I grew up eating tamales for breakfast. We'd often spend short vacations in northern Mexico, and every morning, my dad would take one of us kids to the local pastry shop so we could help choose the pastries for the morning. The real treats, however, were the tamales tucked away in the back of the store. My dad would get a dozen or two, and when we returned to the house, we would feast on Mexican pastries and tamales.
Although I love these meat-filled, cornmeal-dough-wrapped cylinders of goodness, I had never attempted making them. Suddenly, right before Christmas, I got the urge to try, and I talked my mom into helping me make them when I was visiting for the holidays. I had heard that they were difficult and time consuming to make, but I had time--I was on vacation! It turns out that they aren't difficult once you get the hang of stuffing them, but they are time consuming. My suggestion would be to make the fillings a day ahead and then stuff them the following day. Extra hands cut down on the work, as well, so if making these, make it a tamale party! (My mom would like for me to point out here that her shopping skills and hands were crucial to this enterprise.) And make extras--they freeze well, and you'll definitely want more of these!
We made green chile chicken tamales, which aren't typical. Most are made with beef or pork, and although we did make a batch of beef tamales, the chicken ones were the hands-down favorite. The combination of the chiles and the tomatillos created a deep, rich flavor that works well with the chicken and corn masa. If you've never had tamales, I encourage you to try them...just make sure to discard the corn husks before eating!
You will need to either invest in a tamale steamer, which is a large, tall pot with a steamer insert that sits a couple of inches above the bottom of the pan, or create something similar with gadgets you already have. If you're cooking a big batch, I recommend investing in one of these, but if not, you could always use a steamer insert. We were able to find a very large pot for about $20 at the local Mexican tienda, and if you don't make tamales very often, it could also be used to make stocks and soups.
We didn't make the masa below because the local Mexican tiendas also sold freshly-made masa by the pound. If you have that option, I highly recommend it--they make it every day and know exactly what the consistency should be. If you don't have this option, then you can try the recipe below.
Green Chile Chicken Tamales
Adapted from Bon Apétit, May 2003
Makes about 2 dozen
1 8-ounce package dried corn husks (This can be found in the Mexican aisle of your grocery store or at a Mexican tienda.)
1 lb. tomatillos, husked and rinsed
4 3-inch serrano chiles (or other spicy chile), stemmed and chopped (This can be adjusted for your level of heat. When making the sauce, start with 1 or 2 chiles and add more to get it to the right heat level for you.)
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 1/2 Tbl olive oil
2 cups chicken broth (Homemade is preferable, but if you don't have any, use low-sodium.)
4 cups (packed) coarsely shredded cooked chicken, about 1 lb. (I poached chicken breasts, but you could also use a roasted or rotisserie chicken.)
2/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 1/3 cup lard or solid vegetable shortening
1 1/2 tsp salt (omit if the masa already contains salt)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder (omit if the masa already contains baking powder)
3 1/2 cups masa harina (can be found in the Mexican aisle at your grocery store)
2 1/4 cups warm water
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Place the corn husks in a large pot or bowl and cover generously with water. Place a heavy plate on top to weight them down. Soak for at least 3 hours and up to 1 day.
Preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the tomatillos on the sheet.
Broil until the tomatillos blacken in spots, turning once, about 5 minutes on each side. Move the tomatillos and juices to a food processors and allow to cool. Add the chiles and the garlic to the processor and blend until a smooth puree forms.
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat and add the tomatillo-chile puree and boil for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the broth, reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon thickly and is reduced to about 1 cup, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Season with salt. Add the chicken and cilantro. (This can be made one day ahead. Cover and chill if using later.)
If making your own masa, mix the lard or shortening with a mixer until light and fluffy. Mix the masa harina and the warm water, then add it to the lard in four additions. Reduce the speed to low and beat in 1 1/2 cups of broth, forming a tender dough. If the dough seems firm, add more broth, 2 tablespoons at a time, until the dough is softened (similar to a very light cookie dough).
When you are ready to put your tamales together, fill the bottom of your tamale steamer with water so that it almost reaches the bottom of the steamer insert. Line the insert with some of the corn husks. Tear some of the other husks into long, thin strips (about 24 or enough to tie each tamale) and set aside.
Using a very large husk or two smaller husks overlapping slightly, spread about 1/4 cup of the masa onto 2/3 of the husk, leaving about an inch at the widest part on the top and 1-2 inches at the narrow part on the bottom free of masa.
Spread about a heaping tablespoon of filling along the edge of the masa.
Fold the the long edge of the husk over the filling and roll, lifting the edge of the husk when the masa meets, and then rolling the rest of the way.
Fold the bottom part of the husk under the rolled tamale.
Lay the folded part onto a husk strip, pull it around the tamale and tie it gently into a knot.
As you finish each tamale, place it into the pot, open end up.
Continue placing them into the pot until the filling is used or the pot is full. If the pot isn't full when you are ready to start cooking them, fill the empty spaces with loosely crumpled foil to prevent the tamales from falling over.
Bring the water in the pot to a boil. Cover the pot and reduce the heat just enough so that the water doesn't boil away, but keep it high enough to continue to create steam. Steam the tamales until the dough is firm and comes away from the husks easily, about 45 minutes. Add more water to the pot as necessary as they cook to make sure that you don't burn the bottom of your pot. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Tamales can be served warm or at room temperature.
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