Perhaps it means a freshly driven snow blanketing pine scented forests, or friends and family coming together with warmth and cheer, and the exchanging of gifts and excited children clapping their little hands in joy. For others, it might hold a note of sadness, exacerbated by loss and even suicidal depression. I ask you, "Why such a range of pictures and emotions on a time that boasts of the promise of cheer and good will toward men?" So, when I say, “ 'Tis the season”, I mean – 'tis the season for tamales! Forget the mistletoe, you can keep the tinsel, flocked tannenbaum, and the halls decked with holly. I can't stand caroling, and spending money I don't have purchasing trinkets, and I care even less for the many myths regarding a fat old man who lives at the North Pole, that gorges on cookies, and wears white fur trimmed red flannel p.j's, and runs a sweat shop for children with pointy ears.
Why do Christians listen to a man who has declared himself to be God on earth, and who wears a long white dress and dons hats that honor nature gods like Dagon and Saturn, anyway? No, I'm through with all the “Christmas” propaganda, secular and religious. Culinarily speaking, what it is time for, in my neck of the woods, and what I now look forward to each winter solstice, is tamales! I know, you must be thinking I'm a Grinch, a Scrooge or an Anti-Christ, right? No, I'm not. What I am, dear reader, is a Christian realist!
I must sound very sacrilegious to many of you right about now, but that is not my intent. I'm just tired of the phony baloney reasons for the season. As a biblical Christian, I refuse to honor any sun god, and the Son of God didn't leave any instructions for his disciples to celebrate his birth, so why not mark this time of year with a traditional ethnic food stuff instead?
As for the choice of meat to use, really this was a no-brainer for me– pork, of course. But what kind of chili sauce to anoint the succulent carne with? There is the deep soulful red or the bright tangy green to choose from. I eventually opted for the traditional red, but with a twist. My Tio said that he uses tomatillo in his chili sauce, this intrigued me and I decided to go with it – but I'm getting ahead of myself, let me back up a bit. I was about to Google tamale chili recipes when I remembered that my Uncle made tamales every year, so I emailed my Uncle, or “Tio” in Spanish, hoping he might pass on my grandfather's chili recipe to me. In my humble opinion, my grandfather made the best tamales, because his tamales were mild and yielded a wonderful surprise hidden inside that cornmeal encrusted present – an olive! I ask you, what could be better for an olive connoisseur? It's like hunting for the prize in the Cracker Jack or cereal box.
Please allow me a moment to wax nostalgically: I remember as a little girl, I would carefully search for the olive, and once found, I would always make that large black gem my last satisfying bite! I realize that there are as many recipes for tamales as there are grains of sand at the seashore, but that is what is so great about them, and any traditional ethnic dish for that matter. Once you learn the basics, then you can create your own version, and that is what I set out to do this year. Since I'm forty-something, I figured it was high time I got brave and learned how to make this dish for myself, it is part of my heritage after all, and how hard could it be?
Apparently, the best recipe out there is by a lady in Colorado, her recipe received five stars on most of the foodie websites. While I was considering using hers, I did some more research on the types of chilies out there, I don't like foods that are too spicy-- for me, chili heat is a bitter experience. Yes, I said bitter, and this is quite an unpleasant aspect regarding chilies that I wanted to avoid, not to mention most of the heat they can bring. When I eat something like a salsa that is really hot, it's like chewing on an aspirin while my mouth is burning – a sensation that causes the hurl factor to reach critical.
I decided which chilies to use based upon their heat level, or rather lack of heat, and what I knew would be readily available in my area, then I decided to wing the rest. I knew the basics, and when you are a good cook, you have a certain amount of intuition about ingredients, and how they might work and should come together, this is the same for any talent or gifting. So I jumped into the task and started making my chili sauce. Most recipes out there called for some sort of thickening agent, like cornstarch or flour. They used a ratio of 4 chilies to 2 cups of water. Dried chilies don't have much pulp to them, so this seemed like a lot of water to chili, no wonder these recipes need a thickener. I also knew I would be using the cooking liquid from the pork, this would give the sauce more flavor than just plain water, or the water from the chilies, and give the sauce that unctuous mouth feel, while helping to thicken the sauce naturally, thanks to the gelatin in the connective tissue of the meat and bone of the pork shoulder. I also upped the ante with the amount of chilies. My intuition panned out, the sauce was naturally thick and velvety smooth after a good straining to remove all the chili pepper skin bits that don't break down during the blending process. The sauce was just sublime, and with just a hint of a back burn – perfect!
When I assembled the tamales, I opted to make the masa crust as thin as possible; as a confirmed and unapologetic carnivore, I like a lot of meat to masa ratio. Some tamales have the ratio reversed leaving them nearly flavorless and dry – es no bueno! Upon reflection, I think I need to use just a wee bit more masa and not crowed the steamer, because after steaming them for nearly an hour and a half, the tamales in the middle of the pot had half cooked masa and didn't hold together very well when removed from the pot. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper, as some of you may or may not know, I strive for perfection, and when it is not achieved I get a little – uh well - disappointed in a very animated fashion. What can I say? Maybe it's the Italian in me. My wonderful husband, who is, thankfully, much more even tempered than I am, and knows how to “handle” me, calmly laid his warm hands on my stressed shoulders and reassured me that this was my first attempt all by myself and that this was, after all, a learning experience. I calmed down a bit, and realizing the absurdity of my childish fit, I sheepishly asked him if he still loved me even though I was “crazy”. He smiled and said, “Honey, I love you, and you're not crazy.” His smile turned into a mischievous grin as he said, “You're eccentric!” We both had a hearty laugh at my expense. Awe, he knows me so well!
All things considered, even though the results of all my efforts were not visually perfect, they were unanimously declared very tasty, and my son Timothy liked them too, even though they were very mild according to his proclivity for the higher end of the Scoville scale. My little Kyle however, has decided that all tamales are “nasty” and refuses to try any of them. Oh well, you can't please everyone.
Yes, 'tis the season for me! Not for what I consider to be the ecumenical syncretism of sun god worship, but for tamales! And by the end of January we might be sick of them, but there is always next year to look forward to. For those of you who are sore at me for my lack of enthusiasm regarding the “Christ-Mass” season --well, quoting Dr. Phil on the latest Acura commercial, “Tough tinsel!” Seriously, dear reader, just do some research, and please look into the truth and you will find that Scripture doesn't advocate the celebration of our Savior's birth, nor does it advocate combining pagan solstice worship rites with Christ's commandments either. Christians have forgotten their duty toward our Lord via simple obedience and our Lord's command that we are not to be of this world. “Christ-Mass” was, is, and always will be a worldly institution. A few thousand years ago, if you were in Rome, it would've been called Saturnalia, just go look that up for an eye-opener sometime. Also, Christians don't exactly ingratiate themselves to honest pagans, who have every right to be upset about their pagan holy-day being hijacked by Roman Catholic ecumenicism and by those who celebrate their winter solstice celebrations under the guise of Jesus' birth.
At any rate, dear reader, if you are interested in my recipe for tamales, you can just click here, and the link will take you to my recipe. In a few weeks, I think I will try them again and even try to make the masa myself, it seems easy enough...so until next time dear reader, I bid you "Happy tamale eating!"