Making tamales at Christmas is a tradition in the borderlands, and every family passes down their favorite techniques from generation to generation. Many a spirited discussion ensues when families intermingle and debate the merits of their particular methods. In my house, my mother learned long ago from a group of women in the small New Mexico smelter town where they lived, and in the intervening years, she’s developed her own way of doing things. I’ve helped her for the past several years, but this year, she’s laid up with a bad shoulder. None of us can imagine a Christmas Eve without tamales, so she sat on the sidelines and coached while my sister and I took on the project.
We started with a trip to the nearest Food City, where they conveniently had most of the ingredients stacked in a huge display at the front of the store. We were able to find fresh masa from a local tortilleria packed in five-pound bags, and we used Morrell Snow Cap lard, which is typical along the border. If you want to use non-hydrogenated lard, ask at your local butcher shop to see if they render their own. You can also buy pork fat and render yourself, which is a separate project for another day.
Food City also had carne de res para tamales, which came boneless and looked like a trimmed brisket. You can use boneless chuck or any other inexpensive cut. Our tamales are always beef, but many cooks prefer pork shoulder or a combination. The meat should be prepared a day in advance so that it has time to properly meld with the red chile sauce. Refrigerate it overnight, and then gently warm it in the oven before you start assembling the tamales. Refrigerate the stock overnight too, and then add some of the solidified fat from the top to the masa for some extra flavor. Warm the stock before you add it to the masa.
The corn husks you buy in the store these days are cleaner and more uniform than they used to be, but you’ll still want to rinse them and remove any stray silk or bugs before you soak them. It makes the process go faster if you sort them before you soak. Use the larger, flatter ones first, and then you won’t have to do so much patching together when you assemble the tamales. If you have lots of small bits and pieces, reserve them to cover the pot for steaming. Soak the husks in a sink full of warm water for about a half hour while you’re making the masa.
Speaking of steaming, a tamale pot is the easiest way to do it, but you can also use a pasta pot with an insert or any deep pot and build a steamer rack in the bottom. The tamales will sit on the rack and the water level should be below it – you don’t want the bottoms of the tamales getting soggy.
To prepare the meat, place it in a large pot and cover it with water. Add plenty of salt and pepper, and gently braise it – don’t boil — for several hours. When it’s done, remove it from the stock to cool. Reserve the stock for making the masa. While the meat is cooling, make the chile sauce. You can use soaked red chiles, but we usually use Hatch chile powder. It’s fresh, easy, and the quickest part of the whole process. We usually do both of these the day before so we can get an early start on the tamale making the next day. Shred the meat, add most, but not all, of the chile sauce, cover and refrigerate.
To make a large quantity of tamales (which makes the most sense, since it’s a labor intensive process), you’ll need a very large, sturdy mixing bowl and a heavy duty mixer. First you have to cream the lard and salt together with the mixer until it’s light and fluffy. At this point you can also add some of the solidified fat from the stock and beat it in. Underbeating the lard will make the tamales dense, and you want them to be light and airy.
Once you have the lard beaten, it’s time to put away the mixer and turn to your hands. This is an arduous process, and it takes a good while to get the masa mixed enough, but it’s worth the work and effort. Start by crumbling the masa into the lard, and then mix with your hands until it’s all combined and no lumps remain. Add the reserved red sauce and mix some more, then add the warm stock. Mix until it resembles a very thick pancake batter. Taste and add more salt, if needed, and then drop a small ball of the masa into a glass of cold water. If it floats, the masa is ready. If not, go back to mixing for another few minutes and then try again.
When the masa is ready, the meat is warmed, and the cornhusks are clean and soaked, it’s time to start assembling. Put the cornhusks in a large colander with the narrow ends up so that they drain well (you don’t want them wet). Everyone has a special technique, and with practice you’ll find one that works for you. I like to lay the cornhusk flat on my left hand with the tapered end toward my body. I then spread a portion of masa across the top 2/3 of the corn husk, all the way to the right edge and with a little space on the left edge. I put a portion of the meat down the center of the masa, add a couple of olive slices (some people like to add raisins), then fold the right edge over so the meat is completely covered by masa, and then fold over the left edge. Finally, I fold the bottom of the corn husk up.
When you’re making lots, place the filled tamales on a large flat tray until you have enough to fill the pot, then add water to the bottom so that it’s barely touching the rack. Stand the tamales up in the pot, and pack them tight enough to stand up, but not too tight, or the ones in the middle won’t cook enough. Cover the top of the tamales with a layer of soaked corn husks, put the top on the pot, and heat over high heat until the water is boiling. Turn the heat down so that it steams but doesn’t boil away, and let cook for 45 minutes.
When the tamales are finished steaming, gently remove them from the pot and lay them on a tray to cool. The masa will continue to set up. At this point they can be eaten (and the cooks certainly deserve a couple right out of the pot) or frozen in zippered plastic bags. Repeat the process with all of the remaining tamales. We used two steamer pots so that we could speed up the process.
In addition to the beef tamales, we also made a large batch of green chile and cheese. We followed the same process, but we didn’t add any red sauce to the masa. Instead of meat, we placed a layer of chopped green chile down the center of the masa, along with a layer of shredded cheese.
We spent about seven hours making twenty-four dozen tamales. They don’t look quite as pretty as our mom’s, but they taste good and received her seal of approval. We had a fun day working together in the kitchen, which is the most important part of these shared traditions, and on Christmas Eve, a steaming platter of tamales, made with love and care, will again grace our dinner table.
Makes about 15 dozen
You can cut this recipe in half if you don’t want to make so many.
8 pounds boneless chuck or pork shoulder, or a combination
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
4 cups red chile sauce (recipe follows)
3 bags corn husks
15 pounds masa
4 pounds lard
3 tablespoons salt
8-10 cups meat stock
Black or green olives, sliced (optional)
In a large pot, cover the meat with water, add salt and pepper, and braise for about 3 hours. Reserve stock and allow meat to cool. While the meat is cooling, make the chile sauce. Once the meat has cooled enough to handle, shred it and add 3 cups of the chile sauce, reserving 1 cup for the masa. Can be done up to two days in advance.
Clean and soak the corn husks in tepid water for about 15-30 minutes until soft and pliable.
If the meat has been in the refrigerator, warm it in a low oven, remove the fat from the top of the stock, and warm the stock on the stovetop.
While the husks are soaking, make the masa. With a heavy mixer, cream the lard and salt together until very fluffy. It should look like whipped cream. Crumble the masa into the lard, and using your hands, mix well. The masa and lard should be fully incorporated. Add the reserved 1 cup of red sauce and combine, then add about 8 cups of stock. Mix well. The dough should resemble a thick, soft batter. Add more stock if needed. Adjust the salt to taste. Drop a small ball into a glass of cold water. If it floats, then the masa is done. If not, keep mixing with your hands for another few minutes and then try again.
Drain the corn husks and set up an assembly line.
Place a corn husk on the palm of your hand with the tapered end facing you. Using a large spoon, spread several tablespoons of masa across the husk from side to side and about two-thirds of the way down. Place a helping of meat down the center of the masa, and add olives if desired. Fold the sides over, making sure the masa covers the meat. Finally, fold up the bottom and place on a tray.
When you have about three dozen assembled, place them standing upright in a tamale or steamer pot with water in the bottom. Cover the top of the tamales with damp corn husks, and then cover and place over high heat until the water begins to boil. Turn the heat to low and steam for 45 minutes while you continue to assemble more tamales.
Once the tamales have steamed, gently remove from the pot and lay on a large tray to cool. The masa will set up as they cool. At this point, the tamales may be served or frozen.
To serve, open the husk and scrape out the tamal and any extra masa. Garnish with chili sauce, olives, cheese, onions, lettuce, or whatever you desire. To heat frozen tamales, place in a steamer pot with a small amount of water and steam for about 30 minutes or until heated through.
Red Chile Sauce
1/3 cup oil
1/4 cup flour
1 cup chile powder, hot, mild, or a combination, depending on your taste
4 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon garlic salt
In a large skillet heat the oil and sprinkle in the flour, stirring constantly until the flour is lightly browned. Stir in the chile powder and cook for one more minute, stirring constantly. Add the water, salt, pepper, cumin, and garlic salt. Cook another few minutes until the sauce has thickened.
This sauce is versatile and can be used for enchiladas, smothering burritos, or making other Southwestern specialties in addition to tamales. It freezes well.
Marilyn Noble is the author of four cookbooks, including Southwest Comfort Food, Slow and Savory and is Rio Nuevo’s cookbook and blog editor. She grew up on the border and splits her time between her current home in Colorado and her native Arizona.