A Christmas Eve tradition

TAMALES, ah, tamales! For many Mexican-Americans (and just plain lovers of good Mexican food) in Southern California, across much of the Southwest, and in communities from coast to coast, Christmas Eve is the Night of the Tamale. Other delicious Mexican foods will be found on heavy-laden holiday tables, but it is the tamale that is the culinary star of Holy Night. Some plan-ahead tamale lovers might put together a big batch several weeks before Christmas, then pop them in the freezer for later use. But for most celebrants, the 24th day of December is the traditional time to make tamales.

There are many different kinds of tamales made in Mexico. Some are wrapped in banana leaves. But on the United States side of the border, they're usually made of masa spread on a dried corn husk, and topped with finely-shredded meat -- often beef, pork, chicken, or turkey -- warmly seasoned, and with the corn husk folded or tied shut. A couple of dozen tamales are placed on a rack in each big kettle of gently simmering water, then they're covered and steamed for up to an hour.

Masa is a mixture of finely ground corn flour whipped with lard or vegetable shortening and moistened with rich meat broth or even water. It's usually made from Masa Harina, a product widely distributed by the Quaker Oats Company, sometimes listed in tamale recipes as ``instant masa.'' Masa can also be purchased already mixed from some Mexican restaurants or tortillerias.

Bags of dried corn husks, one of the essential tamale ingredients, are available not only in Mexican food markets, but also in many supermarkets throughout the country.

Just before Christmas Eve, groups of women -- mothers and daughters, relatives, friends, neighbors -- will make literally millions of tamales, soaking dried corn husks in water for an hour or two to make them soft and pliable, preparing masa, cooking and shredding beef or pork, chicken, or turkey, and assembling all the hot sauces and the other good seasonings.

Other tamale fillings might include chorizo, the flavorful Mexican sausage, one of many nice cheeses, freshly grated sweet corn, or chopped-up green chilies. And there are fruit-filled tamales and sweet tamales stuffed with a mixture of brown sugar, chopped nuts, raisins, and citron, or candied citrus peel.

When at last the kitchen work is done and the cooking completed, the hosts and their guests sit down to a long-awaited Christmas Eve dinner. Along with many other wonderful Mexican holiday dishes, dozens and dozens of steaming hot tamales are brought to the table, unwrapped, and promptly devoured.

Tamales may be made of almost any kind of meat, and any one meat may be substituted for another -- pork for beef or chicken, turkey for beef or pork. In other places, meat-filled tamales might be made of mutton or lamb, kid, venison, small game, or game birds such as ducks or wild pigeons. Bustamento's Beef Tamales Dried corn husks for about 32 tamales 11/2 to 13/4 pounds lean beef brisket 4 cloves garlic, sliced Salt Freshly ground black pepper 11/3 cups lard or vegetable shortening 4 cups instant masa (Masa Harina) 11/2 cups warm beef broth 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 3 cans (12 ounces each) hot red Mexican chile sauce or taco sauce 3/4 cup flour

Soak dried corn husks in warm water for a couple of hours or until soft and pliable. Drain husks on paper towels and cover with a damp kitchen towel until ready to use. Simmer beef brisket, covered, in water with garlic and salt and pepper as desired until tender, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Drain beef, reserving 2-1/2 cups of strained beef broth, and finely shred meat.

In mixing bowl, beat lard or vegetable shortening until light and fluffy. Slowly blend in instant masa, beef broth, baking powder, and salt. Dough is done when a small piece dropped in a glass of cold water will float. Cover with a damp cloth until ready to use.

In small bowl, blend 1 can of hot red chile sauce or taco sauce and 3/4 cup flour and stir until smooth. Pour mixture in saucepan and add the 2 remaining cans of sauce. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened. Add shredded beef and cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is well seasoned with sauce.

To assemble tamales, select wide corn husks without tears and spread about 2 tablespoons of masa dough about 2- to 3-inches wide and 3- to 4-inches long in center of husk, starting at the right edge. Mound 2 tablespoons of the beef mixture in center of masa. Fold the right side of husk halfway over filling, then fold the other edge of husk over filling. Fold bottom edge of husk over center, and fold down tip. To hold shut, tie each tamale with string or a thin strip of corn husk.

Place tamales, folded side down, on a rack about 2 inches above simmering water in a large kettle or roasting pan. Bring water to a boil, reduce heat, and cover kettle or roasting pan. Steam tamales for about 1 hour. Tamales are done when masa is firm and does not stick to husk. Serve at once on heated platter. Makes about 32 tamales.

Sweet tamales may include all sorts of ingredients to embellish the masa dough -- raisins, citron, many varieties of slivered or chopped nuts, shredded coconut, brown sugar, chopped fresh pineapple, peaches, apricots, cherries or bananas, jams or marmalades. Sweet Tamales Dried corn husks for about 32 tamales 1/2 cup lard or vegetable shortening 22/3 cups instant masa (Masa Harina) 5/8 to 2/3 cup sugar 3/4 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons baking powder 2 cups warm water 2/3 cup coarsely chopped raisins 2/3 cup finely slivered almonds 2/3 cup coarsely chopped citron

Soak dried corn husks in warm water for an hour or two or until soft and pliable. Drain husks on paper towels and cover with a damp kitchen towel until ready to use. In mixing bowl, beat lard or vegetable shortening until light and fluffy. Combine instant masa, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Using an electric mixer, gradually beat ingredients into lard or shortening.

Add only enough warm water, while continuing to beat, to make a soft dough. Dough is ready to use when a small piece dropped in a glass of cold water will float.

To assemble sweet tamales, spread a heaping tablespoon of masa dough in a rectangle starting at the right edge of corn husk -- with tip pointing away. Top masa with 1 heaping teaspoon each of raisins, almonds, and chopped citron. Fold right side of husk halfway over filling, then fold left edge completely over filling. Fold bottom edge of husk over center, and fold down tip to make a compact little package. Tie each tamale shut with string or a thin strip of corn husk.

To steam tamales, use a large kettle or roasting pan. Stack tamales loosely on rack about 2 inches above simmering water so that steam will circulate freely. Bring water to a boil, reduce heat, and cover kettle or roasting pan. Cooking time varies, but most require steaming for about 1 hour. Sweet tamales are done when masa is firm, smells like cooked corn meal, and no longer sticks to the husk. Makes about 32 tamales.

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