By Natalie BennettThursday 23 Dec 2021The Morning Wake-up with KristianLifestyleReading Time: 6 minutes
Christmas around the world continues with South American Tamales for Christmas. Tamales are said to have been part of Mexican culture as far back as 8,000 to 5,000 BC. Today they are a central part of Christmas fare and are central to Nochebuena celebrations.
The word tamale or tamal comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli, meaning “carefully wrapped and is made from corn masa steamed in a leaf wrapper. They are typically filled with cheese, meat, vegetables, chilies, or even sweet varieties with raisins, fruit, and cinnamon sugar.
Tamales are so iconic in Mexican culture that recipes are often passed on from mother to daughter over hundreds of years. The lengthy process of tamale-making is filled with female family rituals and lore.
South American Tamales for Christmas
To make tamales, you will need the following ingredients:
Dried Corn Husks:
These may be available in the Mexican or produce section of your grocery store, or if not, you can order them on Amazon. In general, you want to look for husks that are wide enough to wrap around the entire tamal filling. But if you happen to get a bag of husks that are fairly narrow, hakuna matata, you can just overlap two on top of each other. We will also shred a few husks into lots of long skinny pieces to tie the tamales together.
Masa (Dough) Ingredients:
Store bought corn tortillas or if you want to make your own, you will need:
- Masa Harina: Finely-ground nixtamalized corn flour.
- Corn Oil or Avocado Oil: I prefer these two, but any mild-flavored oil will do.
- Stock: Chicken, beef or vegetable stock will work — yoou pick!
- Baking Powder, Salt and Ground Cumin: To season the masa.
As I said, you can literally fill these tamales with just about anything! They are a fantastic way to use up leftover taco fillings, meat, veggies, cheese, you name it. Or, you can totally cook up a new batch of filling from scratch to go in these. You will need about 2-3 cups of filling this recipe, so feel free to mix and match whatever sounds good. Ideas could include:
- Chicken: Any kind of cooked, shredded chicken will do.
- Beef: Any kind of cooked and shredded (or ground) beef will do. You could brown some ground beef, or use some leftover steak or roast beef.
- Pork: Any kind of cooked and shredded/pulled pork will do.
- Refried Beans: Refried pinto or black beans are a delicious (and super-easy!) vegetarian option, which you can either use on their own, or mix with cheese and/or roasted veggies.
- Cheese: Cheese is another delicious vegetarian option that you can use on its own, or pair with any other fillings. I would highly recommend mozzarella, but any cheese will do.
- Veggies: And of course, you can always use any kind of veggies, either on their own as a vegetarian option or paired with any other fillings. The veggies will need to be cooked ahead of time however.
If your filling recipe includes quite a bit of sauce, you may not need to add any extra. But in general, I highly recommend adding some extra sauce to your meat or vegetarian fillings. Store-bought salsa will definitely save you a big step, but feel free to go the extra mile and make homemade salsa if you’d like! You will need about 1-ish cups of sauce for this recipe — enough to add a light coating to the filling, without making it too juicy/watery. And then I would also recommend having lots of extra salsa on hand for serving once the tamales have cooked. You can choose just about any kind you love.
Once the tamales are cooked, I’m a big fan of loading them up with lots of toppings. They are totally optional, but I would recommend any combination of:
- Chopped Coriander: always a winner
- Avocado: always always a winner
- Sour Cream: Delicious
How to assemble Tamales:
It’s much easier than you might think! Simply:
- Soak your corn husks. Find a large stockpot or pan big enough to fit the corn husks, then fill it with very warm water and a lid. The corn husks will float to the top, so you may need to add something to weigh them down a bit so that they are submerged. They will need to soak for about 30 minutes, or until softened.
- Mix up your masa (dough). Meanwhile, mix up your masa. You can either do this in a stand mixer (the easiest) or with a hand mixer (a bit more messy) or by hand (lots of work). Mix it up according to the recipe below, and then cover with a damp towel and refrigerate until ready to use. (Or use store bought tortillas)
- Prepare your fillings and salsa. See options above for ideas! Whatever sounds good to you, prepare both your fillings and salsa, them toss them together in a bowl until combined.
- Then…assemble the tamales! As I said, this is the part that will take a little while. But I find it totally relaxing and repetitive. So prepare an assembly line of your ingredients, and get in your groove.
- Lay the soaked corn husk on a flat surface. A simple plate or cutting board will do.
- Spread your masa on the corn husk. About 1/4 cup (or a little more) will do. I highly recommend using a large cookie scoop to measure out the masa. Use a spoon or your fingers to spread it out into a rectangle large enough to enclose your filling. (I keep a little bowl of water nearby to dip my fingers regularly, which helps the masa from sticking to them.)
- Add your filling/sauce to the center of the masa. Tamales use surprisingly little filling — just a tablespoon or two will do. Add it to the center of your masa.
- Fold the corn husk in half vertically. Then very carefully, fold the corn husk in half so that the masa wraps completely around the filling, maybe using your fingers to pinch it together just a little bit.
- Wrap the corn husk into a little burrito. Continue folding the corn husk completely over to one side so that it is a burrito/cylinder shape.
- Fold the top (skinny) end down to enclose one end of the tamal. One end of the tamal will be exposed, and the other will be folded over. (I like to fold my tamales to cover the side with the seam.
- Tie the tamal together. I like to shred a few corn husks into long skinny strips to tie the tamales together (this is a perfect use for the husks that are too skinny!). But you can also use baking string.
How to make Tamales on the stovetop
To make the tamales on the stovetop, you will need a large stockpot with a strainer. I used a strainer pot that came with my stockpot. But you can also purchase various kinds of strainer baskets separately.
To make tamales on the stovetop, simply add the tamales to the strainer, add 2 cups of water to the base of the pot, cover and steam on medium heat for about 30-40 minutes, or until the masa separates easily from the husks.
How to serve Tamales
Once your tamales are all cooked and ready to go, please — please — stop right there and serve a batch fresh outta the steamer. There is nothing like the warmth, texture, and flavor of freshly-cooked tamales. They’re amazing!!!
Just carefully unwrap your tamal (you will not eat the corn husk), top the tamal with your favorite toppings (see ideas above), and dig in! ?