For years my dad told my brothers and me, "If you boys are not good kids, I'm going to tell Santa Claus and he won't bring you anything, and the only thing you'll have to unwrap at Christmas are the tamales your mom, tias (aunts), and abuelitas (grandmas) are making."

I've known for years that tamales are a must-have holiday tradition. Some time ago I asked our family elders, "Why tamales? Why are they a main staple of our holiday meals?" The answers I received made a heck of a lot of sense.

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First off, tamales are considered a seasonal food because of the cooler weather. Tamale ingredients are more readily available in the fall and winter months. The corn husks come from the corn harvest, and meats for the most part are harvested and put up for freezing in the colder days to come.

Like in our home and many Mexican households, Christmas is a time of religious observance. Tamales are often prepared as part of the celebration of Christmas Eve, known as "Nochebuena" (aka the Good Night). The act of making tamales can be a way for families to come together in a peaceful setting, share a meal, and celebrate the birth of Christ.

Tamales are a labor-intensive food to assemble and often signify the labor of love given by the Savior. To me, it ain't Christmas without them. The tradition of making tamales around Christmas has deep cultural roots too.

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish made of masa, filled with various ingredients like meat, cheese, chilies, or fruits, then wrapped in corn husks and steamed. The recipe below will give you a better idea as to why tamales are so good.

Traditional Tex-Mex Tamale Recipe via my Mom's old recipe book Feliz Navidad!

Making tamales involves preparing the masa, making the filling, putting the tamales together, and then steaming them. This is a basic recipe for making traditional pork tamales, but one can use beef, chicken, turkey, pumpkin, or any other filling you can think of. Create and enjoy.

Ingredients:

For the Filling:

  • 2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into chunks
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil for cooking

For the Masa:

  • 4 cups masa harina (corn masa flour is a masa flour that is unique corn used to make the masa flour - it's soaked in lime water or calcium hydroxide to change the flavor of masa flour)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cups lard or vegetable shortening
  • 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth (warm)

For Assembly:

  • Corn husks, soaked in warm water until pliable
  • Salsa, for serving (optional)

Instructions:

1. Prepare the Filling:

a. In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the pork chunks and brown them on all sides. b. Add the chopped onion and minced garlic to the pot and sauté until the onion is translucent. c. Season the mixture with cumin, chili powder, oregano, salt, and pepper. d. Pour in the chicken or vegetable broth, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the pork is tender (approximately 2-3 hours). Shred the pork with a fork.

2. Prepare the Masa:

a. In a large mixing bowl, combine the masa harina, baking powder, and salt. b. In a separate bowl, beat the lard or vegetable shortening until fluffy. c. Gradually add the masa harina mixture to the beaten lard, alternating with warm chicken or vegetable broth. Mix until you achieve a smooth, spreadable consistency.

3. Assemble the Tamales:

a. Spread a thin layer of masa onto the soaked corn husks, leaving a border around the edges. b. Spoon a portion of the pork filling onto the center of the masa. c. Fold the sides of the corn husks toward the center, enclosing the filling, and fold up the bottom. d. Place the tamales seam-side down on a tray.

4. Steam the Tamales:

a. Arrange the tamales vertically in a steamer basket, leaving space for steam to circulate. b. Steam the tamales over simmering water for 1.5 to 2 hours, or until the masa is firm. c. Check periodically and add more water to the steamer if necessary.

5. Serve:

a. Allow the tamales to cool slightly before serving.
b. Serve with salsa if desired.

Enjoy your homemade tamales! Remember that this recipe can be adjusted to include different fillings or variations in the masa to suit your taste preferences.

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