Recipe: Holiday Tamales, a family tradition

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photo by Brad Robinson

My family has always made tamales at Christmas time. My dad whips the fresh ground masa with fat, my mom makes red chile sauce and braises pork and beef overnight to make the filling. And then all the friends, aunts, grandmothers, and children come over to sit around the table and make dozens and dozens of tamales. The process itself, called a Tamalada, is a party complete with margaritas, nachos, Christmas tunes, and holiday spirit. When I lived outside of Texas and couldn’t make tamales with my family, I made them with friends. I remember after a particularly raucous tamalada in New York City with some friends I slammed my forehead into a his countertop retrieving a beer pong ball and later that night puked up red chile all over my Astoria stoop.

This year things are a little different, the family party (and the tamale count) was much smaller, but we passed the tradition on to my two-year-old daughter who formed her first tamale this year.

I’ve continued this tradition at LeRoy and Lewis of tamale making but, just like our new school barbecue, we put our own spin on the tradition. My grandmother’s recipe used Crisco, we use rendered animal fat because we have it in great supply at all times. My mom’s recipe uses a mixture of beef and pork for her red chile tamales, I use barbacoa because, again, we have it in droves. And instead of a party, it’s a weeks-long slog of mixing masa, making salsa, forming, steaming, and packing tamales. For days and days, it’s noting but tamale making.

The past few years we have taken tamale orders by email, but this year due to COVID, we have a brand spankin’ new online ordering system and it made it that much easier for guests to place and a pay for their orders online.

Each year we have doubled our tamale totals. The first year we made about 30 dozen and I though that was a lot. Last year we did about 60 dozen and I couldn’t believe it doubled. This year we sold over 125 dozen tamales and I thought the orders would never stop coming in.

But they did, and we got them all done. And now we get to share this generational tradition with almost 100 families during Christmas. And hopefully after watching our Patreon video and using the recipe below, you too can start a tamale making tradition with your family.

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Grandma’s OG recipe, a family heirloom

Red Chile Sauce:

In a medium sized stock pot, combine all ingredients and cover with water. Bring to a boil and place a lid on the pot. Steep the chiles for 10 minutes. Puree the chiles with steeped chile tea in a high speed blender for a smooth sauce. Combine this sauce with 1 lb chopped brisket or barbacoa for tamale filling.

Green Sauce:

Combine all ingredients in a pot big enough to fit everything, put a lid on it and cook on medium until all the veggies are soft and have given up their liquid. Puree with a stick blender until smooth. Mix this salsa with 1 lb pulled pork for tamale filling.

For the masa:

In a large bus tub, mix together the dry masa, salt, bullion, baking powder, and garlic.

Add the warm water/stock and melted animal fat and mix together with gloved hands until everything is incorporated and smooth.

Make the tamales:

Soak 2 (1lb) packs dry corn husks in water to hydrate for 10 minutes.

Spread 2–3oz masa on the smooth side of the husk near the top wide end into the size of a small tortilla, about a 4" disc.

Add 1.5–2oz of desired filling to the masa and use the husk to fold the sides of the masa together. If a little bit of the filling is still poking out, that’s ok. Roll the husk around the masa and fold the skinny end up along the seam. Place seam-side down to store and repeat this process about a hundred times or until all the masa and/or filling is gone.

In a large steamer pot with 2" of water in the bottom, layer the tamales in a circle, open side up with the seam facing the outside side of the pot to keep them folded. Layer the folded tamales in the pot in smaller circles leading to the center of the pot until it’s full.

Put the pot over high heat with the lid on until steam starts to come out of the lid. Move the heat down to medium and steam for one hour. After an hour, let the tamales rest for 20 minutes off the heat until slightly cooled.

Unwrap from the husk and serve with salsas, queso fresco, fresh cilantro, and lime.

Written by

Chef/Pitmaster from Austin, Texas

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