Christmas Tamales with Chicken & Poblanos
I like having yearly traditions. Especially when they involve food.
Every year around mid-December, my parents host a gigantic winter solstice party. The party is kind of a brunch and partly a potluck, but no small portion of the potluck offerings are due to my sister spending about three solid days in the kitchen beforehand, baking several types of quiches, mini tarts, cakes, and breads. The day before (and day of) the party, everyone in my family goes all out, cleaning the house and moving around the furniture, simmering cloves in apple cider, making winter fruit salads, assembling trays of pita/hummus/feta/olives/tomatoes, baking cheese in phyllo dough, lighting candles, and distributing bowls of chocolate kisses and pistachios around the house.
It’s a lot of work but even more reward. (And I’m not just talking about all the cheese, crackers, and brownies that are leftover to snack on for the rest of the week.) Sharing food with people you love makes it worth it. But it’s more than that, too; there is something wonderful, wintery, and refreshingly old-fashioned about putting your life on hold for hours, or even days, to take on a massive cooking project with family or friends. You put on some good music, and you settle in to the work. Maybe your feet or back will be sore by the end of the day, but your kitchen will be wrapped in the lingering warmth from the oven, and your home will smell good, and you will have an amazing sense of accomplishment– one you couldn’t get just from spending the day at work or answering e-mails. You’ve not only created a feast, you’ve made memories, too.
Now that I’m living in California, I’ve fallen into the habit slash tradition of hosting a small new year’s eve party with friends who are in town. I spend the day attempting to approximate a little of my sister’s solstice-party magic. But as a new tradition, which only ever materializes the years I stay in town, it doesn’t quite have the pomp and circumstance that the solstice party (originally started by my step-dad over two decades ago) has built up over the years.
This year, my girlfriend and I started a new (!) Christmas tradition of spending a day in December* making a big batch of tamales. Some to freeze for later, some to share with friends and family, and some (I think, perhaps, 10 or 15…) to “taste-test” while cooking.
Since I don’t eat pork, we special-ordered a big 10-pound bag of (vegetarian) fresh masa dough (made with soy oil instead of lard) from a local Mexican bakery. We decided to make some traditional green tamales with chicken and tomatillo salsa, but to skip the traditional red ones with pulled pork and red salsa. Instead, we made some vegetarian tamales with strips of roasted poblano peppers and pepper jack cheese. And when we ran out of poblanos, we made some with pepper jack and pinto beans. Our grand totals (after only 10-or-so hours!) came out to 60 chicken, 37 vegetarian, and 28 sweet (but that’s another blog post**).
Starting a new cooking tradition feels sweet. And having old traditions to return to year after year, even sweeter.
* Yes, we made this in December and I’m finally writing about it in February… Typical.
** Maybe next Christmas I’ll write up the recipe we used for our dessert tamales. It’s basically the same except we made the masa sweet (1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1/8 tsp. vanilla for each pound) instead of savory (with the chicken stock). Then we used an extra-cinnamony version of my homemade applesauce, and a similarly-prepared strawberry mixture as fillings.
Christmas Tamales (Chicken & Salsa or Poblano & Cheese)
(Makes 50-60 small tamales, to serve between 6-8)
(Each 1 lb. of fresh masa– or mixture using 6 cups dry Masa Harina– yields 10-12 tamales)
~ 5 pounds fresh masa dough (can be ordered from a Mexican bakery; or make your own by mixing dry Masa Harina with water/stock and lard/vegetable shortening)
~ 70-80 dried corn husks (extras in case some are easily torn)
FOR THE CHICKEN (this makes 50-60 small tamales):
~ 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken
~ enough water to cover the chicken
~ ⅓ onion, roughly chopped
~ 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
~ dash of ground black pepper
~ dash of cayenne pepper
~ dash of chili powder
~ dash of ground cumin
~ dash of paprika
~ pinch of chipotle powder
~ pinch of salt
FOR THE TOMATILLO SALSA:
~ 20-25 green tomatillos
~ 1-2 cloves of garlic
~ 1 jalapeño pepper
~ ⅓ of a white or yellow onion
~ 1 large bunch of fresh cilantro
~ salt and pepper, to taste
FOR VEGETARIAN TAMALES:
~ 2 fresh poblano chili peppers (PER 10-12 tamales) (…or use canned poblano strips!)
~ cheese (I used pepper jack)
~ refried pinto beans
How to Make it:
1. Carefully rinse the husks (pulling off any extra corn silk threads). Soak the husks for at least 2 hours (or, preferably, overnight) by stuffing them into a pot, pouring boiling water over them, and covering with a lid.
2. Add chicken and spices to a large stockpot, then add water to cover the chicken, and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. Then remove chicken from liquid (reserving some broth to provide extra flavor to the Masa), and let cool. Shred chicken using fingers or forks.
3. Make the tomatillo salsa: Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the papery husks from the tomatillos, and rinse them well (they will probably feel pretty slimy, so you’ll want to wash your hands again afterwards). Arrange on a cookie sheet: the de-husked tomatillos, peeled cloves of garlic, the jalapeño pepper, and the ⅓ onion. Roast in the oven until the tomatillos have mostly changed color, from brighter green, to a darker brownish-yellowy shade. Once cooled, de-seed the jalapeño pepper. Then add the following to the food processor: roasted tomatillos, de-seeded jalapeño, garlic, onion, and the fresh cilantro. Blend all ingredients together until you have a liquidy green salsa. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Then combine with chicken from step #2 for one type of tamale filling.)
4. To prepare the poblano peppers: Roast in the oven or heat over a comal or non-stick frying pan until their peels are browned and/or blistery. Then wrap tightly in tin foil for at least 15 minutes to let them sweat to loosen the peels. Painstakingly peel using your fingers (this takes a WHILE), then slice into long, thin strips. (Or use canned poblano strips!)
5. Prepare the Masa: If using fresh bakery-ordered masa dough, you can still add up to ½ cup of reserved broth (from step #2) and a bit of salt for extra flavor. If using dry Masa Harina, start to alternate adding water/broth and lard/vegetable shortening to the masa harina, mixing thoroughly until it resembles the thickness and consistency of peanut butter.
6. Assemble the tamales: Gently pat the husks dry with a kitchen towel. Holding a husk in your palm with the narrow point toward you and the wide end spread across your fingers, spread about 2-3 Tbsp. of Masa dough into a square across the central part of the top of the husk. Then place 1-2 Tbsp. of the chicken/salsa mixture in the center, or fill vegetarian tamales with several slivers of cheese and either some pinto beans or some poblano strips. Fold a third of the husk in from the right side, then fold half of that top flap back out to the left, and fully wrap the left edge around the whole tamale, flipping the bottom point up to seal the bottom, and placing the tamale seam-side down on a tray.
About to spread the dough, and adding the fillings.
Vegetarian filling of poblano and cheese strips; Folding the husk’s right edge in then partially back out.
Flipping the bottom point up, and stacking them on a tray.
7. Steam the tamales: In a pot with a tightly-fitting lid and a deep steamer tray (or in a steamer/colander raised off the bottom of the pot by at least an inch or two), stand the tamales, with their open ends up, bunching them tightly together so that they don’t tip over– you could even tie them together in bunches with twine. Keep an inch or two of water simmering in the bottom of the pot, and simmer, covered, for about 2 hours, checking about every 30 minutes to see if it needs more water. To see if the tamales are done, remove one and let cool for 5 minutes before unfolding and tasting. The dough should be cooked through and spongy yet firm.
8. Serve stacks of tamales hot, removing the husk of each one just before eating. They’ll last a few days in the fridge, or much longer in the freezer… Freeze tamales by letting them cool, wrapping pairs of two in plastic wrap, then storing the plastic-wrapped pairs in freezer ziploc bags. Re-heat by steaming for 15-20 minutes (or microwaving for 2-5 minutes), then optionally toasting them in the oven for a few minutes.