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Tamale Madness!

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It's tamale season! Every year around this time, our family spends one Sunday wrapping tamales for Christmas Eve. It's easiest to make the meat the day before, then have the wrapping party the next day. This is not a solo project. Stock up on beer and make something easy, like chili, and invite all of your friends over.

Call every Mexican restaurant/deli/store in your phone book and find one that sells the masa pre-prepared. Some may call it cheating, but it makes this process much more managable. You just have to stir in the stock and red sauce and you're ready. If you have to, buy masa flour near the regular flour in the grocery store (directions for preparing masa are on the package).

You will need a big pot on the stove with a steamer basket and lid. Three pots going is best if you can get them. You will also need a kettle or additional pot to keep water boiling to fill steamers, as well as tongs for removing tamales.

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Cover the table with a big vinyl picnic tablecloth. Put a bunch of big spoons and spatulas and some damp kitchen towels on the table. You will need A LOT of bowls for everyone to be able to reach the masa and filling, plus empty steamer baskets.

(Recipe after the jump)

At least an hour before filling tamales, fill the sink with cold water. Pour in the dry cornhusks. Let them soak for awhile. Pick a person who doesn't mind grunt work and won't holler if they see a bug. When husks are pliable, set this person to work separating the husks and removing the cornsilk and occasional small dried beetle. Take them out as needed, and wipe or let dry so masa won't get runny on them. Some husks are too small for a tamale. You can just overlap them, or make strips with them to tie the other tamales with.

This looks so much harder than it is. It will be simple as you do it, but I don't want to forget any detail you may need. Be flexible with quantities, you may need more red sauce or meat or masa depending on how fat you make the tamales. Most of all, have fun! It's always a great bonding experience. Your first tamales will be goofy and fall apart - just laugh. Some end up pencil thin or "pregant" looking - that is the beauty of homemade. This is a "starter" recipe...we usually order 25 pounds of masa.

You can fill the tamales with chicken, chile verde, pork shoulder, Jack cheese and green chiles, or even make sweet ones.

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But my family likes beef tamales, so here's that recipe. Let's get cooking:

BEEF TAMALES (Thanks to my mom and the ladies at Our Lady of Guadalupe church)

5 pounds prepared masa

5 pounds boneless beef roast

1 Tablespoon salt

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4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 medium onion, chopped

Red Sauce (recipe below)

1/2 pound cleaned and soaked corn husks

Rub salt and garlic into the meat, place in roasting pan and top with sliced onions. Pour about 3 cups of water or beer in the bottom of the roasting pan. Roast, covered, at 300 degrees for 5 hours. Shred meat, reserving the stock. Add some red sauce and stir. Let cool a little.

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Mix masa in an electric mixer with a little of the stock from the meat and some red sauce to give it flavor and get the proper consistency. As with anything, there is a certain "look" to masa when it is just right. You want it spreadable like frosting, but without any trickles of liquid coming out when it is spread.

Place bowls of meat and bowls of masa around the table for everyone.

To wrap a tamale: Lay out a cornhusk flat, long side perpendicular to you, wider part at top. With a rubber spatula, spread the masa about 1/4 inch thick, covering half of husk from the top down, a 1/2-inch or so away from the sides. Spread a heaping tablespoon of filling/beef down the center. Fold over the sides of the husk so the masa touches, completely encasing the meat. Fold bottom up. (Some people tie the bottom, but we don't bother because we cram so many in there they don't unravel).

Set tamales, folded bottom down (the top will clearly have masa will be obvious as you do it) in a steamer basket. Cover top of steamer basket with foil and set in pot. Pour about 4 cups boiling water into pot, being careful not to let water touch tamales. Place lid on pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer 2 hours until tamales are steamed (check every 20 minutes or so to add more hot water if needed). Serve with red sauce. After the tamales have cooled, freeze in storage bags, a dozen tamales per bag, until Xmas eve.


5 ounces California or Pasilla dried chiles

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 medium onion

1/4 cup oil

2 Tablespoons flour

Remove stems and seeds from chile pods. Rinse and then soak in 3 cups hot water for 1 hour. Drain, reserving water. Put chiles, spices and onion in a blender. Blend, adding water until the sauce is the consistency of gravy. In a saucepan, heat the oil. Add flour and stir until brown. Add red sauce from blender to pan and cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Here is a good demo video on tamale wrapping. Her masa is much stiffer than mine before she adds water for spreading. You could never roll mine up in a ball like that without making a big mess.

(Photo by Elise Thompson for LAist)