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Tamales taste of the holiday season

Thirty-seven thousand, two hundred tamales.

That’s how many of this traditional Mexican Christmas Eve food the two locations of Dona Maria Tamales Restaurant expect to sell Dec. 23 and 24.

That’s a lot of tamales: 3,100 dozen, compared to the 600 dozen the restaurants will sell during the rest of December and the 200 to 250 dozen they sell in an average month.

Yes, tamales are a big part of Mexican cuisine on Christmas Eve, and they’re becoming more widely embraced as people of other cultures learn about these corn-husk-wrapped cornmeal pockets of goodness with meat, chicken or cheese tucked inside.

Dona Maria, which has locations on Las Vegas Boulevard South downtown and on North Tenaya Way, is, after 30 years in business, the dean of local Mexican restaurants and known locally for its tamales; hence the name. And while Christmas Eve tamales are a big and growing tradition, many — probably most — prefer to buy rather than make them, because they tend to be both time-consuming and somewhat of a challenge.

“Tamales are just labor-intensive,” Dona Maria co-owner Neriza Johnson said. “That’s why usually, when you’re at home, you’ll get five or six ladies that will make them. You have to wrap them tight, but not too tight. They’re a little tricky.”

Also key, Johnson said, is what goes into them.

“The secret is finding the fresh ingredients, and really the cornmeal is the main secret,” she said. “It gives it the flavor. The main thing is finding good cornmeal, good corn husks, and then you put in whatever recipes your family has.”

Her restaurant uses cornmeal masa, imported from Mexico, as opposed to the more flourlike masa harina.

“They make it from the real corn, and so it’s fresh and it has a different taste,” she said of the masa. “If you use masa harina, it’s more processed and it just tastes different, almost synthetic. People do make tamales out of masa harina, but it has a different taste.”

The best corn husks, she said, smell like fresh corn. If they’re lighter in color, they might be older.

“A lot of the time you won’t be able to notice until you start soaking them,” she said.

Once you have the ingredients, it’s simply a question of mechanics — and some coordination.

“You take the corn husks and then put the masa on there, you spread it along the corn husk, then you fill it with whatever ingredients you want,” Johnson said. “Then you turn them; we don’t tie them, but some families do tie them. We fold them in a way where they kind of stay together.

“And then you have to steam them. We steam ours for about an hour and a half. They have to cook all the way through. It’s a low steam, so they’ll be moist.”

Carlito’s Burritos, on Patrick Lane, has roots in New Mexico, and so accordingly its tamale ingredients come from there.

“We use a fresh cornmeal that’s actually from New Mexico, and then you mix in shortening — traditionally lard, but we use vegetable shortening — and chicken broth and salt,” owner Dave Samuels said.

Samuels said the Mexican and New Mexican versions are similar.

“There’s probably not a lot of difference,” he said. “The main difference between Mexican and New Mexican is the chili that we use.”

Samuels said Carlito’s steams its tamales for about three hours.

“You have to put them in a steamer with the open end facing upward, pack them in closely together,” he said.

Dona Maria offers tamales with pork, beef, chicken or cheese filling, for $21.75 a dozen.

Carlito’s is taking orders for its green chili chicken, green chili pork and red chili pork tamales at $24 a dozen cooked, $21 a dozen uncooked, and expects to sell about 200 dozen.

“We recommend people get them uncooked,” Samuels said. “Tamales do reheat just fine, but there’s nothing like that taste when they come fresh out of the pot. We’ll actually make them and freeze them raw and sell them to people frozen.”

Johnson said she doesn’t think there’s any significance to the custom of eating tamales on Christmas Eve.

“It’s just a tradition,” she said. “It’s almost like on Thanksgiving, you have turkey. For Hispanics, you have tamales. It’s the traditional food for dinner on the 24th.”

Oh, and she had one more tamale-making tip.

“When you make them and you’re in a good mood, it’s going to taste better,” Johnson said. “It’s from love, I believe.”

HOT TAMALES

¼ cup chili powder

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon paprika

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

2½ teaspoons cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon freshly toasted and ground cumin seed

2 pounds Boston butt (pork) meat, untrimmed

½ cup vegetable oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

4 to 5 dozen dried corn husks

2 pounds yellow cornmeal (approximately 6 cups)

1½ tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

7½ ounces lard (approximately 1 cup)

3 to 4 cups reserved cooking liquid

In a small bowl, combine the chili powder, kosher salt, paprika, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, black pepper and cumin. Divide the mixture in half and reserve one half for later use.

Cut the Boston butt into six even pieces and place into a 6- to 8-quart saucepan. Add half of the spice mixture and enough water, 3 to 3½ quarts, to completely cover the meat. Set over high heat, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the meat is very tender and falling apart, 2 to 2½ hours. Remove the meat from the cooking liquid to a cutting board. Leave the cooking liquid in the pot. Both meat and liquid need to cool slightly before making dough and handling. Remove any large pieces of fat and shred the meat into small pieces, pulling apart with your hands or using two forks.

Place a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat and add the vegetable oil. Once shimmering, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are semi-translucent, approximately 3 minutes. Add the garlic, jalapeno and remaining half of the spice mixture and continue to cook for another minute. Add the meat and cook until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

While the meat is cooking, place the husks in a large bowl or container and submerge completely in hot water. Soak the husks until they are soft and pliable, at least 45 minutes and as long as 2 hours.

Place the cornmeal, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl and combine. Add the lard and, using your hands, knead together until the lard is well incorporated into the dry mixture. Gradually add enough of the reserved cooking liquid, 3 to 4 cups, to create a dough that is like thick mashed potatoes. The dough should be moist but not wet. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and set aside until ready to use.

To assemble the tamales, remove a corn husk from the water and pat dry to remove excess water. Working in batches of 6, lay the husks on a towel and spread about 2 tablespoons of the dough in an even layer across the wide end of the husk to within ½ inch of the edges. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture in a line down the center of the dough. Roll the husk so the dough surrounds the meat, then fold the bottom under to finish creating the tamale. Repeat until all husks, dough and filling are used. Tie the tamales around the center, individually or in groups of 3, with kitchen twine.

Stand the tamales upright on their folded ends, tightly packed together, in the same saucepan used to cook the meat. Add the reserved broth from making the dough and any additional water so the liquid comes to 1 inch below the tops of the tamales. Try not to pour the broth directly into the tops of the tamales. Cover, place over high heat and bring to a boil, approximately 12 minutes. Remove the lid, reduce the heat to low, to maintain a low simmer, and cook until the dough is firm and pulls away easily from the husk, 1 to 1½ hours.

Serve the tamales warm. For a “wet” hot tamale, serve with additional simmering liquid. Store leftover tamales, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, in the freezer for as long as a month. To reheat, remove the plastic wrap and steam until heated through.

Makes 4 or 5 dozen.

— Recipe by Alton Brown from the Food Network

CHICKEN CHILI TAMALES

20 dried corn husks

1 broiler/fryer chicken (3 to 4 pounds), cut up

3 quarts water

1 medium onion, quartered

2 teaspoons salt

1 garlic clove, crushed

Dough:

1 cup shortening

3 cups masa harina

Filling:

6 tablespoons canola oil

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¾ cup chili powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon pepper

2 cans (2¼ ounces each) sliced ripe olives, drained

Place corn husks in a large bowl; cover with cold water and soak for at least 2 hours.

Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven, combine the chicken, water, onion, salt and garlic. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 45-60 minutes or until meat is tender. Remove chicken from broth; set aside until cool enough to handle. Strain broth; skim fat. Finely chop or shred chicken.

For dough, in a large bowl, beat the shortening until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add small amounts of masa harina alternately with 2 cups reserved broth, beating until well blended.

Drop a small amount of dough into a cup of cold water; dough should float to the top. If dough does not float, continue beating until dough is light enough to float.

For filling, in a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat; stir in flour until blended. Cook and stir for 7-9 minutes or until lightly browned. Stir in the spices, chicken and 4 cups reserved broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes or until filling is thickened, stirring occasionally.

Drain corn husks and pat dry. Place a corn husk on a work surface with the small end pointing away from you. On large end, spread 3 tablespoons dough to within 1 inch of edges. Top with 2 tablespoons chicken mixture and 2 teaspoons olives. Fold long sides of husk over filling, overlapping slightly. Fold over ends of husk; tie with string to secure. Repeat.

In a large steamer basket, position tamales upright. Place basket in a Dutch oven over 1 inch of water. Bring to a boil; cover and steam for 45-50 minutes or until dough peels away from husk, adding additional hot water to pan as needed.

Makes 20 tamales.

— Recipe from Taste of Home

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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