Unwrapping a Texas Christmas tradition
Each December, Griselda Mejia puts a lot of hours in preparing all the ingredients to make tamales for her friends, family and neighbors.
It’s labor intensive to make all of the cornhusk-wrapped packets of tender, steamed masa or shredded, fall-apart pork, beef and chicken.
But it wouldn’t be Christmas without them, her daughter, Lily Mejia, said. A good number of Texans agree. Around the state, families gather to make tamales in their kitchens, while sales of the store-bought variety also see a spicy spike around Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Making and enjoying tamales is one of the Mejia family’s favorite holiday traditions and one that has been passed down from generations.
Mejia’s homemade tamales are different from the tamales available at supermarkets. It’s a recipe she learned when she was growing up in Tampico, Mexico, she said.
“I learned by watching my grandmother, and as I grew up, I started making them myself,” she said. “I would add in where I thought I needed it until they tasted just like hers.”
Tamales evoke a particular taste memory, much like a favorite Thanksgiving stuffing or Southern-fried corn families have made for years during the holidays.
Making tamales is about family gathering in the kitchen to make something cherished and eaten all throughout the holidays — at intimate gatherings, house parties and even saved to eat on New Year’s Day, Mejia said.
In Mexico, the most traditional tamales are made from pork or chunks of beef, although chicken also is very popular. In some parts of Mexico, tamales are wrapped in plantain leaves and filled with chicken and onions flavored with a poblano pepper sauce and chocolate.
Mejia’s favorite combination is chicken with a few raisins wrapped in for a little bit of sweetness, she said.
All it takes after the masa is spread on the husk is a generous scoop of filling that should be placed mostly in the middle.
Then, the tamale is folded as you would fold a burrito.
“The whole process takes a while, but it’s worth it,” she said. “They are delicious.”
5 pounds of masa de maize (corn dough)
2 pounds of lard
1 bag of ancho chili peppers
Salt to taste
5 pounds of chicken
Chicken broth (best if collected from the pot the chicken is boiled in)
Cumin to taste
Whole garlic to taste
2 packs of dried corn husks
Clean the husks and soak them in hot water.
Place the whole chicken in a pot and fill the pot with water enough to cover the entire chicken. Bring the water to a rolling boil. Boil chicken until tender.
While chicken is boiling and husks are soaking, clean the chili peppers by cutting off the top and the stem. Split the chili open to reveal the seeds and remove them.
After the peppers have been cleaned, place them in a pot to boil. Boil them until tender. Remove peppers from pot and place in a blender. Save the liquid from the boiled peppers. Pour some of the liquid in the blender and blend mixture at high speed until liquefied.
Melt the lard.
Add liquefied peppers to the masa until the desired color is achieved.
Add the melted lard and salt to the masa and mix well.
Once chicken is cooked tender, allow to cool. Then completely debone the chicken.
Grind pepper, garlic and cumin. This is traditionally done in a molcajete, the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle.
In a separate pan, begin melting about 4 tablespoons of lard over medium heat. Add the left over liquefied peppers and ground spices and fry for a few minutes. Then add the chicken. Mix well while cooking these ingredients in the pan. Allow mixture to simmer for about 20 minutes.
Remove a few husks from where they are soaking. Begin spreading the seasoned masa on the husk. Repeat this with several husks.
Begin adding the cooked and spiced chicken (or any other meat) to the middle of the husk. Fold the husk with meat closed.
The tamales are raw at this point.
Place the raw tamales in a pot. Add 2½ cups of water. Cover the pot and boil for 45 minutes to an hour.
– Recipe by Griselda Mejia