In honor of the Christmas holiday, we’ve got a special Fun Food episode just for today: tamales. For those who aren’t familiar with tamales, they’re delicious little packets of savory masa (a corn-based dough), usually filled with beef or pork, all wrapped up in a nice little corn husk and then steamed to perfection. They’re an indispensible part of the Christmas tradition in many Mexican homes, especially in the Los Angeles area where we live.
If you want to make your own tamales, you’re in for a treat. Sure, making tamales a lot of time and preparation, but don’t be intimidated. Each step is relatively easy, and getting it all together is part of what makes it such a great holiday – and party – tradition. If you get a whole bunch of people working together in assembly-line fashion, the time flies and before you know it, you’ve got tamales by the dozen.
We’re mostly tamale novices over here but we read through as many tamale recipes and tips as we could find before embarking on our project. For a good starting point, we like the site called Making Tamales, which gives you a helpful overview of the equipment and preparation. Once we started cooking, we liked this recipe from Tyler Florence, but we modified the fillings to fit our ingredient list (more on that in a moment).
To start, you’ll need corn masa mix and dried corn husks, ingredients you can usually find in well-stocked supermarkets or in ethnic markets. You’ll also need to decide on which fillings you want (we chose beef and corn/cheese) so that they are ready to go by the time you get your masa ready. If you are making a meat filling, the meat will probably need to cook for a few hours. That means you can get the rest of your ingredients in order while the meat is cooking. Also, you’ll need to soak the corn husks in a large bowl of water for a few hours ahead of time (you may need to place a large, heavy bowl on top to keep them from floating up) to soften them up before you are ready to work with them.
When we prepared our beef filling, we didn’t have pasilla or ancho chile pods on hand so we improvised: We simmered 2 3/4 pounds of top round beef for three hours, and then we shredded and then briefly simmered it with 1 small can of tomato paste, 1 cup of the leftover beef broth, 1 tablespoon of chile powder, 1 tablespoon of cumin, and 1 tablespoon of adobo. The result was a satisfyingly smoky shredded beef mixture, just right for a tamale filling. We also made a simple mix of corn and grated Monterey Jack cheese for a cheese/corn filling. (Keep in mind that you can fill your tamales with pork, beef, chicken, cheese, chiles, or even sweet stuff like a cinnamon-raisin-nut mix for dessert tamales.)
To prepare the masa, the best bet is to follow the directions from the bag you bought (it may vary depending on whether you buy masa flour or a masa mix). Either way you will need to add either shortening or lard (we used shortening) and you should make sure it is whipped so that it is light and fluffy. Last, to get the corn husks ready, simply take them out of the soaking bowl, rinse them off, and lay them out flat on paper towels.
When you’re ready to do the assembly, clear out a large work area. Set out the corn husks, a bowl of prepared masa, your tamale fillings, a workspace for folding, and a large tray to hold the prepared tamales. Take a single large corn husk (bumpy side down, so it curves up toward you) and spread about 1/4 cup of masa mix in a thin layer on the husk. Spoon one tablespoon of filling on top of the masa. Fold the edges toward the center so that the tamal is wrapped up, then pinch up the bottom tip like you are wrapping a present. If this is too hard to visualize, check out this nice little guide on How to Form a Tamale from Chow. Stand the tamales upright in a large steaming colander (pinched side down), cover with a lid and/or a large towel, and steam them for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. When it is done, the masa filling should be somewhat firm and it should separate easily from the corn husk.
Can kids help? Of course. This is a job that is possibly easier for older kids, but even the youngest ones can help you scoop the masa into the corn husk and flatten it down into a thin layer. If you’re lucky enough to have a gang of kids, set up stations: the masa-droppers, the masa-flatteners, the topping-droppers, the folders, and the stackers. Before long you’ll have a pile of super-tasty tamales, and a hungry crew to eat them up. To eat them – this is the beauty of why they make such a great Christmas food – you just open up the corn husks as if you were unwrapping a present (and by all means, don’t eat the ‘wrapping paper’).
Happy holidays – and happy eating!