Our family has lived in the Southwest USA long enough that we have adopted many of the local traditions, especially those that have to do with food and with Christmas. For many years we have gathered around the kitchen table on Christmas Eve to make and then eat tamales.
The event is festive, with everyone laughing and each person assigned a particular task. Susan usually prepares the masa – always with lard, and beaten until the dough floats on water to show that it has enough incorporated air. I prepare the corn husks in hot water so that they are pliable and can be used to wrap up the dough and filling. Others make the filling. Our favorite is chicken. The recipe came from the back of a bag of masa harina from many years ago.
Pork in red chile is more traditional, and we sometimes make those, too, but our family favorite is chicken with an unusual ingredient – olives.
After the filling and dough are prepared, the teamwork and fun begin. Some spread the masa dough on the corn husks. Others put on the filling. Others wrap up the tamales. We try to make things come out even with just enough filling for the masa dough. Usually it doesn’t, and we have a little of one or the other left over. Even at that, we always wind up with enough tamales for everyone to get their fill.
Finally, the tamales are stacked on a trivet in a big pot to be steamed. The steamer pot is put on the stove, and the tamales are cooked to perfection.
While we wait – it may take an hour or so – we sit around the Christmas tree and enjoy a mug of home-made eggnog. Then the feast begins before it is time for bed and dreams of Christmas Day.
This year, Sarah and her son will join us for a few days before Christmas while Carol and her family will arrive on Christmas Eve so we won’t be able to have our tamales party. Instead we will make them ahead, freeze them, and then thaw and steam them for each of our visiting families.
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ½ cup taco sauce, canned or homemade
- 1/3 cup black olive slices
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups shredded cooked chicken
- 1 cup lard (may substitute vegetable shortening)
- 2½ cups masa harina
- 2 teaspoons ground red chiles (do not use chili powder)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1¾ cups chicken stock
Corn husks for filling (about 2 dozen, soaked in hot water)
- Sauté onions in oil. Then add taco sauce, olives, cumin, salt, and chicken. Combine well, cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, then set aside.
- In a stand mixer, cream the lard (or shortening) until fluffy. Then add masa harina, chiles, salt, and chicken stock. Continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy enough that a small piece of the dough floats in water.
- Divide the masa into 24 balls. Spread each of the dough balls onto a soaked corn husk so that the dough comes to the edge of the husk. Place a good-sized tablespoon of the filling on the dough, fold over the two edges of the husk so that the dough completely covers the filling. Then fold over the two edges of the corn husk so that the dough completely covers the filling. Fold the tail of the folded husk over the tamal.
- Stack the finished tamales on a trivet over water in a large kettle
- Steam, covered, over gently boiling water for about one hour or until the masa does not stick to the corn husks. Serve warm with your favorite chile sauce or molé.
- If you choose to freeze the tamales, thaw them completely before steaming.
Don’t try to make the dough without a mixer as the dough is heavy and it really does need to float in water before you quit beating. That’s hard on the modern wrist. You can use vegetable shortening if you wish, but the tamales are never as tasty as those made with lard. Choose your own degree of heat with the ground chiles. Personally, I prefer “hot”, but some in our family are incredibly sensitive so we choose “mild”. You can always douse your personal tamales with hot sauce.
IMPORTANT: Remember to remove the corn husk wrapper before you eat the tamal.
There should be about 2 dozen tamales.