chiles and corn… summer in the Southwest

I have been thoroughly enjoying my time exploring French food with French Fridays with Dorie, but I have a confession to make – it’s summer in AZ, and it’s difficult to stay focussed on all things French. Well, or at least all foods French. Besides, how could I be considered any kind of “foodie” if I didn’t concentrate on whatever is “locally grown”? We have a funny state here. I’m actually from the Northern half. It can be mid-May before temperatures can increase to where things actually grow. And now that I think of it, my foray into CSA  groups in central AZ didn’t work either – well, I’m thoroughly confused about what grows when – but what I DO know, is that it it corn season in Camp Verde, and that there are a number of wonderful farm stands that are producing lots of terrific things – not to mention the kitchen-garden experiment at home in Sedona.

I’m also the member of a truly delightful book club. Each month one of our members picks and buys, copies of a book we have not yet read, and distributes to the group. The next time we meet, the person who chooses the book, hosts the meeting. We always have a wonderful time (and I have to remind myself not to eat that day, because there is always something yummy!). Sometimes we have food that goes along with what we’re reading. Recently, one of our group had picked “Appetite for America” an amazing book about Fred Harvey (go read it – now!). At the back were recipes from his Harvey House restaurants, and we were able to feast on a meal made from the recipes included! How delightful!!

This month is my pick: These is my Words, by an Arizona author – Nancy Turner. Nancy started the book as an exercize for a writing class where she was supposed to write about someone in history that she either admired or was related to. She chose her grandmother – Sarah Agnes Prine.

I had been loaned this book and admonished (strenuously!) that I just had to read it right away. Well, I was probably in the middle of a different book at the time, so I didn’t get reading quite that quickly. Once I started however, I stopped after a few pages, immediately set it aside, and ordered copies for our club for my next pick. After being repeatedly asked if I’d liked it (and replying – I don’t know, I didn’t read it…yet… and repeating my story), I finally was able to read the book. I will not spoil the story, but let’s just say… I loved it.

One of the families in the book goes by the name of Maldonado. They are wonderful neighbors, and importantly, make wonderful food. “I could have eaten myself sick on corn tamales and roasted chilies and chicken paella…”  “roasted a piece of beef, and it had cilantro and chili in it too”. So in keeping with our “sometimes theme”, I’ve been making some Southern Arizona specialties (the story is mainly set just outside of Tucson) to share with my friends.

I decided to make Chile Colorado – a classic Mexican dish of beef cooked in red chiles. And a traditional Tucson dish – (green) corn tamales.

Chile Colorado

5 lbs beef chuck or other flavorful cut, in 1-2″ pieces
1/2 c flour
garlic powder to taste
cumin to taste
1 T black pepper
1 T sea salt

1/4 c oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 jar (2 c) Santa Cruz Chile Paste (or about 1/2 c dried ground chiles – like California, New Mexico or Ancho, depending on the effect and heat level you like – just not “chili powder, which is a mix of spices)
beef broth to cover

Mix the dry ingredients together and mix with the beef pieces. Set aside. In large pan, heat oil. Add beef in batches (about 3-4) and brown nicely, not crowding the beef. Bring them out of the pan, while the next amount is being browned. Once beef is browned and out of the pot, add the onions. Cover, and let the onions cook, scraping up the browned bits. Add the beef back to the pot, the chile paste and then broth to cover. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and cook for about 3 hours until the beef is just tender and the sauce is nice and thick, making sure it does not scorch. You may wish to add some additional liquid if necessary.

Serve with tortillas, chopped onion and cilantro. This is generally quite mild, but you may wish to pass sour cream as well.

Corn Tamales

1 package corn husks – soaked in warm water to soften (it will take about 3-4 oz of dried husks, hydrated)

2-1/2 c fresh corn (either cut off with a shredder designed for creamed corn – or cut off and pulsed in a food processor)
3 c dry masa for tamales
1-1/3 c lard – room temperature
2 T baking powder
1/2 c sugar
4 t salt

fresh green chiles – roasted, peeled, seeded, chopped coarsely

I always put the corn husks into a ziploc bag with warm water, squeezing out all of the air to get the husks pliable. I typically do this hours ahead, just to make sure they are soft. Drain prior to assembling tamales/

Beat the lard with a stand mixer until totally soft and light. Add remaining ingredients. Beat on relatively high speed until light and fluffy. Determine if it’s ready by placing a spoonful into a glass of cold water – if it floats, it’s probably ready. I’ve been known to beat the batter a bit more – just because. (let’s face it, home made tamales ought to be special – and light is special)

(Traditionally, these tamales can have the green chiles beaten into the batter, or put in the center. Often, a strip of Jack Cheese is put in the center, but I don’t always – sometimes the cheese can be tough once it’s cooked – there are better ways to get cheese into the “mix”. So I did not include here – but it is entirely traditional to do so.)

Prepare a pan for steaming: you’ll want plenty of water in the bottom so that over time, it won’t dry out. I like to prep a steamer, then line it with husks (in this instance the green ones from the fresh corn I’ve added to my batter). Reserve more husks to add on top of the prepared tamales, once you’ve assembled them. The fresh husks will impart a wonderful flavor to your tamales. The pan you will want is fairly tall above the bottom steamer-basket, as the tamales will be about 6″ long, and you’ll need to be able to cover them. (crushed aluminum foil can make a great base in a large soup pot – once lined with the husks, will keep your tamales out of the water, and still allow for plenty of steam)

Fill the corn husks with dough. Take a husk that is about 6-8″ across (or two overlapped to get the same dimension), and place about 1/4 c of the dough onto one quadrant of the husk (if you are unfamiliar, the husks are nearly triangle shaped – they have a wide and a narrow end – so put the batter on the quarter with the wide end, but not all the way to the top), spreading it to be about a 3″ square of batter (this is rough, and these are rustic, so it’s all ok!), then add some chiles (maybe a tablespoon or so) down the middle vertically. Roll the husk around the filling (there are verticle “ribs” in a husk, so you are rolling along those lines – not against them – try it, you’ll soon discover – roll them the easy way), and then fold the narrow bottom half up against the the main part of the tamal to close one end. Place open-ended up, into your prepared steamer pan. As you fill, wrap and stack them, you’ll fill up your pan. This recipe makes about 30 +/- tamales, and generally will fill up an average stock-pot (not a dutch oven – halve the recipe for that size pan).

Once the tamales are formed, cover them with another layer of either fresh or the hydrated husks. The fresh husks provide a wonderful flavor, but if you don’t have enough, the tamales will still taste great.
Cover and bring the water to a boil. Steam the tamales for about 1-1/2 hours, without letting the pan run dry. To test, pull out one of the tamales from the middle of the pan and put on a plate. The husk should pull away easily from the tamal, and the dough should be light and fluffy with no raw taste remaining. They will finish cooking a bit as you turn off the heat. In any event, you should allow them to rest prior to serving about 10 minutes. Though they will keep for a while before growing cold.


  • Tamales are best if they are re-heated by steaming – this enhances their very light texture that you’ve created by beating the batter to create lightness
  • They are very nice re-heated in the microwave, however
  • Tamales can be frozen
  • IF you have leftovers and want to do something different, an iconic casserole is made of these tamales layered with Creme Fraiche or Mexican cream, cheese, sometimes strips of chiles or a good-quality home-made salsa. This is baked just until heated through.
  • Uchepos are a very regional Mexican all-fresh corn tamal, that is steamed using the fresh husks rather than dried. There are some who would suggest that these tamales are native to Tucson as well. This recipe is a nod to both. I used sweet corn picked fresh about a week ago, my closest alternative – at least that I’m willing to make!  Uchepos are traditionally made from fresh “field corn”, which isn’t locally available – though if you’re reading in the mid-west, I can send you a recipe.
  • Except for fresh corn tamales, tamales are generally a holiday food. Because it takes some effort to make them (particularly if they have a meat filling – and by the way – the chile colorado, shredded would be perfect) they are often made at Christmas – dozens and dozens of them. Ladies get together to make them together, splitting up their efforts.
I happen to love Arizona after all of my years here, and it’s always delightful to read something set in a location you love. If you get a chance to try either of these recipes, I hope you’ll enjoy them. Or if nothing else, check out Sarah’s story. I love the dedication – “for everyone who has ever stood alone on a hill in a storm”. I think most of us can relate. I hope you enjoy!

5 thoughts on “chiles and corn… summer in the Southwest

  1. I made your Chili Colorado on Sunday and we LOVED it, I couldn’t find the Santa Cruz Chile Paste so I used 50/50 california and new mexico chili powder mixed with a little of the beef broth. I would love to make it again but want to try the chili paste you used! Where do you shop for it?

    It was great and made perfect leftover’s for Monday night dinner too!

    thanks for sharing the recipe =) it really is a winner.

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