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 ration).  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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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.

 

 

 

CHINESE EGG ROLLS

I found this little vintage dish (soap dish? pin tray?) with its charming dove family on ebay.  It’s made by Erphila Germany.

Look how tender the momma bird is with her two babies.  Kinda reminds me (in the ongoing fantasy in my head) of me of me and my kids.

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We have doves all over the place here.  Big fat grey ones (pigeons, as my husband calls them), that wake me up with their soulful cooing nearly every morning.  In the spring, they seem to favor the tree under which I park my car, which means — you guessed it — that often times my car is sporting a fair amount of bird poop.

When my kids were younger, I drove a minivan.  It helps to have a self-deprecating sense of humor if you want to drive one of these with your head held high. Personally, I appreciated the remote-controlled sliding doors, and how my kids could scramble into the van without waiting for me to open the doors for them.  Most men are unaware of this, but a minivan is actually quite a chick magnet, for when women realize the ease with which you can safely transport 6 kids, they are on you like flies on honey. Trust me on this one.

There was one occasion, however, when my van-driving sense of humor failed me.  I was sent at the last minute to fill in for someone at a continuing legal education luncheon for antitrust lawyers.  This particular species of chest-thumping lawyers, in my opinion, operates under the false notion that they are really, really important, despite the fact that as best I can tell, there’s not a whole lot going on in the world of antitrust (at least that was my take-away from the luncheon).  I did my best to stay awake at the stuffy event in a suit-filled room, but was relieved when it was over.  Standing outside the restaurant with the suits waiting for the valets to bring our vehicles, I cringed when they brought my poop-covered van around.  And then I did something that I have never done before–I pretended it wasn’t mine.  I refused to own it.  I turned and went back into the restaurant, and acted as though I had to use the ladies’ room.  When the coast was sufficiently clear, I went back out and claimed my crap-covered kid-hauler, joking with the valet (as I overtipped him), “Geez, did you have to park it under a tree?”  I was deeply ashamed.

When the doves are not pooping, it seems they are nesting.  We have a tree outside our bedroom window with a nest in it that the doves have reused over and over.  It’s really neat watching the momma bird sit on the nest for what seems like weeks, and I always gasp with delight the first time I see one of the baby dove’s heads poking up out of the nest.  The babies grow fast, and in a very short time, the momma bird is pushing them out of the nest, encouraging them to fly off on their own.

It makes me smile when the baby doves come back to visit.

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One of my own “baby doves” is getting ready to leave the nest this fall.  My daughter is heading off to college in August, and although I think she’s ready to go, I’m not sure I’m ready for her to go.  Sure, I’m excited for her.  But geez, I’m gonna miss her.  We’ve been having fun this summer getting ready for college, having lunch together, and playing in the kitchen.  We made a trip recently to Super H Mart, a gigantic Asian grocery chain store, and came home with all kinds of stuff to play with.

One of the items we scored were some egg roll wrappers.  We’d been talking about making egg rolls forever, and we were excited to finally give it a try.  The recipe we used is adapted from this one from PBS.  Although they weren’t too difficult, they were a bit of work, and were definitely more fun to make with two people.  Once you get the hang of rolling them, they’re really pretty easy.  You’ll notice there’s no picture of one cut open so you can see the filling, which should give you an idea of how good they were — they were devoured in no time at all.

CHINESE EGG ROLLS
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Author:
Ingredients
  • ½ pound lean ground pork
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cups shredded cabbage
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and grated
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 package egg roll wrappers
  • 3-4 cups peanut or vegetable oil, for frying
Instructions
  1. Place pork, soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, cornstarch, garlic. and ginger in a medium bowl, and mix until well combined.
  2. Heat vegetable oil in a wok or large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Cook the pork mixture until meat is no longer pink, stirring frequently.
  3. Add shredded cabbage and carrots and cook for 2 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Place one egg roll wrapper on a clean surface rotating it as a diamond shape. Spoon ⅓ cup of the pork mixture in the center of the wrapper from left to right, leaving a 1" margin on either side. Fold the bottom corner up and over the mixture, tucking it in under the mixture. Fold the sides in and roll the egg roll until there is no more wrapper. Dab the top corner of the egg roll wrapper with water and press to adhere to the roll. Continue to make as many rolls as there is filling.
  5. Heat oil on medium high. When oil is hot, fry egg rolls in batches, being careful not to crowd pan, until egg rolls are golden brown. Remove to a paper tower-lined plate to drain. Serve hot.

 

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Stir-frying the filling

Rolling ’em up

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Deep-frying to golden crunchiness

Get ’em while they’re hot!