CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN — DECEMBER 14

Tamales are a holiday tradition in Texas and elsewhere.  Traditional tamales begin with a dough called masa, made from nixtamalized corn (soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and then hulled) or a masa mix, such as Maseca, and lard (gasp!) or vegetable shortening, or even butter.  The masa is spread on corn husks or plantain leaves, with a few tablespoons of sweet or savory filling, folded up into a neat little packet, and then steamed until the masa is firm.

Tamales are eaten year-round, but during the holidays, they are extremely popular. Perhaps this is because making tamales is usually done in large batches — tens, if not hundreds, at a time — and is a nice way to bring generations together to assemble them.

There are several ways to get your tamale holiday fix.  Most Mexican restaurants sell them this time of year — some even set up tamale stands:

tamale stand

If you’re lucky, someone in your office has a grandmother or aunt that sells homemade tamales this time of year (if so, do yourself a favor and get a dozen or two).  You can also order them online — Texas Tamale Company has some nice sets that make welcome gifts, especially for out-of-state friends.  Or . . . you can make your own.

Yep, this year I finally learned how to make tamales.  I signed up for a Tamales 101 class with Sylvia Casares, owner of Sylvia’s Enchiladas and Houston’s unofficial Enchilada Queen.

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The first part of the class was instructional, where we watched Sylvia prepare the several ingredients necessary to make the tamales.  Sylvia chatted while preparing chile sauce, pork filling, and masa, sharing bits about her life, Mexican food, and the antiques that decorate her attractive restaurant.

Complimentary beverages were served, including margaritas.

pina colada

Too young for a margarita?  A virgin pina colada will do.

Once all the components were ready, Sylvia showed us how to spread the masa on the pre-soaked corn husk, and how much filling to add:

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At this point, the class moved to the dining room, where each person had their own tamale-making station:

And away we rolled!  One of the staff admired my tamales and declared them perfect:

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We packed up our tamales for steaming at home (which, I must say, were quite tasty, with a perfect masa-to-filling ratio).  Before leaving we were also treated to a plate of enchiladas, a tamale, and a taco (which I unfortunately scarfed down without taking a picture).

Will I ever make tamales at home?  I’d like to think so, although on a smaller scale, and probably without lard.  I am also intrigued by the idea of sweet tamales, which Sylvia described to us, and which take significantly less preparation.  Perhaps this will become a new holiday tradition for my family.

In the event you might like to try your hand at tamales, or are interested in seeing what’s involved, I’m including the recipes from the class (there’s a separate recipe for each component). These recipes will make approximately 5 dozen tamales.  If making tamales seems involved, it’s because it is — that’s why it’s fun to do it with several people.  The fillings below (Pork Guisado and/or Pollo Guisado) can be prepared a day or two in advance.  Note that Sylvia’s masa is different than that used in most tamales (and also tastier), because it’s flavored with a chile sauce — most consist of only masa and lard or vegetable shortening.

CHILI SAUCE FOR MASA
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Recipe type: Sauce
Author:
Ingredients
  • 5 guajillo chiles (stems and seeds removed)
  • 2-1/4 cups water
Instructions
  1. Place water and chiles in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool for approximately 15 minutes,
  2. Using a food processor or blender, blend all ingredients until smooth. Pour through a strainer to remove any solids.
  3. Set aside to add to masa.

 
SAUCE FOR PORK GUISADO
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Recipe type: Sauce
Author:
Ingredients
  • 15 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • 5 chile de arbol, stems removed
  • ½ of a large onion, quartered
  • 5 cups water
  • 4 cloves garlic
Instructions
  1. Place chiles, onion, and water in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes. Set aside to cool for approximately 15 minutes.
  2. Using a food processor or blender, blend all ingredients until smooth. Pour through a strainer to remove any solids.
  3. Blend garlic with ¼ cup water and add to pureed chiles.
  4. Set aside for use in Pork Guisado.

 
POLLO GUISADO
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Recipe type: Poultry
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 whole chicken, approximately 3 pounds, cut into 8 pieces, skin removed
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 large tomato, cored, seeded, and diced
  • ½ cup tomato sauce
Instructions
  1. Place the chicken, water, and salt in a large stockpot and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove the chicken from the pot and shred the chicken into small pieces. Reserve the broth.
  2. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the garlic, peppercorns, and cumin seeds.
  3. Combine the shredded chicken with the ground garlic and spices and add to the reserved broth. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to simmer. Add onion, bay leaf, tomatoes, and tomato sauce, and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool
  4. When cool, drain most of the liquid and discard bay leaves. Cover and refrigerate chicken until ready to use.

 
PORK GUISADO TAMALE FILLING
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Recipe type: Porl
Author:
Ingredients
  • 7-1/2 pounds pork butt (approximate yield after trimming fat is 4-1/2 pounds)
  • 5 cups water
  • ½ large onion, quartered
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 1/-12 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon salt
Instructions
  1. Trim excess fat from pork. Dice pork into ½-inch pieces.
  2. Place pork, water, onion, garlic, and salt in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until very tender, approximately 1-1/2 hours.
  3. Remove pork from pot and set aside in a large saute pan. Reserve pork stock for use in preparing masa.
  4. Add vegetable oil to pan and saute pork over medium heat until edges begin to brown.
  5. Cover and set aside to cool.
  6. To prepare Pork Guisado:
  7. Add Sauce for Pork Guisado to browned pork pieces. Add cumin, oregano, pepper, and salt to the mixture. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.
  8. Optional: When cool enough to handle, shred pork by hand, which will make it easier to use for tamale filling.

 
MASA FOR TAMALES
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Author:
Ingredients
  • 14 cups Maseca Instant Corn Masa Flour
  • 2-1/2 pounds lard (or vegetable shortening or softened butter)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1-1/2 cups Chili Sauce for Masa
  • 3-1/2 cups water
  • 3-1/4 cups reserved pork stock
Instructions
  1. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well.
  2. Combine lard (or vegetable shortening or butter), pork stock, Chile Sauce for Masa, and water in a large sauce pan. Heat over medium-high heat to melt the lard, using a whisk to combine all ingredients.
  3. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients in 2-3 batches.
  4. Mix all ingredients and knead (with your hands or using an electric mixer) until dough is well-blended and light. This will take 15-20 minutes of kneading.
  5. Cover and set aside until ready to use.

 
TAMALES
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Recipe type: Main Course, Pork, Chicken
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 bag corn husks that have been soaked for at least one hour (soak in 1 gallon warm water, and weight them down so that they are submerged)
  • Prepared masa
  • Pork Guisado or Pollo Guisado (or other desired filling)
Instructions
  1. Using a spackle tool or small spatula, place a lump of masa in the center of a corn husk (a little larger than a walnut, smaller than a golf ball).
  2. With the spackle tool, spread the masa evenly almost to the edges of the husk. The husk is triangular (i.e., wide on one end, narrow on the other) -- the masa should be spread on the wide end, approximately 4 inches toward the narrow end.
  3. Place a few tablespoons of filling down the center of the masa.
  4. Fold the sides of the husk, one at a time, toward the center. They will overlap. Fold the pointed end of the husk up over the filled part. Place tamale in a container with the tail side down (to help keep it from opening up).
  5. Repeat with remaining husks.
  6. To cook the tamales, place them in a pot with a steamer rack. Add enough water to cover the rack. Tamales need to be steamed standing up, with the open end facing up. (You can place a small bowl in the center of the rack and arrange the tamales around it.)
  7. Cover the pot and cook over low heat for about 1-1/2 hours. Then turn off the heat and leave pot on burner for another 30 minutes.
  8. When tamales are cooked completely, the husk will peel easily from the masa.

 

 

 

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