December’s Around the World destination is Mexico where, just a couple of weeks ago, millions of pilgrims flooded into the area around Mexico City’s basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country’s patron saint, to celebrate the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The largest crowd attended on Saturday to fulfil a pledge or a penance, and thousands camped out on the huge plaza at the basilica complex Friday night to be there for Saturday’s mass.
Since 1531, Our Lady of Guadalupe has become the patron saint of the Mexican Republic. Historically and emotionally, the Virgin is deeply woven into the life of every Mexican. During the wars of independence she was the patroness of the Mexican armies. Almost every Mexican town has a church dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and people turn to her for help and guidance on every occasion.
The annual festival actually begins a week before December 12. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the country — many traveling for a week on foot or by burro — flock to the Basilica of Ville Madero, on the outskirts of Mexico City, where the most impressive ceremonies in honour of the Virgin are held. The streets adjoining the church are literally packed with people who wait their turn to enter the church and make their offering.
The climax of the festival begins on the eve of December 12, when the conchero dancers gather in the atrium of the church. The dancing begins at midnight and lasts throughout the day. Groups of dancers alternate to keep up the furious pace. The songs and dances of the concheros, who perform at fiestas all over Mexico, have been handed down through many generations and follow rigid traditional patterns.
Since it is a happy day for all Mexicans, food and drink are enjoyed by rich and poor alike, and many people will save up their money throughout the year for this special occasion.
What’s on the Menu?
This authentic recipe comes straight from my cousin who is, and was raised by, a spectacular Mexican cook. You’re in for a treat! My cousin, Ian, says that Tamales are typically made in bulk, so call up your friends and family, put some music on, and have a catch up while working on the tamales. Many hands make light work and it’s fun to have a house full of people for a big food project.
The below recipe made over 20 dozen tamales in Ian’s last batch, so feel free to reduce the recipe as desired.
13.5 kg Ground corn masa (preferably no lard or salt added)
Dried corn husks (hojas, pronounced oh-has)
“Green”: Green chilies (mild to spicy), jalapeños and jack or cheddar cheese.
“Red”: Shredded pork or beef shoulder in chile colorado (see next recipe).
Ian’s notes on filling preparation: The green chile is lots of mild-to-spicy green chiles and jalapeños that are chopped, roasted and then stewed with ample garlic and onion (chicken stock/vegetable stock/water are acceptable) until you do a happy dance just looking at it.
Ian’s notes on masa: Masa should be turned into tamales and either cooked to be eaten or frozen raw for storage within 36 hours of being purchased. Some shops offer masa preparada, which has the salt and lard added, but try and avoid this. Purchase freshly ground corn masa with no wheat flour – this is critical for good tamales. Spend the time to source it and you will be rewarded handsomely at mealtime.
1. THE NIGHT BEFORE: Soak the corn husks in a tub/bucket of warm water overnight and keep them soaked until they are needed for wrapping. Weigh the corn husks down with a pan or skillet to keep them submerged.
2. In a clean, plugged kitchen sink or big tub, incorporate 400g of lard for every 2kg of masa, mixing by hand. This is fairly hard work. Add salt to taste. This is extremely important. The tamale will be very bland without ample salt. Taste the masa periodically as you add and mix in the salt until the flavour brightens enough to notice the salt. You can continue mixing by hand until a small (2 cm) ball of masa floats in water. A bowl or pitcher is helpful here for checking buoyancy.
Alternatively, a stand mixer can be used after the lard and salt have been added and the buoyancy checked in batches. It typically takes a few minutes in the stand mixer on medium speed. Add water while the stand mixer is running until you have a smooth mixture that is firm enough to hold its shape, soft enough to spread with a spoon under slight pressure, and buoyant enough to float.
3. Once mixed, the masa is ready to spread on corn husks. There is a silky side and a rough side to each corn husk. Spread the masa on the silky side, because it will help the masa release cleanly when the tamale is properly cooked, cooled and unwrapped for eating. You can use a spoon or rubber spatula to spread the masa, and this is the most time-consuming part of the tamale making process. A layer thin enough to cook evenly and thick enough to provide a good set of forkfuls once filled is important. Uniformity is key. With the silky side of the corn husk facing up, spread the masa, leaving a few inches of empty corn husk near the narrow end of the corn husk. The masa should be spread in a band across the wide, straight end of the corn husk (across the ‘grain’, if you will).
4. Fill the masa with a smallish spoonful of filling. Over-full tamales don’t wrap well, don’t cook well, and don’t present well on the plate. With the narrow point of the corn husk away a from you, fold the left and right sides of the corn husk over the middle, overlapping. The tamale should be about 1/3 to 1/4 as wide as the corn husk, and there should be enough of an empty “tail” (the folded narrow point) to fold up towards the opening. Some leave the tamale in this state, others take a torn-off strand of corn husk and lightly tie the tamale so that it stays folded, and still others wrap the tamale in thin, plain, square sandwich wrapping paper. We prefer to wrap in paper because it prevents the tamale from drying out and becoming crumbly during cooking and storage. It also helps the tamales pack better in plastic bags.
5. For cooking, a pot with a false bottom for steaming is extremely helpful. The tamales should be loaded in the pot standing upright, with the folded end down/open end up. Fill the pot with water to just below the steamer level and with as many tamales as you can fit with room for a dish towel and a lid on top. The towel between the lid and the top layer of tamales helps retain the steam and helps cook the entire pot evenly. Bring the pot to a firm boil (steam should be escaping the pot vigorously). Turn the heat down to a much softer boil (only a small amount of steam escaping) and check the water level, adding more to make up the loss to boiling and absorption. Let the tamales cook for at least an hour. It will likely take 1-1.5 hours for 1.5 dozen to cook to appropriate done-ness from fresh masa, and definitely 1.5 hours starting from completely frozen. Frozen tamales can go straight from the freezer to the steamer. No thawing is required.
Check for done-ness by removing a tamale (tongs are helpful), letting it cool for 5-10 minutes, and attempt to unwrap it. If the tamale comes free from the corn husk, you have achieved victory. Undercooking is much easier to do than over-cooking, but don’t be worried. A little more time in the steamer doesn’t hurt, and letting the tamale cool a bit before unwrapping it gives the masa a chance to firm up and set into a stable shape. If done, remove the tamales and plate.
And a final note from Ian: These things are truly calorie bombs, so be prepared to get new pants after a month of packing these outrageous little miracles down your eager gullet. Enjoy!
9 New Mexico dry chilis – washed, with stems and seeds removed
3 cups water
2.25kg boneless beef chuck roast, trimmed of fat
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cups beef stock or water
Place chiles and 3 cups water into a medium stockpot, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and steep for 30 minutes to soften. Strain into a bowl, reserving the cooking liquid. Place the chiles and some of the liquid into a blender, and puree until smooth. Add more liquid as necessary to form a smooth sauce. Pass sauce through a fine mesh strainer to remove any seeds and the tough skins; set aside.
Cut the roast into 1 to 2 inch chunks. In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt, and pepper. Dredge the beef chunks in the seasoned flour; set aside.
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Saute onion until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add beef chunks a few at a time, so as not to overcrowd the pot, and cook until evenly brown. Remove cooked meat, and continue browning remaining meat. Return reserved cooked meat to the pot. Stir in pureed chile mixture. Add beef stock to just cover beef chunks, or to personal preference. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to lowest setting, and simmer for 3 hours, or until meat is tender. If necessary, adjust with more stock during cooking.