Six years ago, I was invited to share in the making of Christmas nacatamales, while Ron and Cory climbed Vulcan Concepcion. Grandma arrived in a green polyester suit with frayed sandals, the heart of our neighbor’s Christmas tradition. While she was mixing the fresh pork with rice and vegetables, Luvis cleaned the pig head that had been slaughtered early in the morning. The little kids were soaking the banana leaves that Papa gathered, Gloria was stirring a big smoky pot of pig rinds, and I was embellishing the wrapped nacatamales with big banana bows of gratefulness.
They were the most delicious treat of the holiday season, but more than that, the family accepted me as part of their family tradition. Right there in the middle of bloody pig guts, chickens pecking on the dirt floor, a piglet eating slop from an inverted Frisbee, four bony dogs salivating at the smell of greasy pork skins, and the pallid head of a dead pig staring at me, I knew that this was Christmas at its finest. I had been given an opportunity to be fully immersed in a foreign culture.
To honor the annual Christmas tradition of the national snack in Nicaragua, and the most lavish tamale in Latin America, I have a revised, gringo recipe below.
Pork and Marinade
2/3 cup long-grain white rice
1 cup cold water
1 clove garlic minced
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup sour orange juice or 6 tablespoons lime juice and 2 tablespoons
1 pound lean pork loin or boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 onion, minced
1/2 red bell pepper, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups warm chicken broth
1 cup warm skim milk
2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3-4 1/2 cups masa harina
8 pieces banana leaves, plantain leaves (12″ X 12″ each)
or aluminum foil…your best bet if you live in the cold country
1 potato, peeled and cut into 8 slices
1 onion, peeled and cut into 8 slices
1 tomato, peeled and cut into 8 slices
8 pimiento-stuffed green olives, halved
8 sprigs of mint
You can add prunes, raisins, too
To make the pork marinade: In a small bowl, combine the rice and water. Let soak for 4-12 hours. Drain.
In a medium bowl, stir in garlic, salt, pepper, and sour orange juice. Add the pork or chicken and turn to coat.
Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour.
To make the masa: In a large bowl, combine the onions, bell peppers, garlic, chicken broth, milk, oil, salt, and pepper. Using a wooden spoon, stir in 4 cups of the masa harina to obtain a soft, thick, pliable dough. The consistency should resemble Play-Doh; add some more masa harina, if needed. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let stand for 20 minutes.
To assemble: Slice the pork or chicken into 8 slices, reserving the marinade.
Arrange the banana leaves, plantain leaves, or foil on a large work surface. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Place 1 piece in the center of each square. Pat it into a rectangle.
Tuck a slice of potato, onion, and tomato under each dough rectangle. Press the dough on top of them. Place 1 1/2 tablespoons rice, 1 slice pork or chicken, 1 olive, and 1 sprig of mint on top of the dough. Press into the dough. Drizzle the reserved marinade on top. Fold the left side and right side of the leaves or foil over the dough, then fold over the top and bottom to form a neat package. Wrap each piece in foil. Tie the bundles closed with strips of banana leaves, or string. Be sure to make a pretty bow to top off the nacatamale.
To cook: Place the packages in a large pot and set over medium heat. Pour in water to cover by 4″. Simmer for 3 hours, adding more water as needed to keep the packages submerged.
Transfer the packages to a colander and drain well. Remove the string and foil and serve in the packages.
Makes 8 nacatamales
Enjoy! If anyone makes nacatamales this holiday season, be sure to tie a bow of gratefulness and share with your neighbors.