What are your plans for Christmas dinner?  A honey-glazed ham?  A fat, juicy goose?  Actually, I don’t really know what other people serve for the holidays, because for my family, Christmas dinner always means a platter heaped high with steaming homemade tamales–a traditional Mexican festival meal.

Sometime early in their marriage, my Hispanic grandfather managed to convince my German grandmother to help him make dozens of them every year for Christmas.  I remember choking them down as a child, unappreciative of the hours of work that were involved in their production.  When I was older, we started going to my grandparents’ house to help make the tamales.  Donuts were usually present as a reward for a long morning’s work, and laughter was always present to help the morning go by.  I always helped spread the masa; my grandmother did quality control as she added the meat.  My brothers had the lowly job of drying the corn husks, just as my dad had as a child.  “If you don’t help, you don’t eat,” my grandpa always said, although the youngest helpers might not have minded skipping out, either on the helping or the eating.  I think you have to grow into the flavor of tamales–but then you can’t give them up, which explains why I and several of my cousins now make tamales with our own families for Christmas.  My grandpa has been gone for nearly seventeen years and my parents now host the tamale making party.  But I can still make my own batch, 800 miles from home, and share my grandparents’ tradition with my own little family.

I’m always a little intimidated by the tamale making process, but it really isn’t too hard, once you get the hang of it.  The process will go much more quickly, and be much more fun, if you can get a group of people together to assemble the tamales.  If you’re making them on your own, I would give yourself the better part of a day to complete the whole process–although the steps can be divided up over several days, if you wish.  Most of the required ingredients can be found in any good grocery store.  If you have a Mexican grocery store or a tortilla factory nearby, you should be able to find fresh masa and corn husks easily.  Otherwise, you may have some success online.  I was unable to find fresh masa in my area, so I made my own from masa harina, a traditional corn-based flour for making tamales and tortillas.  My grandfather would probably have disapproved, but then he didn’t live in North Dakota, where Mexican groceries are few and far between.

The recipe here will make about five dozen tamales.  The original recipe yields ten dozen, but I’ve decreased everything by half to make it more manageable.  You can make the meat ahead of time, and then do everything else on one day.  It took me about 2 1/2 hours to assemble one batch, not including the corn husk and masa preparation.  The uncooked tamales can be stored in the refrigerator overnight, too, if you don’t have time for the three hour steaming time right after they’re assembled.  Any leftovers will freeze well.

Let’s begin!

We’ll start with the meat filling.  Brown 2 1/2 pounds coarsely ground pork in a large pan or Dutch oven, stirring occasionally.  Boston butt or pork shoulder works well; you can grind it yourself or buy it pre-ground.  Break any large pieces apart; the end result should look similar to ground cooked hamburger, but lighter in color.

1-IMG_2882Remove from heat; drain fat into measuring cup (I use a Pyrex 2-cup measure); refrigerate 1 cup fat for later (sorry; this isn’t health food!).

1-IMG_2883Add to meat:  1 T. + 1 tsp. chili powder, 2 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 1/2 tsp. garlic salt, 1 T. + 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1/4 tsp. ground cloves, 1 1/2 T. white vinegar, and 1 (15 oz.) can tomato sauce.  Stir well; set aside.

1-IMG_2885On to the corn husks.  You should be able to find dried corn husks in the Mexican section of most grocery stores.  In areas with a bigger Hispanic population, you might find them in the produce section, especially around Christmas.  You will definitely be able to find them in any Mexican grocery store.  I bought an 8-ounce bag, but I think next time I’ll go for a full pound; it’s better if you have a little selection among the husks.

1-IMG_2895Place the husks into a large stock pot or canner–be gentle; you don’t want to tear them.  Add enough tap water to cover (about 6 inches).  You may need to add a plate on top to weigh them down.

1-IMG_2896Cover and bring water to a boil over high heat.  As soon as water boils, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer/steam until husks are softened, at least 30 minutes.  You may need to use a pair to tongs to move them around and get them all soaked.  Turn off the heat, but keep the husks covered and in the water until you need them.

1-IMG_2901Next, the masa.  You will need 3 pounds fresh masa.  Again, this can be found at Mexican groceries, tortilla factories, and some large grocery stores.  When we lived in Texas, I found some in the meat cooler section–near the lunch meat, refrigerated pickles, sauerkraut, and so on.  It might be in a bag or in a tub.  To the masa, add the 1 cup reserved pork fat and 1/2 cup + 1/3 cup melted lard (or canola oil).  You may want to microwave the masa for 30-60 seconds to soften it a little, then work the fats in with a sturdy spoon or your hands.  Then add in 1 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. cumin, 3/4 tsp. garlic salt, and 1 1/2 tsp. chili powder.

If, like me, you live in an area where fresh masa is hard to come by, you can resort to using masa harina.  This should be available in the Mexican section of most grocery stores, or you can buy it online.

To use masa harina:  In a large bowl, whisk together 4 cups masa harina, 2 tsp. baking powder, and 1 tsp. salt.  Gradually stir in 4 cups broth (I used homemade chicken stock, but pork would be ideal).  Then stir in the 1 cup reserved pork fat and the spices–1 1/2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. cumin, 3/4 tsp. garlic salt, and 1 1/2 tsp. chili powder.  The consistency should be like a thick peanut butter–spreadable, but not runny.  Add in a little melted lard or canola oil to thin it out, or a little more masa harina to thicken it if needed.

1-IMG_2899Time to assemble the tamales!  You’ll need the masa, the pork filling, a tray for the completed tamales, and a large work surface.  You’ll also need to drain and dry the corn husks.  If you’re working alone, dry five or six husks at a time, then make each tamale, then dry some more husks, etc.  If you have help, one person can dry the husks, one or two can spread the masa, and another can add the meat and roll the tamales.

To dry the husks, carefully remove them from the hot water with tongs, and lay them out on clean towels.  Add more towels on top and press to dry.  If the husks are too wet, the masa won’t stick, but you don’t want them to get too dried out, either.

1-IMG_2903Grab a corn husk.  The best husks to use are large and flat.  The wrinkly ones are frustrating to work with–the masa won’t spread evenly.  So start with the nice husks, like this one, first:

1-IMG_2906This one is both too small and too wrinkly; but don’t throw it away–we’ll use it later:

1-IMG_2907Set the corn husk in front of you with the narrow end pointing up.  There is no right or wrong side.  Spread a rectangle of masa on the bottom right corner of the husk, about six inches high by four or five inches wide.  The masa should go all the way to the edge, and should be just thick enough to cover the husk evenly–don’t make it too thick.  I like to glob about 3 T. of masa on, spread it around, and then scrape away any extra.  I think a regular butter/table knife works best for this.

1-IMG_2919Next, put about 1 T. pork in a line on the masa, about an inch from the right edge, like this:

1-IMG_2910Fold the right edge of the husk over the meat:

1-IMG_2912Then roll up the rest of the way.

1-IMG_2913Finally, bend the narrow end of the husk over, like this:

1-IMG_2915Set the tamale down on your tray with the bend end tucked underneath.  Repeat.

1-IMG_2927Finally, the tamales need to be steamed.  You will need a pot that is at least two or three inches taller than the tamales are long–the tamales are going to be steamed upright.  You will also need some kind of rack that will allow the tamales to stand above two inches of water without standing in it.  Some pots come with spaghetti strainer inserts, which can work.  You could also put a simple vegetable steamer in the bottom of a smaller pot.  Both options will probably require you to continue adding water as it boils away, which can be a pain.  I prefer to use a large canner with a rack.  My parents have cut a piece of hardware cloth to fit on top of their canning rack, so the tamales can’t fall through the gaps.  A disposable grill topper can be cut to fit, too.  I didn’t have either on hand, so I tried another way.  I put the rack in upside down and added about two inches of water:

1-IMG_2929Then I added crumpled tin foil around the edge to keep the tamales from falling down:

1-IMG_2930I added the unused corn husks to cover the gaps in the rack:

1-IMG_2931The canner was too big for my tamale batch, so I added a casserole dish to take up space.  If you’re doubling the bath, you can add an upside-down mug.

Once your pot is ready, add the tamales, open end up.  It helps to have another person hold the tamales in place while you add more.

1-IMG_2935Cover; bring water to boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to medium-low; steam, covered, for three hours.

Serve with homemade salsa, corn, and mashed pinto beans (NOT canned!).  Extra tamales can be wrapped in foil and frozen.  To reheat, steam (preferred) or microwave.

Yield:  5 dozen

Pork filling:
2 1/2 pounds pork (Boston butt or pork shoulder), coarsely ground
1 T. + 1 tsp. chili powder
1 T. + 1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. garlic salt
1 T. + 1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 1/2 T. white vinegar
1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce

Cook pork in large pan or Dutch oven, stirring occasionally.  Drain fat into Pyrex measuring cup; save 1 cup for masa.  Add remaining ingredients to meat.  Refrigerate meat and fat until ready to use.

Corn Husks
1 (1 pound) bag dried corn husks

Place corn husks in a large pot or canner.  Add water to cover.  Cover and bring water to a boil over high heat.  As soon as water boils, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer/steam until husks are softened, at least 30 minutes.  Rotate with tongs as needed.  Keep husks in water until ready to use, then dry with towels.

3 pounds fresh masa (see below for masa harina option)
1 cup reserved pork fat
1/2 + 1/3 cup melted lard (or canola oil)
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
3/4 tsp. garlic salt
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder

Combine masa, fat, and lard or canola oil.  Add remaining ingredients until well combined.

Masa (from masa harina)
4 cups masa harina
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
4 cups broth (chicken or pork)
1 cup reserved pork fat
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
3/4 tsp. garlic salt
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder

In a large bowl, whisk together masa harina, baking powder, and salt.  Gradually stir in broth and reserved fat.  Then stir in remaining ingredients until well combined.

To assemble and cook tamales:
Spread masa on corn husks (6″ by 4-5″ rectangle), with approximately 1 T. meat in center.  Roll up and fold over end.  Steam, open end up, in large pot with 2 inches of water (on steaming rack–tamales should not touch water) for three hours, covered.