Wisconsin's culinary diversity is never more apparent than during the holidays, when families enjoy the foods of their ethnic past. Yet heritage recipes can be elaborate affairs; they're brought out only for special occasions in part because they're painstaking to prepare.
I know Italian families, for example, who make their own sausage for the lasagna on Christmas Eve, and have Jewish friends who hand-grate potatoes for Hanukkah latkes. Once I spent hours making stuffing for a Christmas goose, siphoning fat off the roasting bird and fussing over the gravy...but every second was worth the near-giddy reaction of my usually undemonstrative father-in-law, as he reminisced about such German fare from his youth.
Perhaps the best of these traditions are ones like tamales, a Mexican specialty so labor-intensive that everyone gathers together to get the job done - making the process as nourishing as the results.
Tamales de Pollo
25-35 tamales 1/2 pound dried corn husks (about 50) 2/3 cup lard, softened 4 cups masa harina de maíz (corn masa mix) 1 tablespoon salt 1/2 tablespoon baking powder about 3 cups chicken stock 1/3 cup melted lard pico de gallo (chopped fresh tomato salsa) or bottled salsa
Chicken filling: 4-6 fresh serranos, stems removed 12-15 medium tomatillos 1-2 cloves garlic 1/2 cup chicken stock, plus additional as needed 1/2 cup chopped cilantro 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1/4 cup finely chopped onion 1 pound chicken meat, cooked and fork-shredded salt
Soak corn husks in hot water at least one hour, separating them as they soften. For masa dough: Beat softened lard until fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Mix masa harina, salt and baking powder in separate bowl. Mix this mixture alternately with chicken stock into beaten lard until dough is spreadable. Beat in melted lard.
For filling: Simmer serranos in water 4-5 minutes. Add tomatillos; simmer 4-5 minutes longer. Drain; transfer serranos and tomatillos to blender or food processor. Add garlic and stock; puree. Add cilantro and process briefly. Heat oil in skillet, add onion and sauté until translucent. Stir in tomatillo puree; cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, 5-6 minutes. Reduce heat to low, stir in shredded chicken, cover, and cook 5 minutes. Add salt to taste. If filling is overly thick, thin with additional stock. Cool.
For tamales: Drain husks. Each one should be a bit bigger than a spread-out hand; if not, overlap two of them to make a single tamal. Reserve enough soaked husks to line the pot in which they will be steamed. Place 2-3 tablespoons masa dough in center of spread-out husk. Flatten masa so that it covers an area about 3 inches wide by 5 inches long (leave at least 3 inches at the bottom, pointed end of corn husk empty, and about 1 inch at the wide, top end empty). Spread 1-2 tablespoons filling down center of masa. Bring the two sides of the husk up and press them lightly together so that the masa forms a seal around the filling. Fold the two sides of the husk around the tamal. Now fold the pointed end about 3 inches up and over the seam. Continue filling and folding all the tamales.
Place water to a two-inch depth in a large pot fitted with a steam basket. Cover steam basket with reserved husks. Arrange tamales in steam basket with folded side down and tamales slightly inclined so filling won't slide out. Use any remaining husks to cover the tamales. Place pot on high heat and bring water to boil. Lower heat, cover tightly and steam tamales 1 to 1-1/4 hours. Serve with pico de gallo or salsa.
Adapted from a recipe from the Villarreal family, who own the El Rey Mexican Food Products enterprises in Milwaukee.