Living in southern California with it’s sizable Hispanic population, tamales have become synonymous with the holidays and especially Christmas. I’ve often heard stories of families gathered around the kitchen making these unique pouches of goodness while laughing, singing and sharing memories on Christmas Eve.
Here is a recipe for very tasty little tamales that I adapted from Sunset magazine. Because it is a labor-intensive process, I have added shortcuts along the way to reduce the time required. There are two filling variations here.
Make The Filling: Roasted Poblano Chile and Cheese
1 1/2 pounds poblano chiles
18 oz monterey jack cheese
Cover a cooking sheet with foil and broil the chiles in the oven until blackened all over, about 10 minutes. Turn frequently while broiling. Place the chiles in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam for 20 minutes.
Peel skin off the chiles, stem and seed them. Slice into 1/2” strips, about 3” long. Season with salt.
Cut cheese into slices approximately 3” long and 1/2” wide.
Note: for a shortcut, buy mild green chiles already prepared in a can.
Make The Filling: Chicken and Green Tomatillo Salsa
1 1/2 white onions, quartered
4 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 t kosher salt
3 lbs chicken breast, with skin and bones
2 bay leaves
11 firm tomatillos, husked, stemmed and rinsed in warm water to remove stickiness
2 to 3 jalapeno chiles, stemmed and halved lengthwise (optional: remove seeds for milder flavor or use fewer chiles)
3/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro, stems and leaves
1 t kosher salt
1/4 t pepper
Poach chicken: put onions, garlic, salt and 4 cups water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add chicken and bay leaves and lower heat to a simmer. Cook chicken, partly covered until no longer pink inside, about 20 to 25 minutes. When chicken is cool, tear into bite size pieces, discarding skin.
Remove bay leaf from pot. Add tomatillos and jalapenos and cook, covered over medium heat until tomatillos are soft, about 10 to 12 minutes. Drain tomatillo mixture, saving the broth to make the tamale dough. Transfer the tomatillo mixture to a blender. Add cilantro, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth.
Bring salsa to a simmer in a saucepan. Add chicken and simmer together for about 5 minutes to meld flavors. Season with salt and pepper.
Note: you can substitute cooked chicken breast and store bought salsa verde to save time.
Make The Tamale Dough
3/4 lb pork lard
5 cups masa harina (Maseca)
2 t baking powder
4 t kosher salt
4 1/2 cups hot chicken broth
Make dough: whip lard on low speed of a mixer with the whisk attachment, gradually increasing speed to high, until lard is fluffy like frosting, about 5 minutes. Whisk masa harina, baking powder and salt in a bowl. With mixer on low, add 1/3 masa mixture to the lard, incorporating fully. Scrape bowl and add another 1/3 masa mixture. Slowly add broth to the lard/masa mixture. Beat in remaining masa mixture one spoonful at a time until dough is soft and fluffy without being sticky (you may not need to use all of the masa mixture). Test the dough by rolling a small ball of it over the back of your hand to see if it rolls easily without sticking. Cover the dough with a damp kitchen towel and rest between 10 minutes and up to 1 hour, or chill up to 2 days.
Fill The Tamales
8 oz dried cornhusks (50 to 60)
Soak cornhusks by submerging them in hot water, weighted down with the lid of a pan for about 30 minutes.
Place 4 upturned ramekins in the bottom of a tall stockpot and set a steamer basket on top. Pour water in the bottom to about 1 1/2” but below the steamer basket level.
Drain cornhusks and pat dry. If you are not using them immediately, chill them in resealable plastic bags for up to 2 days.
Set a cornhusk, smooth side up, on a work surface. Spoon about 2+ T of dough onto the wide top of husk and smear over top half of husk, leaving a 1” border from top and sides. Add 1-2 T of filling down the center of the dough (or 2 chiles and 1 piece of cheese for the chile cheese tamales). Bring the sides of the husk to meet over the filling, then fold both sides of the filling in the same direction. Turn tamale seam side up and fold the narrow bottom of the tamale up to close it.
Set the tamales, open side up in the steamer, packing them loosely. Cover the pot with foil and a tight fitting lid. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce heat to maintain a steady low boil. Check the water at 30 minutes, adding more as necessary. The tamales should be done at about 1 hour, when they separate easily from the husk but are still somewhat soft (open one to check). Remove pot from heat and let tamales cool in pot for about 20 minutes to firm up.
Serve with salsa of your choice, though they are delicious on their own.
Tamales can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. To reheat, place them on a plate with a damp paper towel over them and plastic wrap covering the plate. Microwave them on high for approximately 1 to 2 minutes if frozen, less if not. Adjust time according to your specific microwave.
Note: although this is an involved process, it is a joyful one – especially in the creation of the tamale dough and the filling and folding of the tamales. And the results are better than any tamale I have ever tasted – proving what we already know: that nothing beats homemade, and that love can be shared through the food we prepare. Enjoy.