Tamales have been a Christmas Eve tradition for many decades among those of Mexican ancestry. My dear Mom (R.I.P.) taught English for over 30 years in Arizona, and of course had many Mexican-American students. One year she had the students write essays about what Christmas meant to them, and one little girl wrote that if they had had a good year and could afford it, Grandpa would butcher a pig and they would make tamales for Christmas Eve. Mom made a note in the margin that if they made tamales, she would love to buy a few for our own Christmas Eve.
Well, she soon forgot about the paper until the doorbell rang on Christmas Eve. There standing at the door was the little girl with a bag of hot fresh tamales in her hand. Mom waved to her parents out in the waiting car, and grabbed a present from under our tree to give to the little girl. (Probably one of mine or my sister’s.)
Every year since, she showed up with the tamales, which we always looked forward to with great anticipation. Of course, by then Mom had a gift waiting for her. The years went by, and the little girl grew up and one of her daughters took over the delivery. And so on for many many years and three generations.
We always served the tamales with chili, but they are also served as shown in the photo with a Mexican red sauce, usually mild. You can also use salsa or some other prepared sauce. Green tomatillo sauce is also very good.
The tamales might be beef, pork, chicken, or (our favorite) green chile and cheese. There are also dessert (sweet) tamales available. We usually buy our tamales now from a Mexican vendor at the farmer’s market, but they are available frozen year-round in most stores.
For those of you who don’t know, tamales are made by spreading masa dough (made from corn flour) over a couple of dried corn husks. Then the filling is added and the tamale rolled up in more corn husks. The husks make the imprint on the tamale you see in the photo.
To prepare, I put 1/2 inch of water in the bottom of a pot, put in a steamer basket, and add the tamales without thawing them. The tamales we buy are also wrapped in an additional layer of paper, so that the variety of tamale can be written on them. If you are steaming a variety of tamales, leave the paper on so you will know who gets which tamale.
After steaming about 45 minutes, remove them one at a time, unroll the paper and then the husk, leaving the tamale on the plate. Add sauce or chili and serve. In the photo, our last Christmas Eve tamales were served with a quick red sauce, refried beans and sliced avocado, garnished with chopped cilantro.