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Dining

[The Mexican Food Issue]

A recipe from Mom & Dad: How to make tamales Almeida-style

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Bill Almeida goes to work on a batch of holiday tamales.
Courtesy Almeida family

Where can you find the best Mexican food in Las Vegas? No matter how many times or who we asked, the answer was usually the same: Mom’s house. It makes sense—there’s an inherent hominess to this cuisine that connects food to family.

Bill and Judie Almeida have lived in the same house on the east side of Las Vegas since 1977. Originally from Southern California, Bill’s family hails from the Mexican states of Durango and Sinaloa. Their kids have grown up and now live in Seattle and Alaska, but their tradition of making dozens of chicken tamales for family gatherings is still going strong. Judie made a few tweaks to her mother-in-law’s recipe, namely taking lard out of the equation. But the flavors are huge, partly because they mix red chile sauce into the masa.

The Almeida tamale process usually takes three days. Here’s how they do it.

Day 1: Go shopping.

Ingredients:

10 lbs. unprepared tamale masa or 1 bag Quaker Masa Harina de Maíz, prepared as directed without lard

10 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breast

3 packages dried corn husks

2 boxes (32-ounce) chicken broth

3 cans red chile sauce

3 cans black olives, pitted

1 head garlic

flour

baking powder

canola oil

sea salt

cumin

You’ll also need wax paper, a large roasting pan, a huge bowl to mix the masa and a steamer. Bill and Judie make 10 pounds of masa at a time. This recipe makes 4½ to 6 dozen tamales, but you can cut it in half if you’re not feeding a big family.

Day 2: Make the chicken and sauce.

Flora Rios Almeida, born in San Juan del Rio, Durango, Mexico in 1904, taught her son Bill and daughter-in-law Judie how she made her tamales.

Flora Rios Almeida, born in San Juan del Rio, Durango, Mexico in 1904, taught her son Bill and daughter-in-law Judie how she made her tamales.

To make the chicken, chop it into large chunks, place it in a large stockpot or roasting pan and cover with chicken broth. Add 1 tbsp. salt and 3-4 cloves minced garlic. If you’re using a stockpot on the stove, cook the chicken on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally for 3-4 hours. If you’re using an oven, cook at 350 degrees, stirring occasionally for 2-3 hours. When chicken is fully cooked, remove from broth, reserve the liquid, and shred the chicken using two forks to pull it apart. Add a bit of the broth to keep the meat moist, and refrigerate.

To make the sauce, gather these ingredients:

2 cups canola oil

2 cups flour

2 cans red chile sauce

3-4 cups reserved chicken broth

1 tbsp. cumin

4 cloves garlic, minced

Make a roux by heating the oil in a large pan on medium-low heat and adding the flour, whisking until it thickens into a smooth paste. Stir in cumin and garlic. Lower the heat and slowly add red chile sauce, stirring constantly. Be sure there are no lumps of flour. It will thicken quickly. When it does, start slowly adding chicken broth. When you reach a medium-thick consistency in the sauce, it’s done and can be refrigerated.

Day 3: Assemble the tamales.

First, soak the dried corn husks for 1 hour in warm water in a large pan or bowl. Rinse any debris off the husks before using them.

For the masa preparation, gather these ingredients:

5 tbsp. baking powder

2 tbsp. sea salt

2 cups canola oil

2 cups of the chile sauce you made yesterday

Put unprepared masa in a large bowl and crumble it a bit. Add baking powder and salt and mix with your hands. Add 1 cup canola oil and 1 cup sauce. Fold the masa from the bottom up and forward, squeezing with your fingers. Turn the pan to get liquid from all sides mixed into the masa. When mixed through, add the remaining 1 cup oil and 1 cup sauce and repeat until mixed thoroughly.

To assemble the tamales, set up a work station where you have the husks, masa, chicken, olives and wax paper within reach. Mix some of your remaining chile sauce with the shredded chicken until thoroughly saturated. Tear off rectangles of wax paper large enough to wrap the tamales.

Using a spatula or spoon, spread a layer of masa onto a corn husk, bottom to top. Add a few spoonfuls of the chicken mixture and two olives. Fold one side of the husk halfway over, then fold the other side over the first, then fold the bottom upwards. Place the tamale at the end of a wax paper rectangle, and fold the paper over so the tamale is wrapped. Place the tamale in your steamer rack and repeat the process until the rack is full. Cover and steam each batch for 4-5 hours. Smaller batches will take less time. To test, remove one tamale, carefully remove wax paper and husk with a fork—it will be very hot—and if it falls cleanly out and has a reddish color, it’s done. Enjoy plain or add extra sauce and cheese (gringa-style).

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Brock Radke is Las Vegas Weekly's food editor and author of the Strip-focused column The Incidental Tourist. He has written ...

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