Adobo Chicken Tamales
This year marks the third Christmas since Paula and I started dating.
Not that we’ve gotten to spend all of those Christmases together… Last year I’d been visiting family in Wisconsin on my own, and I planned to fly home to California on Christmas morning to spend the holiday with Paula, but my flight got cancelled. (And not even for weather-related reasons! The entire crew had called in sick. Or possibly “sick”; I’m not sure which one.)
After initially being told that the airline couldn’t get me on another flight until early January (?!), I considered it to be a miracle when they found me seats with a different airline the very next day.
So I resigned myself to an additional 24 hours of keeping my back muscles tensed against the cold Wisconsin weather, before I could finally make it back to California and relax them. (And before I could see Paula, who had spent Christmas day solo, eating Chinese take-out and biking to the beach.)
If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you may remember that the very first Christmas after we started dating, Paula and I began a yearly tradition of making tamales together. But with my trip to Wisconsin last winter, we never made time for a major Tamale-Making Event. So I suppose it would be more accurate to call it an every-other-yearly tradition.
Anyway, the tradition is back! And this time we even made our own vegetarian (!) tamale masa (dough) from scratch. It was just a little more effort, but very very worth it.
We actually made these tamales on Thanksgiving day, squeezed in between our two Thanksgivnukkah dinner parties. Then we stored most of the tamales in our freezer to last us until Christmas and beyond… (they freeze really well).
Besides making masa from scratch, we made a few other changes this year, too.
Whereas last time we made green chicken tamales—with homemade roasted tomatillo salsa—this time we made red chicken tamales, with a filling based on the guajillo adobo sauce recipe in Truly Mexican by Roberto Santibañez.
Last time we made vegetarian tamales by roasting and peeling our own poblano chile peppers, which was such a pain that I wasn’t convinced it was worth it (until I got to eat them…). This year, having no patience for pepper peeling, I invested in a can of mild whole green chiles and simply sliced them up: instant rajas that are delectable, smushed inside a tamale along with melty sliced pepperjack cheese.
We skipped the bean + cheese combination this year (and skipped making strawberry dessert tamales, although we still made apple cinnamon ones… stay tuned!), opting for efficiency and quantity over variety, and wow did we succeed in the quantity department: we made 30 chile+cheese tamales, 34 apple cinnamon tamales, and 56 adobo chicken tamales. Pair them with rice and beans, and two or three tamales make a meal. That means we made over 30 freezer meals (and just as many desserts) in one day—not bad!
We also folded them a little differently (i.e., better!), by first folding the husks in half to press the masa dough together at its edges, sealing the masa in a rectangular shape around the fillings in the center, before rolling up the excess sides of the husks around the tamales and folding up the bottoms to keep it all together.
But I haven’t even gotten to the most important difference from last time yet: I really lucked out at the Mexican grocery store. First when I was buying masa harina (a flour made from dried corn), a woman who worked there confirmed that I should buy the tamale masa harina, specifically for making tamales (versus other masa harina that’s better for tortillas). Later, the cashier took one look at all of the corn husks in my basket and asked if I was making tamales (he said he hoped I wasn’t making that many on my own and that I’d have help!).
Then he gave me the best tamale-making tip ever: apparently the bumpy, ribbed corn husks have a rough side and a smooth side—even though both sides seem pretty rough until you examine them closely. His tip for perfect tamales that don’t stick to their husks after steaming: make sure to add your fillings to the smooth side, keeping the rough side out!
Paula and I both couldn’t believe we’d never noticed or heard that before—it really makes a difference, for perfectly smooth steamed tamales that just tumble out of their husks every time.
(It turned out the woman who’d recommended the tamale masa harina to me was the cashier’s wife, and the two of them had just made a big batch of tamales that weekend.)
After about a 10-hour day of cooking chicken, making adobo sauce, mixing up tamale masa, filling and folding the tamales (while listening to an audiobook of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on our ipod speakers), then steaming the tamales in batches while eating Thanksgivnukkah leftovers and watching movies, Paula and I both agreed that it was a lovely way to spend a day.
We also agreed that it was completely worthwhile to put the time and effort into making our own tamales, to stock the freezer and share with family, and that we should totally do it more often. In fact, we decided we should do it again sometime soon, maybe even before Christmas time next year. You know, just as we’d also agreed two years ago, the last time we made them.
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Adobo Chicken Tamales
(Adapted from Truly Mexican by Roberto Santibañez)
(Makes about 28-30 tamales) (We doubled this.)
Active time: 2.5 hours; Total time: 5-5.5 hours, plus soaking husks overnight.
For the Vegetarian Tamale Masa (Dough):
~ 3 cups tamale masa harina
~ 1½ tsp. baking powder
~ 1 tsp. fine sea salt
~ 2 cups warm (room temperature) water or vegetable broth
~ 1 cup vegetable shortening (or 1/2 cup shortening, 1/2 cup vegetable oil)
~ ⅔ cup vegetable oil (in addition to any used instead of shortening)
For the Chicken:
~ 1½ pounds chicken
~ half an onion, peeled but kept intact
~ 1 clove of garlic, peeled
~ ½ tsp. salt
~ ¾ cup vegetable broth (reserved until later when combining with sauce)
For the Guajillo Adobo Sauce (freezes well):
~ 1½ oz. guajillo chiles (6), seeded and deveined
~ ⅓ cup water (or more if needed, to blend the chiles)
~ 1 clove of garlic, peeled
~ 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
~ ¼-½ tsp. fine sea salt, to taste
~ ¼-½ tsp. sugar, to taste
~ ¼ tsp. ground cumin
For the Tamales:
~ about 60 tamale husks (for 30 tamales, since some will be used to cover tamales while steaming, and some will be un-useable)
Special equipment needed:
~ an electric mixer
~ a blender
~ a pasta pot with a steamer basket, or other way of holding tamales upright for steaming
Vegetarian Variation: Instead of chicken in adobo sauce, fill the tamales with slivers of mild green chiles (from a 13-15 oz. can, drained, seeded, and sliced), and slivers of pepperjack cheese.
How to make it:
1. Soak the corn husks in a large bucket or stockpot of water overnight, weighing them down to submerge them if necessary.
2. Make the masa: In a medium bowl, whisk together the tamale masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Then pour in the water or broth and mix well with a rubber spatula (or your hands). In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the shortening for 5-6 minutes until fluffy (if substituting some vegetable oil, do not add any oil yet). Add half of the dough mixture from the medium bowl to the shortening in the large bowl, and beat with the mixer. Then add the remaining dough along with all of the vegetable oil, and beat for 10-15 minutes until the whole thing is the texture of frosting. Set aside until you’re ready to assemble the tamales.
3. Cook the chicken: Add the chicken to a large stockpot and fill with water. Add the half onion, clove of garlic, and salt, and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken to a plate to cool and discard cooking liquid. Once cool, shred chicken using fingers or forks.
4. Make the adobo sauce: Heat a skillet over medium-low and toast the seeded, deveined guajillo chiles, turning them often with tongs, until fragrant (about 45-60 seconds each). Then soak the toasted chiles in a bowl of cold water for 30 minutes or until soft. Discard soaking water and place the chiles in a blender along with the remaining ingredients. Blend until smooth, adding a little more water if needed. Optionally strain for a smoother sauce.
5. In a large stockpot, add the adobo sauce to the shredded chicken along with ¾ cup vegetable broth and simmer for 30 minutes, covered, then an additional 15-30 minutes until the liquid has reduced. (Watch for splattering.) Let cool and drain/discard any remaining liquid.
6. Assemble the tamales: drain the soaked corn husks; inspect them for holes, mold, or insects (and discard any bad ones); then pat dry and stack on a clean dish towel. To fill a tamale, first identify the smooth side of the husk, then place a heaping spoonful of masa near the top of the center of the smooth side and use a spoon or silicone spatula to spread out the masa into a square (leaving the bottom half of the husk and the two side edges uncovered). Then place a few small pinches of chicken down the center of the square. Holding the two edges of the husk, bring them together so that the masa square seals around the chicken filling; then roll up the rest of the husk around the tamale and fold up the bottom. Stack on a plate, tray, or baking sheet until the tamales are all folded and ready to steam.
7. To steam, pack tamales tightly together—open side-up—into a steamer basket of a pasta pot, or into any type of steamer that will keep the tamales suspended over at least an inch of boiling water. Cover the tamales with additional corn husks then a damp kitchen cloth (to keep all of the moisture and steam in), then the lid, and steam for about 1 hour, until a tamale that has been taken out and cooled for 5 minutes separates easily from its husk when unwrapped. Remove steamed tamales carefully and let cool at least 5 minutes. Serve warm with hot sauce, and a side of rice and beans.
To freeze tamales, wrap individual tamales (or bunches of 2-3) in plastic wrap, then place wrapped tamale bundles into a large freezer bag. Defrost overnight in the fridge, then re-heat by microwaving them while still in their husks.
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