About this time every year I go into full holiday planning mode. I'm usually on the hook to host multiple family dinners at my home between Winter Solstice through New Year's Eve. In recent years—after a string of increasingly stressful holiday dinners, an unjoyful attitude (just call me #grinchy) and trying to overcome nightly aching, throbbing feet—I decided to simplify my life as much as possible by creating menus where a key part of each meal can be made ahead and frozen.
Not to be too cliché, but I do fall into planning menus that are influenced by countries that I have visited and whose cuisines I enjoy the most, such as France, Italy and Mexico. Go ahead, I dare you: try advising my family that (surprise!) we're having Scandinavian or Moroccan for Christmas dinner this year and see the range of "ew" faces develop like Polaroid pictures in front of your eyes. Just like a Thanksgiving meal, a Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner is no time to break new culinary ground. Save that for the doldrums of January.
A couple of years ago after finally reading Julia Child's first groundbreaking cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I opted to prepare a triple recipe of crowd pleasing Beef Bourguignon in November. I let the hearty stew with the fancy name sit in the refrigerator to rest for 24 hours. Then, the next day, I divided the big batch of goodness into portions that would serve about 6 people. Into the freezer went the portioned packages, and I gratefully checked one more item off my to-do list.
I collect a final headcount for each holiday dinner about a week in advance. Two days before the special dinner, I transfer the number of frozen packages to the refrigerator to defrost. All that I need to do to finish dinner is to whip up some mashed potatoes, make a friendly veg (#nobrusselsprouts), gently reheat the Beef Bourguignon and open a couple of bottles of wine. I produce a rustic, but elegant dinner with hardly any fuss on the day of the gathering.
|From Left to Right: Beef Bourguignon, Pasta Bolognese, Joan's Leafy Green Salad and Carnitas.|
My other most requested holiday menu hails from south of the Arizona border: Carnitas and an assortment of Tamales from Mexico. To round out the menu, I prepare homemade pinto beans and Mexican Rice. Garnishes include Guacamole, Mexican Crème Fraîche, shredded cheese, shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes. Normally I make the carnitas ahead (and freeze), and buy the tamales from a local purveyor. But last year my sister Juliette proposed that we gather a group of family and friends to make the tamales together down in her home turf of Bisbee. If you aren't familiar with the tiny historical town of Bisbee, you can read all about it's eccentricities here and here.
|A view of downtown Bisbee, Arizona from the second floor of Roka, the best restaurant in town.|
|After the tamale making session, Maddie and I took a quick tour around Bisbee to take photos.|
We had so much fun making the tamales last year that we are going to do it all over again this year. Our group talked and laughed and got caught up with each other while assembling tamale after tamale. We listened to music and sipped a variety of beverages. The team made a ton of tamales over the course of an afternoon. For contributing their labor, everyone took tamales home with them to eat that night or freeze for a future, very delicious, make-ahead meal.
The really great thing about preparing your own tamales is that you have control over the ingredients and you are only limited by your imagination. You can successfully make vegetarian tamales by simply swapping the lard for corn oil or your oil of choice. I personally prefer lard. I have found good sources for lard at my local farmers' markets. We weren't planning on breaking any new ground flavor-wise, it is the holidays after all, so we prepared three fillings: shredded pork, shredded turkey, and vegetable with black beans.
|Everybody had her job to do. Juliette tied the tamales with her nimble fingers.|
|Sonora quickly gets the hang of wrapping tamales. Making tamales can be a messy venture.|
|Green olives and|
An additional discovery is that adding a thick strip of smoked mozzarella to each tamale was a huge hit. Everyone dug it, the young and old alike. Finally, everyone agreed that adding strips of potato and jalapeño to each tamale was also the way to go. At least we can all agree on something. (And here I have to remark that once again this year for Thanksgiving my family had to stubbornly debate whether to stuff or not stuff the turkey. I chose against stuffing the turkey this year and it almost started a riot before dinner time between we three sisters and our mother.)
Place tamales, grouped by filling, into freezer safe Ziplock bags. Freeze the tamales. The tamales can be steamed directly from the frozen state. Easy! Be forewarned that frozen tamales take about two hours to cook, so plan appropriately. Be careful that the simmering water does not completely boil off or your pan will be scorched. Continue to add water to the steamer to maintain the water level, if needed.
|On one of two assembly lines, Avalon, Maddie and Sonora make tamales together.|
|Foreground: tamales wrapped in corn husks. Background: tamales wrapped in banana leaves.|
|Jump in to my belly.|
Tamales: Pork, Turkey or Vegetarian
In 1994, Lupe Coronel won the tamale making contest with her recipe at the Indio International Tamale Festival near Palm Springs, California. The recipe was featured in Sunset Magazine, December 1995. The yield is 4 to 4-1/2 dozen. We adapted her recipe to suit our tastes.
Juliette and I like to make the fillings and chili purée a day or two ahead. Preferably you will buy freshly made masa at a Mexican market, or you can substitute masa flour and prepare it according to the directions on the package.
To speed up the tamale making process we recommend purchasing a masa spreader. Spreading masa evenly with a spoon is actually difficult. You'll get better results and the assembly line will move more more quickly when a spreader is used. We only had one spreader last year, and everyone commented that we wished we had more.
|A masa spreader.|
3/4 pound dried corn husks
1 to 3 10-ounce jars small pimiento-stuffed green olives, drained
1-1/2 to 2 pounds peeled and sliced russet potatoes, cut into strips
Sliced jalapeños (or 2 jars sliced pickled jalapeño chiles, drained)
3 packages smoked Gouda, cut into strips
1-1/2 ounces dried pasilla chilies
3 ounces dried California or New Mexico chilies
1 tsp sea salt
4 to 5 pounds boned pork shoulder or butt, most fat trimmed, cut into 2-inch cubes
4 large cloves garlic
2 tsps coriander seed
2 tsps dried oregano leaves
1 tsp cumin seed
1/3 cup lard or rendered bacon fat or butter/olive oil combo
1/4 cup all-purpose flour or rice flour (for gluten-free version)
2/3 cup chopped tomato
2/3 cup chopped yellow onion
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper or red bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped seeded fresh Anaheim chiles or roasted and peeled Hatch Chiles
a few grinds of black pepper
1-1/2 cups chile purée
1/2 cup sliced green onions (scallions)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro sprigs or minced Italian parsley, optional
1 whole turkey, roasted, cooled and cut into bit-sized chunks
This blog post explains how we like to roast a turkey: Michelle's Brined Thanksgiving Turkey
- Add the same flavorings for the Pork Filling but substitute strained turkey drippings for the pork broth, and butter for the lard or bacon fat, -or-
- I think it would be tasty to toss the turkey with Mole Verde (Tomatillo Sauce)
Let your taste be your guide for putting together a vegetable filling. Here's some guidelines:
- Vegetables that have a lot of moisture such as onions, celery, mushrooms and squash need to be diced and roasted or sautéed to release their moisture; discard any liquid that is leftover from cooking
- add any combination of root vegetables, diced and then roasted or sautéed
- add roasted and peeled, diced bell peppers and/or Anaheim chiles or Hatch chiles
- add frozen or canned corn that is drained well
- add prepared, well drained black beans
- add crumbled Soy Chorizo, optional
- add fresh herbs, such as chopped cilantro sprigs, Italian parsley or thyme leaves
- season to taste with salt and pepper
5 pounds fresh masa (masa fresca—dough made from ground dried corn kernels and no lard or salt); or, 8 cups dehydrated masa (also sold as corn flour, masa harina, or instant corn masa mix)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 Tbsps sea salt
2-3/4 cups lard, melted
|Discard the stems and seeds from dried chiles.|
1. For the Chile Sauce
a. Discard stems and seeds from California and pasilla chilies. Rinse chiles well. Place in a 3- to 4-quart pan with 1 quart water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring often, until chilies are soft when pressed, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, reserving 2 cups liquid. Whirl chilies and reserved liquid in a blender until smooth; set aside.
|Sonora finishing the wrapping of a tamale stuffed with pork filling.|
a. Place pork cubes in a 5- to -6-quart pan with 3 quarts water; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, until meat is tender when pierced, about 1 hour. Drain broth, skim off fat, and reserve broth. Let meat stand until cool. Shred the meat and discard the fat. Place meat in a bowl or lasagna pan and set aside. To meat add 1-1/2 cups chili purée (the rest of the chili purée will be added to the masa) and mix well.
b. In blender, whirl garlic, coriander, oregano, cumin, and 1-1/2 cups pork broth until seasoning are very finely ground. Strain into bowl, extracting liquid. Discard seasonings. Set broth aside.
c. In a large frying pan, heat 1/3 cup lard (or rendered baking fat or butter/olive oil combo) until hot. Add yellow onion, bell pepper, tomatoes and Anaheim chiles, salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to simmering over medium-high heat, stirring. Cook, stirring often, for 8 to 10 minutes until vegetables are softened. Sprinkle mixture with wheat flour or rice flour and stir for two to three minutes until flour is "cooked" and distributed evenly throughout the vegetables . Pour in reserved pork broth and stir until thickened. Add to pork and stir well. Let cool and then chill airtight for up to 2 days.
d. Just before the assembly of the tamales begins, stir in cilantro or parsley and sliced green onions (scallions).
3. Turkey Filling:
a. Strip the meat from the roasted turkey and chop into bite size pieces.
b. Follow directions for making the pork filling, except substitute chicken broth for pork broth. The chicken broth can be fortified (to taste) with the strained drippings from roasting the turkey.
c. Just before the assembly of the tamales begins, stir in cilantro or parsley and sliced green onions (scallions).
4. Vegetarian Filling:
a. Make the vegetarian filling a day or ahead and let cool in the refrigerator. It is important to roast or sautée the vegetables to release as much moisture as possible. Any canned ingredients need to be well drained. Mix in any fresh herbs just before you are ready to start assembling tamales.
|The prepared masa is a more difficult to spread than you might suspect.|
a. In a large bowl, break up masa with your hands. Add baking powder and salt; mix well. Beat it until it is smooth and creamy. Place 2-3/4 cups lard in a 2- to 3-quart pan over medium-high heat until melted; let stand until cool enough to touch. Pour into masa, add remaining chili puree, and mix with your hands or a heavy spoon. Then with spoon (or half at a time with a heavy-duty mixer) beat until very smooth and no lumps of masa remain. If making ahead, cover airtight and let stand up to 4 hours, or chill up to 2 days; bring to room temperature before using (takes 4 to 5 hours).
I found this testing tip at The Mija Chronicles: "When you’ve prepared your masa, do the “float” test: spoon a little bit of dough into a bowl of water. If it floats, it’s done. If it sinks, it needs more liquid, a little more fat and several more minutes of mixing, ideally with a high-powered mixer."
6. For the Potatoes:
Peel potatoes and cut into 48 sticks, each 4 to 5 inches long and 1/4 to 1/3-inch thick (save scraps for other uses). As you work, place sticks in a 3- to 4- inch wide pan with water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, then simmer, covered, until tender-crisp to bite, about 3 minutes. Drain and set aside.
|Soaking makes the corn husks pliable.|
Separate husks and discard silk. Select 5-1/2 dozen large outer husks (5 to 6 inches wide across the middle and 7 to 8 inches long; trim larger husks to be this size). Soak husks in a sink with hot tap water to cover until pliable, about 20 minutes. Rinse, removing any grit; drain, and place in a large bowl. Tear about 12 husks into long, thin strips. (If assembly takes more than a few hours and husks dry out, briefly resoak.)
a. Create an assembly line on a large work surface, such as a kitchen table. If you are working on a wood table, we recommend covering your work space with an oilcloth or sturdy plastic table cloth.
Place masa and whole husks at one end; followed by fillings: meat, potatoes, olives, and jalapeños; then husk strips, leaving some space to tie and store finished tamales.
b. For each tamale, lay a husk fairly flat with smooth side up. Spoon 1/4 cup masa in center. Hold husk with one hand; using quick flick of the back of a soup spoon or a small spatula, evenly spread half of masa from center flush to one long edge (leave a 1-inch margin clear at top and bottom of husk. Our preference is to use a tamale spreader. Repeat process on other half of husk.
c. Spread 2 to 3 tablespoons meat filling in a band 1-inch from long edge of masa. Place a potato piece, 2 olives and a jalapeno piece over meat. Fold long edge of husk closes to filling over them, then roll up snugly. If husk doesn't quite meet to enclose filling, patch with a piece of another husk.
d. Using husk strips, tie tamale as tightly as possible at both ends, then one in the middle to hold the center. If needed, knot 2 strips together to make a longer tie. Repeat to assemble remaining tamales.
a. Cook tamales, or freeze airtight up to 3 months. No need to defrost the tamales, just take directly from freezer and add to steamer.
|About twelve dozen tamales were prepared over the course of a couple of hours.|
|A traditional steaming pot for tamales can be purchased at well stocked Mexican markets.|
a. To cook 2 dozen tamales, set a rack on supports at least 1-inch from bottom of an 8- to 10-quart pan. Fill pan with 1-inch water. Arrange tamales lengthwise on rack, changing direction of tamales 90 degrees every layer. Or, the tamales can be arranged vertically, with open ends facing up. Of course, you can cook fewer tamales in a typical vegetable steaming pot.
The photos above show Juliette's steaming set-up, a traditional Mexican-style steaming pot. If I'm steaming 3 dozen tamales for a party, I improvise a steaming pot—MacGyver-style. I use a ginormous stock pot that is large enough that I can place an inverted steamer tray that belongs to a smaller stock pot in my collection. For this set-up, I can add about 4 or 5 inches of water, so I don't have to worry about refilling the simmering water while the tamales are steaming.
b. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then simmer until masa no longer sticks to husks, 1 to 1-1/4 hours for freshly made tamales, 1-3/4 to 2 hours for frozen; occasionally add boiling water to maintain level of liquid. Serve with refried pinto beans, rice, salsa and sour cream. Guacamole makes a fine addition too.
|Juliette's daughters, Sonora and Avalon, celebrate a successful tamale making day.|