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December, 2012

Holiday Tamales!

By Dennis Linden

December is filled with back-to-back-to-back parties of jingling bells that merge right into the New Years Eve celebrations.

Melissa's Tamale Kit

‘Tis the season to be jolly with family, friends and office mates! However, this nonstop holiday revelry does come with a culinary double-edged sword. Meaning, the holidays can also become a dizzying series of social gatherings; each requiring a contribution of something edible to a festively-decorated communal table. At first this is all great fun and, for those who love to cook, the holiday potluck season provides a great opportunity to show off one’s culinary talents.

Still, there can be too much of any good thing as the culinary pace of the season eventually catches up to most all of us. After all, the holiday festivities launch in November with the long Thanksgiving weekend of traditional fixings and ballgame snacks. Then December is filled with back-to-back-to-back parties of jingling bells that merge right into the New Years Eve celebrations, which are followed much too early the next morning with parades and football kick-offs! At some point during this gauntlet of good cheer we all begin to dread yet another invite with those familiar culinary strings attached: “Oh and please bring a little something for the table.”

A delicious solution to this annual potluck pressure is to borrow a party trick from the Hispanic community’s tradition of making tamales for their holiday celebrations. In fact, the process of preparing the tamales becomes an event unto itself! While home-made tamales will not eliminate kitchen time during the holidays, it will condense the task into a fun, special event. The idea being that making a very large batch of these packets of deliciousness will pay off in the number of potlucks that a one-time tamale making session will sustain during the season.

The ancient Aztec culture is credited with coming up with the first packet of masa meal. It was the Aztec version of the military K-ration; invented to replace their cumbersome battlefield kitchen. It seems that Aztec armies were in the habit of bringing some of their womenfolk along on battle campaigns to cook up that culture’s staple foodstuff: masa (corn) meal. Macho Aztec warriors don’t cook, apparently. Anyway, masa prep was a real pain that included a time-consuming treatment with limestone powder; a process that proved impractical to pull off under battlefield conditions. So they came up with the idea of cooking the masa at home, then wrapping it in a corn husk to be heated up later or eaten cold on the run.

That early army issue tamale recipe of masa and a little dried meat has evolved over the centuries into many delectable variations that are found in most every Mexican and South American cuisine today. While the ingredients and condiments may have changed, the basic prep process remains about the same as in Aztec kitchens in spite of modern conveniences. No one has invented a better way than to slow-cook a filling that creates a broth to mix with the masa that is then slathered on a corn husk, wrapped and steamed.

And because the process still takes at least a whole day--two if you let the broth steep overnight--the early tradition of making tamales in large batches is still practiced. In fact, for several Latin cultures throughout the Americas, the making of copious amounts of tamales preceding a holiday, primarily Christmas, New Years, or All Souls Day (Halloween) has become a traditional kick-off to the holiday. It is not uncommon for several generations and branches of a Hispanic or South American family to meet a few days in advance of the actual holiday to form an assembly-line of merry tamale makers. This event turns into a pre-celebration celebration every time!

To be honest, crowding several of my own family members into one room for a tamale-making fest, considering their divergent approaches to doing just about everything, could result in violence, so I will pass. Instead, for the last several years I have adopted the tradition of setting aside a few “personal tamale days” in early December. I become a production line of one -- pleasantly knee-deep in masa meal mixing, corn husk soaking-filling-tying and then steaming in batches. A couple of focused sessions on this annual tamale line and my freezer “brimmeth over” with little packets of sublime tastiness. On a good tamale day I will do well over one-hundred, which sounds like a lot until you watch a pile of thirty disappear in a flash at the first potluck event of the season.

Admittedly, there is a little bit more work involved to arming yourself with enough tamales rather than say, sugar cookies, for the entire holiday season. However, if it pleases the culinary court, (a) it really is more practical to follow tradition and make enough to feed an army of guests, considering the amount of prep time it takes to make the masa and filling. And (b) there are way too many tempting sugar cookies in the world for our own good as it is! So roll out those corn husks.

While a quick search of this site and the Internet will produce thousands of tamale recipes, here are few basics to keep in mind if this is your first tamale session:

Tamale making is about layering flavor. Approach it one stage at a time. Start by making a tasty filling that creates a broth in the process. Use the broth to turn masa meal into tamale mix (dough), which is then spread thin on a corn husk. Spoon the filling down the middle of the dough, then fold the husk over itself to encapsulate the filling. Fold one end of the husk up and secure to the body of the packet with twine or a thin strip of corn husk. Cook in batches by placing open end up in a steamer for about 45 minutes. Here is a link to a handy step-by-step instructions of the process.

Prepare shredded beef, pork or chicken in a boil, which creates the broth for the masa dough. Add favorite herbs and spices to the broth. Combine shredded meat in a red or green sauce. Make lots of sauce -- half is mixed with the meat to make the filling; the other half is for slathering over the cooked tamale once it is freed from the steaming husk.

The Masa Dough:
Tamale Mix is carried in most every grocery store. All mixes still need lard or vegetable shortening, a pinch of salt, baking powder and broth. The trick to flavorful tamales is in the tastiness of the dough as much as the filling. Bland dough will result in bland tamales, maybe hundreds of them, so use a broth not water.

I made three batches of dough to gather material for this article. One was Melissa’s Tamale Mix, which required only adding water or broth. The two others required the usual additives mixed from scratch. The batch made with Melissa’s kit won the taste test. I am sure I would get better at the scratch version with practice, but I really like the flavor of the Melissa’s product, so that practice may never happen!

Corn Husks:
No packs of husks contain all useable wrappers. Dried husks are a very hard product to handle without damaging, that goes for both the manufacturer and the home chef. Expect to sort through the package for useable husks; it is a good idea to buy more than you need to allow for this shrinkage. To avoid the kitchen looking more like an explosion in a corn-stack, have a large container for waste husks in place before starting. You will thank me later for this tip!

A well-stocked culinary shop will actually carry a dedicated Masa Spreader. This is a wide, trowel-like gadget that does make spreading the wet masa mix a breeze. However, a detour to the less expensive hardware store for a real-life, small garden trowel will do the trick. I use a general purpose wooden spreader or small spatula with no slots. Like mortar on brick, there’s a bit of a learning curve in gauging the ration of filling to masa on the husk, but it will come quickly.

The tamale, a perfect peaceful solution to the annual holiday potluck wars! All rolled up in a convenient corn husk of a container ready to reheat over an Aztec campfire or zapped in the microwave. The recipe still doesn’t get anyone out of holiday KP duty, but it will conquer a battlefield of buffet tables with a winning dish that is well worth the time and effort it takes to make. Happy Forks and Happy Holidays!