When I was a child, my mother would sometimes buy a glass jar (I have conveniently forgotten the brand name) packed with what we called "hot tamales". Wrapped individually in parchment paper, covered in a thin, brackish, tomato-y fluid, these slippery travesties were all I knew of tamales until I moved to Mexico.
The first Christmas season I that I lived South of the Border, my neighbor came to my door to deliver a dozen of her finest home made tamales, fresh from the tamalera (tamales steamer). I knew enough of Mexican culture to understand that to refuse them would be an irreparable insult, but I also was guilty of what I now know as contempt prior to investigation. I did not want tamales. The memory of those childhood tamales was disgusting. I smiled and thanked her as graciously as I could.
A three-compartment tamalera: bottom left, Oaxaca-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Right, central Mexico-style tamales, wrapped in corn husks.
"Pruébalos ya!" she prodded. "Taste them now!" With some hesitation I reached for a plate from the shelf, a fork from the drawer (delay, delay) and unwrapped the steaming corn husk wrapper from a plump tamal she said was filled with pork meat and red chile. One bite and I was an instant convert. My grin told her everything she wanted to know. She went home satisfied, wiping her hands on her apron. I downed two more tamales as soon as she was out of sight. More than 25 years later, I haven't stopped loving them.
Christmas in Mexico is a time for special festive foods. More tamales than any other food come from the Christmas kitchen. Tamales of pork, beef or chicken with spicy red chile, tamales of rajas con queso (strips of roasted poblano chiles with cheese), and sweet pineapple ones, each with a single raisin pressed into the masa (dough), pour in a steady, steaming mountain from kitchen after kitchen.
I asked my next door neighbor what she's making for Christmas Eve dinner. "Pues, tamales,que más," she answered. "Well, tamales, what else!"
I asked the woman who grooms my dog. "Pues, tamales, que más!"
I asked the woman who cuts my hair. "Pues, tamales, que más!"
And my gardener. "What's your Mom making to eat for Christmas Eve, Jorge?"
I bet by now you know what he replied. "Pues,tamales, que más?"
Obviously there are other things eaten on Christmas Eve in Mexico. Some folks feast on bacalao a la vizcaína (dried salt codfish stewed with tomatoes, capers, olives, and potatoes). Some women proudly carry huge clay cazuelas (rustic casserole dishes) of guajolote con mole poblano (turkey in a complex, rich sauce of chiles, toasted spices, and chocolate, thickened with ground tortillas) to their festive table. Some brew enormous ollas (pots) of menudo (tripe and cow's foot soup) or pozole (a hearty soup of prepared corn, chiles, pork meat, and condiments) for their special Christmas Eve meal, traditionally served late on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), after the Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass).
Doña Martha Prepares Tamales for Christmas
As an exceptional treat, we're sharing part of a photo essay by my good friend Rolly Brook. It's all about tamales, their ingredients and preparation. Rolly's friend Doña Martha cooks a whole pig head for her tamales; many cooks prefer to use maciza—the solid meat from the leg. Either way, the end result is a marvelous Christmas treat.
The photos only show part of the process of making tamales. You can access Rolly's entire photo essay on his website. Rolly graciously allowed Mexico Cooks! the use of his wonderful pictures.
Can we finish all these tamales at one sitting? My friends and neighbors prepare them with leftovers in mind. Here's how to reheat tamales so they're even better than when they first came out of the steamer.
Recalentados (Reheated Tamales)
Over a medium flame, pre-heat an ungreased comal (griddle) or heavy skillet. Put the tamales to reheat in a single layer, still in their corn husk wrappers. Let them toast, turning them over and over until the corn husks are dark golden brown, nearly black. Just when you think they're going to burn, take them off the heat and peel the husks away. The tamales will be slightly golden, a little crunchy on the edges, and absolutely out of this world delicious.
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