My oh my, how my Christmas plans have changed over the past three years. It was never something I consciously decided and I’ll spare you the specifics but my latest Christmas traditions are riding on the coattails of the Mackey family.
I’m a fairly independent man who usually prefers to do his own thing, but if you have to hitch your wagon to something there are far worse things than the Mackey family Christmas Eve. It’s a night of early church followed by a raucous Mexican fiesta.
Don’t ask how this came to be. You have Scottish lineage complete with a redheaded daughter and a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel. But when it comes to Mexican food these folks are serious. It may be tacos. It may be enchiladas. It may be albondigas. It will definitely be tequila. By some method this family will be throwing down on some south of the border dishes and I will reap the benefits.
One year Catherine made jalapeño-infused tequila for margaritas (recipe courtesy of Haberdasher’s Roy Clark) and they were almost fantastic. They would have been incredible had Catherine not drifted from the recipe and added more jalapeños than recommended and threw in a habanero to boot. The result was a fiery concoction that only the toughest at the party could stomach.
We had pepper juice seeping from our pores for two days. Not even Grand Marnier could cool it off. Let’s just say we ran out of beer that year. This year we are in no danger of searing off our taste buds, as Uncle Donny has his industrial-strength frozen margarita machine well lubricated and ready for business. Sorry, Cat. You’ve been demoted from beverage chairman. You’re now in charge of selecting the chips.
There’s Betsy, who is kind of like the fairy godmother of this tale. She flies in from her Eastern Shore abode with a casserole dish of expected seven-layer dip. Since our last Christmas together Betsy has gained a new kitchen, one of impressive size, so we are expecting a lot more from her this year. Yes, Betsy, bring the dip. But what else can you whip up over there?
Pete, or Pedro, Mackey is in charge of entertainment. Pedro selects the music and makes sure the beer is iced and the reds and whites are properly maintained. His lovely wife, Carol, a.k.a. Curls, has already begun her routine of preparing Christmas goodies such as Hello Dollies and chocolate-covered strawberries. The Mexican dishes come a little later.
So where do I fit in, you may ask.
With a title such as Cuisine Editor, people tend to expect you to contribute something. I’m actually quite fond of the idea of pulling my own weight, so to speak. But really, most of the bases are already covered. It’s not like I am some expert Mexican chef. I get paid to eat it and to write about it. Sure, I can crank out a couple of dishes but I don’t want to just throw something in a tortilla and cover it with cheese.
So I got to thinking. Most of my true Mexican friends in California always talked about Christmas tamales. It was a communal thing. The family and guests would gather around and form a bit of an assembly line as they shredded the beef and slung it in the husks with the cornmeal. There was but one rule: if you don’t help, you don’t eat.
So currently that is my plan. I’ve got my eyes set on making tamales for this shindig and I pray I have the time. Rather than forcing everyone to chip in on the labor end of things, I want to make them ahead of time and reheat them on Christmas Eve. Fair enough. My dilemma is whether I should use the normal pork roast or shred a turkey for a little holiday flair.
When making tamales one should use masa harina, which is a dehydrated cornmeal product and can be reconstituted with equal volumes of chicken stock, a few ounces of lard and a couple teaspoons of baking powder. To 4 ounces of lard use 1 cup of masa harina, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1 cup of chicken broth. This works best with a stand mixer, incorporating each ingredient in that particular order.
Corn husks must be simmered for 8-10 minutes to become pliable. Keep the filling an inch from the top and about an inch and a half from the bottom with the doughy masa mixture and whatever filling you should choose. Fold them up tightly and tie with a string (or strip of corn husk) and steam over medium-low heat for an hour or so.
The most time consuming part of tamale making is the meat. For pork it’s best to go with a Boston butt. This could be cut up and simmered in a Dutch oven with water and seasoning in a couple of hours (you could use the broth of this for your cornmeal dough in place of chicken broth) or you could cook the butt whole in the oven.
At 350 F a good-sized Boston butt will take about three hours to cook. The way I do it is to watch the thermometer until it reads 170 F. At that point the thermometer won’t move for a little while. When the temp decides to climb again you are done. Every roast is different so really watch the temp. After it cools a bit you can easily shred it with a fork in each hand. Savor those charred pieces.
So that’s my plan and I am sticking to it. I’m warming up to the idea of Mexican Christmas Eve. But don’t worry, Mom, I’m saving room for Christmas Day.