Tamales de Pollo
(Mexican steamed corncakes with chicken)
Tamales are a staple of Central American cuisine. At their simplest, they are masa corn dough wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed in a large pot, the tamalera. Most tamales, however, include one of a multitude of tasty fillings.
There are thousands of varieties of tamales, and each region has its own specialty. This simple recipe is for tamales stuffed with chicken in tomatillo sauce. Feel free to experiment with your own fillings.
The singular of tamales is "tamal," although "tamale" (tah-MAH-lee) is often used in American English.
Makes about 20 tamales
- Chicken, boneless, skinless -- 2 pounds
- Water -- to cover
- Salt and pepper -- to season
- Salsa verde -- 1 1/2 to 2 cups
- Masa harina -- 6 cups
- Chicken stock -- 4 cups
- Lard or shortening -- 1 1/2 cups
- Baking powder -- 2 teaspoons
- Salt -- 2 teaspoons
- Dried corn husks -- around 20
- Kitchen string -- as needed
- Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add the cornhusks. Set aside to soak for at least an hour while you prepare the tamales.
- Add the chicken to a large saucepan and add enough water to cover them by about 1 inch. Add salt and pepper and bring to a boil over medium flame. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and tender. Drain, reserving the liquid, and set the chicken aside to cool.
- When cool enough to handle, shred the chicken with your fingers and toss it with enough of the salsa verde to moisten it but not enough to make it soggy. Adjust seasoning to taste and set aside.
- Place the masa harina, lard or shortening, baking powder and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Blend on a low speed to incorporate the fat into the masa harina and give it a mealy texture. You may have to do this and the next step in two batches if your mixer bowl is not large enough to hold all the ingredients without overflowing.
- With the mixer still on low speed, add enough of the reserved chicken poaching liquid to make a soft, moist dough. It should be a little firmer than mashed potatoes. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat for 2 to 3 minutes to incorporate some air into the masa and make it fluffier. Cover the bowl and set the masa aside to rest for at least 30 minutes.
- Arrange the masa, chicken filling and assembly items on a large table or work surface. Gather family and friends to help in an assembly line.
- Drain the cornhusks and wipe them dry. Lay out a husk with the pointed end up and add about 1/2 cup masa to the center. Spread the masa out into a square of about 4x4-inches, leaving a border of at least an inch around the edges of the cornhusk. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chicken filling to the middle of the masa. Fold in each side of the cornhusk to cover the dough. Then fold up the bottom of the husk. Finally fold down the pointed top and insert it into the bottom to make a package. Tie the tamal with string if needed. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling.
- Add 2 or 3 inches of water to a tamalera or pot large enough to hold all the tamales. (You may have to use two pots if you don't have one big enough to hold the tamales in one batch.) Place a rack in the bottom or toss in enough wadded up aluminum foil to hold the tamales out of the water. Add the tamales and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover tightly, reduce heat to low and steam for 2 to 3 hours. Add more water as needed to keep the pot from boiling dry.
- Remove the tamales from the pot, remove the cornhusk wrapper and serve hot.
- Masa Variations: This recipe uses masa made from masa harina flour. If you can find fresh masa, definitely use that instead. The flavor and texture will be better. A variety of ingredients can be added to the masa to give it more flavor. Add some chopped, cooked bacon, along with its fat. Mix in some chopped and sautéed onions, garlic or chile peppers. Add a little achiote paste to flavor and color it. Most authorities frown on anything but lard for masa, but butter, margarine or even oil can substitute for some or all of the lard.
- Meat Variations: Use cubed pork butt, cubed beef or turkey instead of chicken. Adjust poaching time accordingly. For more flavor, the poaching liquid can be flavored with and combination of sour orange juice, chopped onions, chopped chiles, minced garlic, achiote paste, paprika, ground cumin and minced garlic.
- Sauce Variations: Try a tomato-based sauce or any of a variety of red, green or brown mole sauces to season your filling. In Mexico, tamales are not usually eaten with a sauce over the top.
- Filling Variations: An almost endless list of possiblities. Apart from all kinds of meat and poultry fillings, there is fish, cheese, beans, chiles, huitlacoche and even raisins or other dried fruit for tamales de dulce.
- Wrapping: Cornhusks can be found in many Latin markets. If they aren't available in your area, you can use a double layer of aluminum foil or parchment paper. You won't get the extra flavor the cornhusks add though. In southern Mexico and much of Central America, tamales are also wrapped in banana leaves and are often made a little larger.