What is Christmas without tamales? NADA! We can deck the halls all over the place. We can come a wasailing and bring a figgy pudding. But it wouldn't be Christmas without serving tamales at the table. After many hours of field research and compiling information for a fiscal study, we determined it was not in our best interest to invest in store-bought tamales this year. $15 bucks a dozen is a lot of dinero for keeping our tradition of enjoying a simple tamal during the holidays. I was very disappointed with the filling of thin shreds of meat and mushy gristly fat in the store-bought tamales I tasted recently. The masa was heavy, and it felt like a brick. Try getting up off the sofa after eating one of those tamales. And the lighter version of a "veggie" tamal was nothing to get excited enough to fork over that kind of money. One place actually used canned school cafeteria "Veg-All" in their cheese tamal. Que barbaridad! "It's $15 a dozen for all the tamales, cheese or meat." What?!
Time was running out, so I quickly made an executive decision to skip the tiendas, panaderias and tortillerias. I called my cousin Nicky to make a deal: come over and help make tamales and we'll split them up between us. It was an offer she couldn't refuse. Her favorite tamale place had also raised their prices. And her husband's primary tamale maker was too ill this year. Tamale making requires tremendous physical strength. Seriously. So Tamale Time 2006 was on!
Like with any good food, the key to making a good tamal is using quality ingredients. And with the holidays, it is hardly the time to skimp, but we had a goal of keeping our food cost low. Should we use a packaged sack of dry masa harina from off the supermarket shelf? Maybe another time, but not for Christmas. I opted for the fresh masa from SuperA market, and at only 89 cents a pound, it fit our budget. Regardless of what type used, a good masa requires beating, broth, and some additional fat. Some cooks use shortening (YUCK!) and others use a ton of lard (DOUBLE YUCK!) but for 15 pounds of masa, I only used one pound of lard. The additional broth is for flavor. The traditional test of masa readiness is to drop a teaspoonful into a glass of water. If it floats, the masa is ready. David Letterman should try that one on a "Will It Float?" segment! While mixing the masa, we discovered that it didn't have to be heavily laden with fat to be tasty. As long as it came together and didn't cling to the hoja, it would work. The result was a masa closer to a lighter firm polenta. Not that heavy brick. Who knew?
Canned red chile sauce? No, I have a trusted connection in Monterey Park that makes their chile colorado sauce from scratch. I could make it myself, but we were under the gun. That extra three to four hours to make homemade chile colorado sauce would have put me well into the wee small hours, staying up long after Conan and Carson Daly.
With the masa ready and the chile colorado well-chilled it was time to cook the meat for the tamale filling.
(To be continued...)