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Christmas is the perfect time to get together and cook.

Families have been making cookies, candies, pies, cakes — sweets, sweets, sweets. How about something savory? It’s tamale time!

Think about it. Haven’t you already had one cookie too many? One piece of pie beyond the annual allotment? And we still have to get through New Year’s Day. Chili, turkey and dumplings, chips and cheese dip are standard choices to balance out all of the sugar; however, contemplate this … tamales! Perfect. You have all those ready hands. Put them to work.

The tamale is an ancient American food. It can traced back to pre-Columbian Central America — at least 5,000 BCE. A corn dough was wrapped around a filling, and then wrapped in corn husks or banana or avocado leaves. The filling was whatever food was on hand, from cheese to chicken, but the dough was always finely ground dried corn (masa).

Today, we steam them in husks, but they can also be oven baked or fire roasted. A lot of people make a big day out of making tamales, inviting family and friends over to build hundreds and freeze them. They freeze well, for up to four months. Keep an eye on the quantities your recipes produce or you’ll find yourself up to your elbows in tamales.

I had a great time visiting the web site www.sonofthesouth.net/tamales. The author’s name is Paul, and he dedicates his site to the memory of the Texan lady who taught him all he knows about tamales, Goya Pina. It has great step-by-step instructions with pictures. Goya’s dough recipe also uses corn oil, not lard, and incorporates broth for increased flavor.

Ah, lard. Manteca. Pork fat. It truly makes the best tamale batter. However, you don’t have to do that. The recipes below are lard-free, relying on other elements for a good flavor. The tamale dough is probably the most important part of the dish; if it’s not good, the tamale is not good.

This recipe makes a lot, so I cut it down to one-third and was able to build 30 tamales. I like chili powder, though, so I put in about a tablespoon and a half, and Andy added a couple of teaspoons of cayenne powder and garlic powder.

Time for tamales: let’s get cooking!

GOYA’S TAMALE DOUGH

2 pounds masa

3 Tablespoons paprika

2 Tablespoons salt

1 Tablespoon cumin

3 Tablespoons chili powder

2 cups corn oil

2 quarts warm broth

Sift the dry ingredients together into a mixing bowl (this is a good time for the stand mixer). Add in the oil, then slowly incorporate the broth. When it reaches the consistency of thick peanut butter you’re ready! If it’s too wet, add some more masa. Cover the dough with a damp towel until ready to use. You can make it a day ahead and keep it in the refrigerator.

According to “Tamales” by Miller, Pyles and Sedlar, when you use a stand mixer, if the dough is too dry it will stick to the paddle; if it’s too wet it will stick to the sides of the bowl.

Let the dough rest at least 30 minutes so that the dry ingredients can continue to draw moisture from the wet ones, creating a light and airy dough.

RED BELL PEPPER TAMALE MASA DOUGH

1-1/2 cup masa harina

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup warm broth or water

1/2 cup roasted, skinned and pureed red bell pepper

Place the masa and spices in a mixer bowl with paddle affixed. Beat for 3 minutes, adding olive oil in a steady stream. Batter should be thoroughly incorporated. Add the water and bell pepper and beat for another 2 minutes, scraping down the sides as needed. Take dough out of bowl and wrap in plastic. Let rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.

Now that you have some dough, what are you going to put in them? You can do almost anything that has been precooked, from shrimp to beef, or even vegetable combinations or cheese. Your filling should have a nice seasoning to go with the dough, and making a special sauce on the side to pour over the cooked tamales certainly doesn’t hurt!

Here are some tasty fillings. Just sauté everything to cook raw meats, tenderize the vegetables and get the spices intermingling. Cool the filling enough that you can work with it, and steam your tamales for about 30 minutes. The finished tamale should be firm, and the masa should not stick to the husk when you check it.

SHRIMP TAMALES

16 large shrimp, peeled, lightly chopped

Juice of 1/2 lime

Salt and pepper to taste

MEXICO DEL SUR

2 cups shredded, cooked chicken

1 Tablespoons chili powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1 chipotle in adobo, chopped

1 cup fresh, whole corn kernels

1 cup finely diced tomatoes

1/2 cup red chile sauce

YUCATAN

2 cups cubed, cooked chicken

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup cotija cheese, crumbled

2 serrano chiles, finely diced

1/4 cup orange juice

BLACK BEAN AND CHEESE

2 cups seasoned black beans

1/4 cup liquid from beans

1/2 cup of cilantro

1 cup queso panela, shredded

1/2 cup onion, peeled, coarsely chopped

HOT CHORIZO

6 - 8 ounces chorizo

1 Tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onions

2 Tablespoons minced shallots

1 teaspoon minced garlic

For a great video on how to form the actual tamale using corn husks, visit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=fObQQ9Bv0xc

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