For many Latinos, the taste of Christmas Eve is a delicious gift of corn masa and filling wrapped up in aromatic leaves: tamales.
From Mexico to Puerto Rico, Venezuela to Cuba and beyond, Latin America and the Caribbean have hundreds of interpretations of the tamal. Some are savory, some sweet, some are filled with chicken, beef or pork, others with cheese or vegetables. Whatever the variety, tamales are a favorite for important holidays.
In part, that's because they're labor-intensive — one reason why tamale-making can be quite intimidating for the newbie. It's also why making tamales at home can be a social event in its own right. In traditional tamaladas, friends and family gather to assemble dozens or even hundreds of little masa bundles to enjoy and share with others. Often, it's a multi-generational affair, with grandmothers and mothers passing down techniques and recipes.
If you don't have a tamale-master grandma in the family, don't despair. For help, we turned to Mexican chef Pati Jinich, host of Pati's Mexican Table on PBS. In the video above, she demystifies the basics of tamale-making and shows us how to make her favorite kind — chicken tamales in green salsa. For merrier results, we recommend tackling this recipe with the help of loved ones.
Chicken In Salsa Verde Tamales (Tamales de Pollo con Salsa Verde)
From Pati Jinich
The easiest way to make tamales is to prepare your filling(s) first. In fact you can make it a day or two in advance. For the ones I feature here, make your cooked salsa verde, pictured in the molcajete below. Combine it with cooked shredded chicken to make a wet mix. No, you don't want it dry! The tamal masa will soak up some of that salsa. After the tamales cook for almost an hour, you want to bite into a tamal that has a saucy, moist filling.
Then get your hands on dried corn husks, pictured below. You can get them in the Latin aisles of your supermarket, at many a Latin or international store, or online. No excuse. Soak those husks in warm water, so they will become malleable and pliable. You don't want them to crack as you use them to wrap the dough and roll the tamal. You will also need to place some of the leaves in the tamalera or steamer.
Get the tamalera ready. Pour water and drop a coin in there. That's a passed down trick from endless generations. It works as an alarm for when the tamales may be running out of water, so you won't need to open up the pot and let all that precious steam come out: if the water is running out, the coin will start jumping up and down and make loud clinking noises.
The most important thing about the masa, aside from being well seasoned, is that it needs to be as fluffy as fluffy can get. It has to be so airy that, if you take a cup of cold water and drop half a teaspoon of the masa in it, it floats! You can only achieve this by beating it for a long time at a good speed. That's why I recommend a mixer in the recipe below, but of course, you are welcome to get a good work out from the masa mixing by hand or with a sturdy spatula.
Then, follow my detailed instructions below on how to fill and wrap the tamales, place them in the tamalera and hold your horses for 50 minutes until they are ready.
Hopefully, you make more than what you need. I can think of few foods that have as much warmth, sustenance and meaning than tamales. They are food that is meant to be shared. So I suggest you try a tamalada gathering!
Make many fillings ahead of time. Make your masa. Invite friends over and have a tamal-making party before the Tamalada. Everyone will have gifts to open and eat, as that is what tamales are, indeed. And the best gift of them all will be any leftover tamales that a lucky guest gets to take along. Or be a bit greedy, keep them at home.
- For the tamales:
- 25 dried corn husks soaking in warm water
- 3/4 cup lard, vegetable shortening or seasoned vegetable oil (to make seasoned oil, heat oil over medium heat and cook a slice of onion and 3 to 4 garlic cloves for 15 minutes, strain before using)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt or to taste
- 1 teaspoon cold water
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 pound instant corn masa for tortillas or tamales about 3 1/4 cups
- 3 1/2 cups chicken stock add more if needed
- For the filling:
- 1 recipe for cooked salsa verde
- 2 cups shredded cooked chicken
- To make the filling: Make the salsa verde, combine it with the shredded chicken, and set aside or refrigerate, if made ahead of time.
- To make masa for the tamales: Place lard, vegetable shortening or seasoned oil in a mixer and beat, until very light, about 1 minute. Add salt and 1 teaspoon cold water, and continue beating until it is white and spongy, a couple more minutes. Add baking powder, and then take turns adding the instant corn masa and the chicken stock. Continue beating until dough is homogeneous and as fluffy as can get.
- TIP: You know the tamal masa is ready if, when you drop 1/2 teaspoon of the masa in a cup of cold water, it floats.
- To prepare the tamalera or steamer: Place hot water in the bottom pan of a steamer (only enough so the water is just under the basket with the tamales and not touching them) and bring it to a simmer. Line the steamer basket with one or two layers of soaked corn husks. Use dough to form about 18 cornhusk wrapped tamales.
- To make the tamales: Soak dried corn husks in hot water for a couple minutes, or until they are pliable, and drain. Lay out a corn husk with the tapering end towards you. Spread about 3 tablespoons of masa into about a 2- to 3-inch square, the layer should be about 1/4-inch thick, leaving a border of at least 1/2-inch on the sides. Place 1 tablespoon of filling in the middle of the masa square.
- Pick up the two long sides of the corn husk and bring them together (you will see how the masa starts to swaddle the filling) and fold the folded sides to one side, rolling them on same direction around tamal. Fold up the empty section of the husk with the tapering end, from the bottom up. This will form a closed bottom and the top will be left open.
- Prepare all the tamales and place them as vertically as you can in a container. When you have them all ready, place them again, as vertically as you can on the prepared steamer, with the open end on top. If there is space left in the steamer, tuck in some corn husks, so the tamales won't dance around. Cover with more corn husks, and steam covered for 50 minutes to an hour. You know the tamales are ready when they come easily free from the husks. They will still be moist, and as they are released from the husks, you will see the moistness, like when you remove good moist muffins from their paper baking cups.
- Finished tamales will stay warm for about 1 to 2 hours in the steamer. They can be made ahead several days before and stored in refrigerator, well wrapped. They can also be frozen for months. In either case, reheat in a steamer. For refrigerated tamales, it will take about 15 minutes, and for frozen tamales about 45 minutes.