It’s Time for Tamales

There is a constant chill in the air this time of year.  Parking lots are beyond capacity at all hours of the day.  People are rushing through stores gathering last-minute gifts.  Some offices are ‘shutting down’ for the holiday season and employees are cleaning out their inboxes to partake in two weeks of food, family, and vacation.  The air within neighborhoods is filled with a variety of delicious smells from baking cookies to simmering stocks.  Blown up Santa’s’ and sparkling reindeer scenes cover front lawns while each neighbor tries to out-do the next in their decoration extravaganza.  Yep – it’s Christmas time!

I love the holiday season.  As soon as autumn officially hits our calendars I’m in countdown mode to a quarter filled with decorations, a reuniting of family & friends, and delectable edible goodies.

Every year I pull out the recipe arsenal, scanning for an old favorite that I can make new.  The past few Christmases we’ve gone with a ham or prime rib as a main course. This Christmas I wanted to go with an old favorite; something comforting that took me back to my childhood…tamales.

A month before Christmas I’d take a trip with my grandmother to a small family run Mexican specialty store that made fresh to order tamales, specialty sauces, and tortillas; located behind the Sunnyvale Town Center.  She’d put in an order for tamales and fresh corn tortillas.  The morning of Christmas Eve we’d pick up our order – I can remember the smell of ‘just off the griddle’ tortillas and fresh chopped tomatoes when we’d walk in the store.  We’d get our goods home so we could begin the preparation of our tamales and enchilada feast.

I think we’re looking for a sense of comfort this year more than previous, so for this I look back to an old family favorite.  This year I’ll be making the tamales from scratch; homemade masa, braised beef, and roasted peppers with cheese.  I’ll include a homemade medium spice red chili sauce.  Because it had been so long since we’ve had tamales, I conducted a couple tests to make sure Christmas day ran smooth.  After test run #2, I was informed by my husband and brother that I must make 50 or more because they’re going to eat a lot!

I’m not sure if we hit the 50 mark but our steaming pot was full.  I included homemade black beans and Spanish rice.  My husband and I rolled the tamales, while the grandma’s ran after the little man and grandpa watched over us snacking on chips & salsa.  We had a wonderful Christmas, focusing on time with family and some really delicious food!

* organic

*^ organic/local

Masa for Tamales
3 cups corn meal *
3 tablespoons flour *
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup lard or tallow (rendered pig or beef fat) *^
½ – 1 cup beef or chicken stock, warm *^

By hand or in a mixer, blend all dry ingredients and lard/tallow.  Your mixture should be slightly crumbled.  Slowly add in the warm stock, mixing as you pour.  To ensure your mixture has enough moisture, roll a small ball of masa dough and drop it in a glass of water.  If your masa floats…it’s ready!  If not, gradually add more stock – but not too much, remember this is dough and not batter.

I use Bob’s Red Mill Organic Corse Grind Corn Meal.  The consistency will be slightly rough where most corn meals are fine ground giving you a smooth texture.

Braised Shredded Beef Tamale Filling
325⁰ for 3 hours + 1 hour resting time after cooking

1 – 3 pound beef shoulder clod roast *^
2-3 tablespoons lard or tallow
1 large yellow onion, chopped *^
4 garlic cloves, minced *^
1 bay leaf
1 cup red chili sauce (recipe below)
3 stalks celery, chopped *^
1 leek, chopped *^
1 quart jar, tomatoes + packed water *^
Kosher salt
Enough beef stock to cover the roast ⅓ to ½ of the way *^

Cover the roast on all sides with kosher salt and pepper.  In a hot skillet melt down lard/tallow; add in roast and sear on all sides till caramelized (1 – 2 minutes per side).  Place in a roasting pan with sides high enough to allow the roast to be submerged in liquid ⅓ to ½ of the way.  Add chopped onion, celery, leek, garlic, tomatoes & their juice, chili sauce, bay leaf, and enough stock to cover the roast ⅓ to ½ of the way.

Cover pan with foil and place in a preheated 325⁰ oven for 3 hours.  After the first hour, uncover, turn the roast so the opposite side is submerged in the liquid, recover and place back in the oven.  Do this twice more during the remaining cooking time.  After 3 hours remove the roast from the oven, keep covered and let rest for an hour.  Once rested and cooled, remove the roast from the liquid and place in a deep dish.  The meat should be pull-apart tender.  You can use your hands to pull the meat apart or you can use a fork to shred the meat into smaller pieces.

Red Chili Sauce
15 dried New Mexico & California Red Chili pods
4-5 garlic cloves *^
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons lard or tallow *^
2 teaspoons flour *
2 ½ cups hot water
Extra beef or chicken stock for thinning the sauce once complete *^

In a deep dish place dried chilies and cover with boiling water.  Place a dish on top of the chilies to make sure they stay submerged until they are rehydrated and soft.

Remove the chilies from the water and remove the seeds and stems.  Place the chilies, strained soaking liquid, garlic, cumin, and kosher salt into a blender or food processor – blend until all ingredients are incorporated.  There will still be minor skin pieces.  Use a fine mess strainer to push the blended mixture through, removing the large skin pieces left. Set strained mixture aside.

In a saucepan over medium high heat melt down lard or tallow and add in the flour, creating a roux, cooking till the mixture is a slight toasted color.  Do not burn the roux – it will create a bitter taste and you will need to start over.  Add the chili mixture to the saucepan and stir well.   At this point the sauce consistency is up to you.  Use a ½ cup ladle and add a ladle of stock to the chili mixture and test the flavor and consistency.  Continue to add if you like a thinner sauce.

Assembly of the Tamale
A large steaming pot
A bag of corn husks

In a large pot or a double sink with a stopper, immerse the corn husks in hot water and let soak till the husks rehydrate and become pliable.  Place a plate on top of the husks to make sure they remain submerged in the water.

Set up your workstation.  You’ll need a flat surface to press and roll the tamales.  Set out your bowls of masa, meat, and cheese in assembly order.

Now you are ready for assembly.  Place a corn husk(s) on the work surface with the narrow end closest to you.  Press the masa onto the husk leaving a half-inch space along the left side of the husk.

Place the desired ingredients in the middle of the masa and begin to roll, tucking the ingredients to the middle as you close the husk.

And there you have your first tamale!

Place the rolled tamales seam down into your steaming pot.  Keep space between each tamale so the steam can work through each layer.  Steam for 1 hour

Serve with beans, rice, sour cream, and shredded pepper jack cheese…enjoy!

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