, iPhone) – This app is a vegetarian’s dream. It’s a well-designed cooking app with a focus on healthy, vegetarian recipes. It’s all based on the Green Kitchen Stories blog, and the recipes on that site will show you what the app is all about before you spring for it.

Green Kitchen


Harvest App ($1.99, iPhone) – Harvest is a guide to selecting the freshest, ripest, healthiest and best-tasting produce. The app also tells you what produce is currently in season and the best way to store produce items to keep them fresher for longer.



Locavore (Free, iPhone, Android) – According to their website, “Locavore is the easiest way to find local, in-season food.”  The app will help you locate nearby farmers’ markets & farms that sell the products you want. It will also help you discover seasonal recipes. It is a must have for spring, as more fresh, local food becomes available!



Paprika– ($4.99, iPad, iPhone) –This app is very much my turnkey solution to organization and menu planning. It is definitely more than just a recipe app. Paprika makes it easy to plan, budget, shop for, cook, and organize all your favorite recipes. I just love the versatility factor!




Venn Diagram


hAPPy cooking!



Lighten Up with a Guiltless Grilled Chicken Pita!

It may not feel like spring yet (at least in DC) but summer will be upon us in no time, and that means we only have about six weeks to reconcile the old habits of our our soft, pasty bodies with the beckoning of our bikinis. Similar to my seasonal purse change, it’s time for a menu change.

Tonight I’m headed to a girlfriend’s house for a little spring closet cleaning and to make my guiltless grilled chicken pitas. These are a staple of mine in the warmer months, and they always receive rave reviews from friends and family!The chicken pitas are nutritious, easy to make, and packed full of great flavors. They are so awesome you’ll forget how healthy they are.

You’ll need: 

2-3 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 package of whole wheat  or gluten free pita bread

8oz of plain, fat free Greek yogurt

Fresh dill sprigs, finely chopped

2 cloves of fresh garlic, minced

3 tablespoons  fresh lemon juice


Freshly ground black pepper

2 small tomatoes, finely chopped

1 medium purple onion, cut into thin rings

1/2 head romaine lettuce, finely chopped


1. Rinse the chicken breast and pat dry, season liberally with salt and pepper. Grill until thoroughly cooked (165 degree minimum teperature). Cut the chicken breasts into 1/2″-1″ wide strips. Set aside.

2. Combine yogurt, dill, garlic and lemon juice, and stir until thoroughly mixed.

3. Cut the pita breads in half and toast on the warm grill- be careful not to burn them!

Assembling the pita

1. Open the toasted half pitas and spread the yogurt mixture evenly on the inside of the pita.

2. Fill the pita with the grilled chicken, chopped romaine, tomatoes and sliced onion.

3. Top with additional yogurt sauce as desired.


Optional Ingridients or Substitutions: 

I have also made this recipe using turkey burgers, lamb burgers and tofu. All were great, so feel free to switch it up if chicken isn’t your thing.

If you’re feeling frisky, throw  in some feta cheese and/or pitted kalamata olives!

Recipe yields about 4 servings







Crab in a BAG!


Next time you are feeling spicy, I suggest you take a trip to the hottest and juiciest seafood shack in town. Hot N Juicy  (Woodley Park) is quite definitively one of my favorite places to eat in the District. Let me set the scene for you: tables covered in butcher paper, plastic bibs tied onto each customer by enthusiastic waitresses wearing tight black tank tops, and best of all… $1 beers on week nights! It’s sort of like the Hooters of crawfish. But what this establishment lacks in sophistication, they make up for in flavor- BIG TIME FLAVOR. It’s just all part of the experience, folks.

Nary a vegetable in sight, their menu features Bayou staples such as Cajun seafood boils (delivered to your table in a metal pale, with a roll of paper towels), steamed Crawfish, Etouffee, fried Catfish and so much more. My standard order is a pound of Snow Crab legs served in a bath of their signature Hot N Juicy seasoning with corn and potatoes. I hope you’re not feeling all “judgey” today because sometimes I even throw in a side of their deliciously seasoned Cajun fries and use them to mop up my extra sauce. Yes, it is that good.

I should warn you now that you will smell like garlic and Cajun seasoning for up to 48 hours post-HNJ-partum. Sometimes I plan my trips there based on how many times I will be able to take a shower before the next work day… Just sayin’.

In short, Hot N Juicy is potent and magical. Go to there.

Meatless Monday! John’s Veggie Tacos

Whew- what a weekend! It’s back to the grind and back to the kitchen for a reasonably healthy dinner tonight. In keeping with my Meatless Monday tradition, I want to share my friend John’s awesome recipe for veggie tacos. These little buddies are sure to delight even the most committed of carnivores. The fried taco shells are ridiculously delicious, but if you want to lighten the dish up, you could always serve over fresh greens- a la taco salad style.




John’s Super Awesome Veggie Tacos (You’re Welcome)


1 package Smart Ground Original (12oz)– I’m sure other brands would work, but I like this brand because it has a neutral flavor and good texture.  Most people to whom I serve the dish can’t tell it’s vegetarian when I use this brand.

2 onions diced

2-3 shallots diced (optional, but adds a subtle something to the dish)

6 serrano peppers diced fine (others will do in a pinch)

4-5 cloves garlic diced fine

2 tbs olive oil

2 tbs ground cumin (I use more  – probably at least 4 tbs, but I really like cumin)

4-5 tbs chili powder (I use several kinds – and a lot more of it-  probably about a whole cup (16 tbs) Normally the combination of the cumin and chili powder fills up a cup measure for me)

½ to 1 tbs kosher salt  (to taste)

2 large tomatoes diced

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

¼ cup water

1 8oz can tomato sauce

Corn tortillas

Cilantro (optional)

1-2 cups cooking oil (I use peanut oil, but anything with a high smoke point will do)

Taco Filling

Heat olive oil on medium-low heat in a heavy skillet or pot.  Once the oil is warm, add:

one of the diced onions,

the shallots,

3 of the diced Serrano peppers,


and a teaspoon of salt.

Sauté until translucent.

Next, break up and add the entire package of Smart Ground and the cumin and chili powder.  Stir so that the spices and onions are evenly distributed in the Smart ground.

Next, add the water and stir more so that the spices can evenly mix and allow to simmer for a minute or two.  The mixture should be integrated at this point, and a bit soupy.  If needed, at more water.

Next add the tomato sauce and allow entire mixture to reduce on low heat until it is of a “taco filling” consistency (think sloppy joes or a little thicker).

Topping – simple pico de gallo thing

Combine remaining peppers and onions and the diced tomato with a bit of kosher salt.  I like to add chopped cilantro to this as well, but not everyone likes it.  Mix and allow to sit for a few minutes to allow the flavors to mix.


Make a taco mold out of aluminum foil by taking a length of foil and mashing it up into a brick-shape about the length of the diameters of the tortillas you are using.

Cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet or heavy pan with the cooking oil (again, I use peanut oil, but anything with a higher smoke point will do) and allow the oil to heat.  Once the oil is simmering, place a corn tortilla in the pan and allow to cook on one side until lightly brown around the edges and beginning to crisp.  I find it helpful to move the tortilla around the pan with tongs to help ensure a more even cooking.

After the first side of the tortilla is cooked, flip it over an place the mold on one side of the tortilla.  Fold the tortilla around the mold to make a taco shell shape and hold it in position with the tongs.  Cook on one side for another 10 seconds or so and then flip the whole thing (with the mold still in) and cook on the other side for another 10 seconds.  Remove the tortilla shell from the pan and lightly salt with kosher salt and allow to cool on a rack. Repeat for each shell.  Per-person serving is around 2-3 tacos.

To serve

Place taco filling in each corn tortilla shell and add topping and cheese and (optionally) sour cream.


Papa’s Chile Verde- A Fiesta in Your Mouth!

UPDATE: Papa’s Chili Verde received 2nd place in the chili cook-off on Saturday! Not too shabby…

We were also featured in the weekly Bisnow newsletter!

Original blog post:

T-minus 18 hours until FAME or FLOP at tomorrow’s chili cook-off event at Hill Country BBQ in downtown DC. I’m 1-0 in chili cook-offs using this recipe (my father’s, actually) so regardless of Saturday’s outcome, the dish is already award winning! This chili reminds me of the great Mexican flavors of my childhood in Colorado. We shall see if it is well received by District foodies.

This dish is a labor of LOVE, amigos! And this year I decided to step up my game by ordering authentic roasted green chiles from New Mexico! They arrived just in time for the cook-off, and in pristine condition. 


My Chile Verde dish is constructed in the tradition of southern Mexico and influenced by North American Southwest cuisine. There are over 8 distinct chili peppers in this dish, including fresh, home-roasted green chilies from New Mexico. The chilies combine with roasted tomatoes, toasted Mexican spices and seasoned pork  through a slow braising process to create a bold mosaic of flavors.The heat level is modest by Mexican standards but fairly high for most North Americans.

I can’t give away all family secrets but you, too, can sweep the annual chili cook-off if you follow this recipe- which is pretty close to the original…

Of course, if you’d like to skip all of the hard work, then you can come taste it tomorrow at the event! 

Recipe yields 6-8 servings.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 lbs. boneless pork, cubed

2 cups green chilies chopped (canned or roasted and peeled)

2 cans diced tomatoes

1 fresh Jalapeno chopped

2 fresh serrano peppers chopped

1 medium onion chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of 1 fresh lime

1 cup chicken broth

Bunch of fresh cilantro

¼ cup all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup Mexican Crema (for topping)

1 cup tortilla strips or crumbled tortilla chips (for topping)

Pork Seasoning:

Cayenne powder to taste

Chipotle seasoning to taste

Ancho seasoning to taste

Cumin to taste

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

Garlic powder to taste

Heat vegetable oil in large pot. Add seasoned pork and cook until browned. Add onion, fresh garlic, chopped Jalapeño and Serrano chiles and stir in with meat. Add flour and stir for 2 minutes. Add in tomatoes and green chiles, salt and pepper. Stir. Add broth. Simmer on low heat until meat is tender (about 1 or 1.5 hours). Add water or more broth as needed, should be a stew consistency. Be sure to stir frequently- the bottom is prone to scorching.

I like to garnish with crema from Oaxaca (a traditional blend of sour cream, heavy cream and cream cheese) and a bit of fresh cilantro. Mix in fresh squeezed lime juice as the chile is warmed for service- it brings a tart bite to the dish. Serving suggestion: serve over rice or with fresh tortillas.