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Lamb Shank Tamales

Christmas Time Is Tamal Time

For event producer Paola Briseño González, tamales are a new holiday tradition—one that’s here to stay.
By Paola Briseño González
December 08, 2020
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Growing up in Mexico, I never ate tamales at Christmas. They were always a year-round treat. In my hometown of Puerto Vallarta, located on Mexico’s Pacific coast, we’d stuff ourselves with tamales barbones—tamales bursting with whole, head-on shrimp, whiskers and all. The tender masa is fortified with an extra-shrimpy stock made from a combination of shrimp shells and crushed dried shrimp for good measure. The resulting tamal packs as much brininess as the salty ocean breeze.

This was just one of many varieties we consumed alongside other popular street foods like esquites, made from plump corn kernels, and icy, refreshing paletas. Just as Mexico has many regions, it also has a vast number of tamal styles that vary in shape, filling, and wrapper. Take the corundas from Michoacán, which use the fresh leaves of corn stalks instead of dried corn husks, or the tamales canarios, also from the region, a sweet variety that swaps out masa for rice flour. You could spend your whole life eating tamales and still have more styles left to encounter.

To make fresh homemade masa for tortillas or tamales, you must first prepare nixtamal—dried corn soaked in an alkaline solution. Though this process of nixtamalization may sound intimidating, it’s quite simple and requires only two key ingredients: dried dent corn and pickling lime, or cal, both of which are available at Latin markets and online (scroll down for more info on sourcing). First-time masa makers should look for yellow dent corn, which has a high content of soft starch that will produce soft, pliable dough that is easy to work. (We like the Great River Organic Milling brand, available at amazon.com).

Get the Recipe: Homemade Fresh Masa

Credit: DYLAN + JENI
Masa Preparada for Tamales

Briseño González often uses duck fat for her masa preparada for tamales but switches to shortening for vegetarian guests. Whether you grind your own homemade fresh masa or you pick some up at a local Latin market, it’s the secret to perfect tamales. A dough made from masa harina can be used if fresh masa is unavailable, but it will lack the sweet corn aroma and fluffy texture of fresh masa.

Credit: DYLAN + JENI
Paola Briseño González
Credit: DYLAN + JENI

It was only when I moved to Los Angeles eight years ago that tamales became a Christmastime staple for me. I quickly grew to love the Mexican-American tradition of throwing tamal parties, where friends and family would gather and spend the day spreading masa into corn husks while snacking, drinking, and eating. Friends would invite me to come over to teach them how to make a proper tamal, and I would oblige, hoping to show them just how broad the world of the tamal is. While large gatherings might be out of the question this year, a tamal party with one or two people can be just as satisfying. (You can always mail some of your tamal bounty to your loved ones.)

These smoky braised-lamb tamales, favorite at Briseño González's holiday tamal parties, get a pop of freshness from bright cilantro-onion relish, while a wrapper of banana leaves perfumes the masa with a softly sweet aroma as they steam. The banana leaf wrappers also yield tamales with a dense, custard-like texture. The rich, slow-cooked flavor of lamb shanks is the perfect partner for the intense smokiness of morita chiles; substitute chipotles in a pinch.

Banana Leaf Wrapped Lamb Shank Tamales with Morita Chile Salsa
Credit: DYLAN + JENI

Over the years I’ve learned that there are two keys to making a great tamal, no matter what style you decide to whip up. To start, fresh masa, made with just corn and a trace of lime, is ideal for texture and flavor. At the grocery store, look for the bag of fresh “masa quebrada” or just straight-up standard “masa para tortillas.” Second, you want full-flavored fillings—don’t hold back!

Roasting oyster mushrooms concentrates their flavor for a hearty vegetarian tamal filling. Paired with velvety, intensely aromatic peanut mole, or mole encacahuatado, these tamales will satisfy everyone at your table.

Each two-bite, egg-shaped tamal cradles a shrimp encased in masa seasoned with chiles, garlic, and dried shrimp. At her holiday tamal-making parties, Briseño González likes to make these ahead of time, for snacking on while drinking Guava Ponche with Sweet Vermouth and making main-course tamales with friends.

Credit: DYLAN + JENI

The rest is up to you. If you like your tamales cake-like and fluffy, wrap them in corn husks. If you prefer your tamales custard-like and dense, use banana leaves instead. If you want to have your tamal and eat your wrapper, too, pick up some tender collard greens or Swiss chard leaves to wrap. For a meaty but vegetarian filling, you’ll want oyster mushrooms and the ingredients to make a deeply savory mole encacahuatado, or peanut mole. For a hearty option, make a lamb shank guisado with smoky morita salsa wrapped in banana leaves. And if you have a sweet tooth, why not stuff a tamal with custardy coconut rice pudding? Just make sure to arm your friends with enough snacks and drinks—like a guava-packed ponche boozed up with vermouth and Fernet—along the way.

Soon, tamales may be a Christmastime tradition for you, too. Just let the masa guide you.

Lightly sweetened coconut rice pudding provides a custardy contrast to the tender masa in these dreamy dessert tamales. Drizzled with sweet and buttery goat’s milk caramel, they also make a festive holiday breakfast.

Credit: DYLAN + JENI

Ponche Navideño is a Christmastime spiced tropical fruit punch that’s served warm with a shot of tequila in Mexico. Paola Briseño González’s chilled riff on this holiday classic pays homage to her love of vermouth. Light and fragrant with perfectly balanced bitterness, it's refreshing and bright thanks to hibiscus, guava, apples, and mint.

Credit: DYLAN + JENI

Tips for Tamales

Yellow Dent Corn

For first-time masa makers, the high content of soft starch in yellow dent corn will produce soft, pliable dough that is easy to work with, whether ground in a molino or a food processor. Aptly named for the indentation on each kernel, dent corn is typically sold by the pound at Latin markets or can be ordered from Great River Organic Milling. ($35 for a 25-pound bag, amazon.com)

Heirloom Maize

For cooks well-versed in making masa, try heirloom varieties of Mexican corn, which typically have a lower soft-starch content than dent corn and need to be ground in a stone molino.

Cal

Pickling lime, or “cal” as it is referred to in Spanish, creates an alkaline cooking solution for turning corn into nixtamal. Cal breaks down the outer hull of the corn and softens the starch within, making it more nutritious and easier to grind and form into a dough. (From $2 at Latin markets)

Masa Harina

When fresh masa isn’t an option, make a quick dough using masa harina. Try the one from Masienda (from $7, masienda.com), made from single-origin heirloom corn sourced from Oaxaca, or Gold Mine’s Organic Yellow Masa Harina (from $10, amazon.com). They’re convenient-yet-flavorful alternatives to fresh masa.

Shipping Tamales

Tamales can be individually frozen and arranged in a gallon-size ziplock plastic bag with the air pressed out. Add ice packs to a thermal box, and ship overnight.

Mail-Order Tamales

Would you just like to have tamales arrive at your door? Restaurant Editor Khushbu Shah likes to order from Tucson Tamale, where each tamal is rolled by hand and fillings include meat, vegetarian, and vegan options. (From $7, tucsontamale.com)