How to make Christmas Tamales, Costa Rica style
Costa Ricans celebrate Christmas on the evening of December 24th. Tamales, often served alongside a ham or roast with all the trimmings, are enjoyed for a late dinner. Everyone opens presents after midnight, usually with a glass or two of rompope (eggnog).
In the Western United States, many Americans know and love tamales, a traditional Hispanic Christmas dish. As usual, the best tamales are homemade; and, as usual, are made by the women who hand down family recipes and methods from generation to generation.
Making tamales is a fun, day-long project. Plan to make many and freeze some for another time. Tamales can be great for breakfast with a cup of cafe con leche!
Our “how-to”, with recipes and tips, follows.
Specialty ingredients & preparation for tamales:
Achiote: Annatto seed, whole seeds or ground spice, paste or oil. Available from specialty grocery stores.
Salsa Lizano: There’s a bottle on every table in Costa Rica. Taste and texture is a mix of not-so-hot hot sauce, steak sauce, with a hint of sweet. Used here as a seasoning (to taste) for broths or as a condiment. Available from Amazon, believe it or not, and indispensable.
Banana leaves: In Costa Rica, banana leaves come frozen in large packages that are thawed, washed and cut into squares, then wrapped in damp cloth or paper towel to keep supple. In the States, get them from health food or specialty grocery stores.
Rice: White rice, cooked in meat juices, broth, or water (3 cups). Or prepare by dicing fresh cilantro, onion (1 sm/med) and red or yellow sweet (bell) pepper. Add 1 tablespoon oil to a large pan and sauté the dry rice for 2 min. over medium-high flame, add diced vegetables and sauté another 2 min. Add liquid, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer until rice is tender (20-35 min).
Meat: Rub 3 – 5 pounds of pork or beef roast (chuck or loin) or whole chicken with salt, cumin and black pepper. Heat oil in large Dutch oven (some cooks prefer grilled over an open flame), brown meat, cut into chunks, add liquid and garlic, peppers, onion to taste, cover and cook until fork tender. Drain and reserve liquid.
Masa harina/masa*: Masa harina is finely ground dried corn or hominy flour. Masa is literally the dough; an instant masa mix is similar to Bisquik. Sold in the U.S. at most grocery stores where there is a significant Latino community.
*Homemade masa: 4 cups masa harina (corn flour), 4 cups pureed potatoes, 5 cups of water, ½ cup, plus 6 teaspoons of broth, 1 cup of olive oil, 4 cloves garlic, finely diced or pressed 1 teaspoon of ground marjoram. Sauté garlic and marjoram in oil, the good chopped garlic and the marjoram, add other ingredients to masa harina. Cool dough and divide into balls (golf ball size or a bit smaller).
Optional ingredients include boiled carrots (sliced or finely cubed), peas, green olives, prunes, raisins,chickpeas, or sliced red pepper.
Prepare banana leaves as directed above. Parboil potatoes and cut into cubes. Add 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1 teaspoon ground achiote to the masa and mix dry. Add vegetable oil and broth. Mix with hands to make a paste. Spread 3-4 tablespoons of masa paste in center of two overlapping banana leaf squares center top with rice, potatoes, meat, and any extra, desired ingredients.
Carefully wrap the masa around your fillings, and then wrap banana leaves around the whole. Tie the bundle with kitchen string to keep closed. A “piña is one tamale and typically two are tied together with the string.
Steam your tamales for 30 minutes over boiling water and serve.
Tamales should be served with Christmas dinner, but can be frozen for up to 3 months; simply defrost and cook as with fresh, or cooked from frozen, if desired. You can steam them, boil them, or microwave them (though, I don’t recommend microwaving). Serve with a little bit of salsa lizano and a fresh cup of coffee.