WITHOUT a doubt, tamales are the kings at Tico tables. They are as important at Christmas time as turkey is at Thanksgiving in the U.S. They also demand many hours of work to prepare. Costa Ricans consider them a symbol of the real meaning of Christmas because their preparation involves a family reunion, and when they are ready they are shared with neighbors, relatives and friends. Usually, Ticos work in teams. Some are in charge of preparing the plantain leaves, which need to be soasadas, or softened, over an open flame. When ready, they are cleaned with a wet towel to get rid of the ashy dust and are used to wrap the tamal. In general, women are the experts who prepare the relleno (stuffing), which varies by preference. The most expert hand (often grandmother s) gives the final and very important touch to the masa (dough). Tamales are served with a cup of coffee or agua dulce (a sugar-cane drink), escabeche (vegetable salad; see recipe below) and some Salsa Lizano. TAMALES (for 100 tamales) Ingredients: 4 kg (1-kg packages) masa 1 kg potatoes 1/2 kg carrots 1 red bell pepper 2 onions 1/4 kg green beans 1/2 kg pork lard 1/2 kg bacon, mashed 2 kg pork (ribs or cubed meat) 1/2 kg pre-cooked rice 6 kg plantain leaves 1 can chickpeas 2 170-gm cans of peas 2 cans olives (optional) 1 roll of string to tie plantain leaves Thyme, oregano, cilantro, celery, cumin, pepper, salt to taste. Preparation: Cook pork, seasoned with garlic, onion, red pepper, black pepper, salt and powdered chicken seasoning. Save the broth. Make mashed potatoes and mix with dough, pork lard, bacon and pork broth. Slice the carrots and julienne the green beans. Pass plantain leaves over an open flame to soften, then clean (or buy ready-made). Put a portion of the dough on a plantain leaf. Add rice, vegetables and pork. Fold the ends of the leaves (try to make a rectangle) and wrap. Make piñas (join two tamales, tying them with string not too tight or too loose). Boil piñas for two hours. Unwrap the tamales (use scissors) and serve on top of the leaves. You can also serve with Salsa Lizano or hot sauce, escabeche or a vegetable salad and coffee. Some people use chicken instead of pork and add raisins or prunes. ESCABECHE (for 10 people) A vegetable salad loved by Costa Ricans, escabeche can accompany rice, meat and tamales. Ingredients: 1 cauliflower 1 small cabbage 1/2 kg carrots 1/2 kg green beans 2 big onions 3 large red bell peppers 2 chayotes (mirliton), peeled 1/2 cup of oil 1/2 cup of vinegar Juice of 1 lemon Ketchup (tomato sauce) to taste 3 bay leaves Salsa Lizano to taste Preparation: Boil chopped carrots, green beans, cabbage and chayote. Cut onions and peppers in thin slices. Soften onions, peppers. Add all ingredients and cook for 10 minutes. Put in glass bowl and refrigerate overnight.