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How to make the perfect holiday tamale

Updated: December 31, 2012 2:15AM

We have turkey at Thanksgiving. Candy at Easter. Fireworks for the Fourth of July.

During the December holidays, tamales are a staple for Latinos, a tradition that goes back centuries.

Tamales are the ultimate comfort food, and when done right, they require hours of work.

My mother, like her mother and generations of relatives before her, makes hundreds of tamales at the holidays. They last about 24 hours before her seven children, plus significant others, and 11 grandchildren stuff themselves.

This year I dug a little deeper into the ingredients to find what makes them so good. Not all of it is good for you.

Mom’s spicy tamales start with a cut-up boiled six-pound pork leg and boiled salted pinto beans (not from a can) in a tall saucepan.

In round 2, the meat is shredded and cooked again with a little corn oil, fresh garlic, pepper and cumin. Spices can be combined in a food processor, but Mom swears by an ancient molcajete made of volcanic rock in which spices are ground.

She’s an old-timer, and you can’t disagree with Mom. If you have seen the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” picture Ray’s Italian-American mother, Marie Barone. Now picture a Mexican version of her, and you have my mom. She knows her cooking is legendary and scoffs at imitators.

The seasoned pork meat becomes a feast for the taste buds with chile ancho (dried red poblanos) liquified with a little water in the blender. Sliced pickled jalapeno peppers are a crowning touch.

The beans, however, get tricky. They must be refried in just enough corn oil or lard to give them texture that prevents them from oozing out of the tamale. It’s trial by error, folks. According to Mom, the corn oil or lard makes them delicious.

Liquified red chiles, broth, ground garlic, pepper and cumin are added to the beans and they must be cooked and constantly stirred in a large fry pan until they are thick, about an hour. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Mom assigned the stirring to my older sister once, but she only stirred near the edge of the pan, and the beans burned in the middle. She will never live it down.

Once fillings are ready, it’s time to prepare the masa, or dough. Mom used to make her own, and I remember seeing cartons and pails of lard on the kitchen counter. Now she takes a shortcut and uses masa prepared by the Chicago-based company Sabinas, and it’s made of corn, water, lard, salt, chile pepper, baking powder and lime.

Mom enhances the flavor with a pound of Crisco and a cup of broth for every five pounds of masa. This year she used 15 pounds of masa.

About 1 to 1½ tablespoons of the pasty dough is spread over two-thirds of each corn husk, and filling is added. Each tamale is rolled neatly.

They are packed orderly in tall and wide steam pots. Boiling broth is poured along the edge of the pot. After about 90 minutes on medium heat, we have perfection.

Some who eat tamales for the first time make a common mistake: They bite into the tough husk instead of unwrapping the tasty gem inside it.

Tamale connoisseurs laugh at that.

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