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AT THE MARKET TAMALES

Traditional Treats : Preparing food and sharing the feast are part of the holiday celebration rooted in Latino history.

December 19, 1991|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Mexican culinary treat, the tamale--a pocket of cornmeal shrouding a center of meaty goodness, all secured by an outer cornhusk--is a Christmas holiday favorite. The preparation and consumption of tamales during the holiday season are traditions deeply rooted in Latino history.

"It goes way back," said Robert Sanchez, president of Oxnard's Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce. "Probably back to pre-Columbian times."

The custom of serving tamales has become part of the celebration of the birth of Christ.

"It is an eight-day commemoration known as La Posada," Sanchez said. Culminating on Christmas Eve, La Posada is an observance of Mary and Joseph's unsuccessful search for an inn, or posada.

In Mexico, La Posada is traditionally celebrated by members of an entire neighborhood, who congregate to enjoy an array of Mexican cuisine. "Neighbors will gather at a different house each of the eight nights, serving breads and other foods," he said. "Tamales are the main course."

A posada party--whether a lunchtime meal with a few friends or a banquet for several hundred--might include a bowl of steaming menudo accompanied by savory empanadas and sweet bunuelos . "Tamales are the most prevalent, though, because of their popularity," Sanchez said. "Everything else is placed around them."

Preparing tamales can be a time-consuming, arduous process. As a result, Mexican cafes and bakeries around Ventura County are bustling with business, filling tamale orders for families wanting to enjoy the feast without all the fuss. But according to Sanchez, the true tamale tradition means much more than holiday food fare.

"They are special because they aren't easy to make--they take hours to prepare," he said. "It becomes a family project. The grandma is traditionally the one to prepare the tamales and she is helped by her daughters and granddaughters. It is a time for family gathering."

For Bertha Lopez, preparing tamales remains a family tradition. She and five other family members co-own Especial Bakery in Oxnard, a popular holiday spot to pick up a variety of tamales. Especial Bakery, like most outlets, offers chicken, beef, pork and sweet versions.

"You hear a lot of stories about the preparation being time-consuming and a lot of work," Lopez said. "But we make them every other day so it's not so bad anymore."

A good tamale is noted by its delectably light cornmeal shell. Preparation should start with whole corn kernels, Lopez said. The kernels are boiled in caustic lime and water to separate skins from the meats. Corn meats are then washed well and put through a grinder.

"This semi-ground corn is called masa ," she said. The masa --made in 50-pound batches--is mixed with salt, lard ("for better taste") and water.

Lopez said a buoyancy test is employed to determine the readiness of their masa . "Well-prepared masa will float in water," she said. "Too much water in the mix or too little and it will sink." A proper amount of air beaten into the mix is key, she said.

Next, the mixture is spooned onto soaked cornhusks along with meats and other fillings. The husks are then folded, and the tamales are steamed for one hour.

Especial Bakery also makes two versions of vegetarian tamales. The "Mexican" style features hot jalapeno peppers, cheese and olives. The other, a tamer variety, contains cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and potatoes. Its name? You guessed it: "The Gringo."

Lopez said their sweet tamales feature such fruits as raisins and pineapple. "They're really just for dessert," she said. "One or two is enough for one day. They're very sweet."

Just how popular are tamales during the eight-day celebration?

"In the past we have prepared as many as 300 dozen," she said.

After procuring an order of tamales, a simple reheating is all that is needed before serving. Steaming is best. "I don't advise that you microwave them," said Ben Tirado, Lopez's brother. "You'll dry them out." A 20-minute steaming, he said, will suffice.

And for those who want to venture into the tamale-making tradition, Especial Bakery offers a convenient short cut.

"We sell plain masa ," Tirado said. "It's ready to use. Just start filling the cornhusks."

TAKING ORDERS

The following is a list of bakeries and cafes offering tamales for the holidays. Orders can usually be placed and picked up the same day.

* Especial Bakery, 561 Hueneme Road, Oxnard. 488-5232.

* Mercado La Plaza, 500 E. 5th St., Oxnard. 486-8353.

* Ranchito Meat Market, 1631 Royal Ave., Simi Valley. 522-6067.

* Joannafina's Mexican Cafe, 1127 S. Seaward Ave., Ventura. 652-0360.

* Johnny's Mexican Food, 176 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura. 648-2021.

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