One of the best things about Christmas for me growing up were the tamales my mom and my tías made for Christmas dinner. No turkey or ham for us.
And there were different kinds: beef with a red chile sauce, chicken with a green tomatillo sauce and even sweet tamales with coconut, pineapple and raisins. But the most popular were the ones with beef in a red chile sauce.
I recently tried making the red chile and beef tamales, even though it was not Christmas. They turned out OK, but my mom’s are still the best. Here is my attempt.
2 pounds beef shoulder roast
salt and pepper, to taste
1 onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
4-5 garlic cloves, peeled
6 cups beef stock or water
Season the beef with salt and pepper and brown in a large pot. When browned all over, add the stock or water along with the onion, bay leaf and garlic and simmer until it is tender, about 2 hours. Let it cool and then shred the meat and set aside. You can save the broth to add to the masa and/or sauce.
8-10 large ancho chiles (depending on the size)
4 Roma tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
3-4 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
2-3 cups beef broth
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
salt, to taste
3/4 cup heavy cream
Wipe the chiles with a damp paper towel. Cut the chiles open and remove the stems and seeds. Heat a dry skillet over medium heat and toast the chiles, turning, until they are aromatic, about 10 seconds. Do not burn or the chiles will be bitter. Put the chiles in a bowl, add hot water to cover and soak for about 20 minutes. Drain and place in the blender.
Put the tomatoes, onion, garlic, spices and broth in the blender along with the chiles blend to a smooth purée. The sauce should have the consistency of heavy cream. If too thick, add about a tablespoon of broth or water at a time to reach that consistency.
In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the chile purée. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer the sauce, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream and heat for 3 – 4 minutes.
You can use this sauce for enchiladas, chilaquiles, or other foods that call for a chile sauce.
For the tamales: add the shredded beef to the sauce and simmer for a 5 – 10 minutes.
To make the tamales, you will need dried corn husks which you can find in most grocery stores or at a local Mexican mercado. For this recipe, I bought 3 packages, but they come in different sizes. You need to account for the extra leaves that you will need to line the steamer as the tamales cook. I would buy some extra and save what you don’t use for more tamales later.
Take the corn husks and rinse them off. They sometimes have dried corn silk and other debris in them. Some companies are better at cleaning their product. Once they are rinsed, you soak them for a couple of hours in hot/warm water. We don’t have a tamal steamer, so I use our stock pot. You will want to weight the leaves down so they stay submerged. I use a small pot, fill it with water and place it on top of the corn husks.
3 cups masa harina (corn flour for tamales)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups beef broth or water (you can add a bit of the sauce to add that flavor to the masa.
In a medium bowl, mix together the masa harina, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In the mixing bowl, beat the shortening and butter until creamy.
Beat in about 1/4 of the dry masa mixture and broth/water.
Continue beating and adding the remaining masa mixture and broth/water in 3 additions. Beat until the dough is soft and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl.
To test, drop a small piece of dough into a glass of water. If it floats, the masa is ready.
The dough should be soft, moist and easy to spread, but not wet or sticky. If the dough is too thick, beat in 1 tablespoon of broth/water at a time.
2 -3 Russett potatoes
4 – 5 carrots
1 jar of manzanilla olives, pitted
1 can of sliced, pickled jalapeños
6 poblano peppers, roasted, peeled and sliced into thin strips
While most tamal fillings are usually just meat, whether it be beef, pork or chicken, our tamales have other ingredients that make them a bit more substantial and add a lot of flavor and texture.
Peel and slice the potatoes and carrots into small sticks. Soak them in water until you assemble the tamal. I place the olives, jalapeño slices and the poblano strips (see BASICS: Roasting Peppers) in separate containers to make it easier to assemble later on.
Assembling the Tamal
We are now ready to assemble the tamal.
The corn husks should have soaked for a while and be soft and pliable. Drain them and go through them one husk at a time. Pull them aside into different categories: For the tamal, for tying strips, and to line the steamer.
For the tamal: You will want to put aside the corn husks that have a wide open space for the filling.
For the tying strips: You need the leaves that are thicker and firmer and can easily be pulled into thin strips.
For lining the steamer: You use the leaves that have a lot of breaks in them or are very thin.
Once you have all the leaves separated and you’ve prepared the tying strips, you are ready to make the tamal.
Take a wide corn husk and spread a small amount of the masa in the middle of the leaf. Place some of the meat, along with some potato, carrot, olive(s), jalapeños and poblano strips in the middle.
Take another, smaller leaf and spread some of the masa in the middle as well.
You’ll notice that the corn husks have a narrow and a wide end. Line those sides up and place the small one on top of the other. Wrap them together and tie the narrow end with one of the tying strips.
Take the tamal from the tied end in your hands and lightly compress the tamal to create a space to tie it on the other end. Tie the other end and you are done with the assembly process!
You have created a beautiful, delicious tamal! All it needs now is some steam.
I use a stock pot to steam the tamales. If you have a tamal steamer, you can use that. I place a few very clean pennies at the bottom of the stock pot. After adding a steam basket and water up to the level of the basket, place half of the remaining corn husks at the bottom of the pot. Make sure that the water does not touch the tamales. Place the tamales along the sides of the pot, leaving an empty space in the middle. Once all of the tamales are in, cover them with the remaining corn husks. Bring the water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, bring down the temperature. Soak a clean kitchen towel with water, wring it almost dry and place it over the corn husks. Cover the pot with aluminum foil to seal the steam in and cover with the lid.
Steam for about an hour and a half. After about an hour, you might want to check a tamal to see if they are ready. You can tell they are ready when the masa pulls away from the corn husk.
Do not let the water dry out. The pennies are there to let you know that there is still water at the bottom of the pot. They will move and make noise if there is water agitating them. If it gets quiet, add more water.
When they are done steaming, take the tamales out and let them sit for about 10-15 minutes to let the masa firm up a bit. Then you can enjoy a delicious tamal!
NOTE: Make sure you don’t eat the corn husk! They add flavor, but they are not good eats.