My children’s Abuelita Conchita made tamales every Christmas. After marrying her son, I do too. She visited us on our first Thanksgiving together and taught me how to make them with our leftover turkey.
I’ve been tweaking the recipe ever since. I now make them with boneless chicken breasts with a few legs for flavor. The boneless breast eliminates the risk of choking on a rib bone, which are easy to miss while shredding the chicken. I also make vegetarian tamales using frijoles pintos, roasted chili and jack cheese.
I make my masa with olive oil, with a bit of chicken fat and bacon grease for flavor. That kind of balances the heart-healthy effects of the olive oil.
Ingredients for filling: Some stores sell the dried chilies in cellophane packets, so I am including the equivalents here. Also be aware that some locations will call the poblano chilies fresh pasilla chilies.
16 cups of water (To use some of the broth for frijoles, increase the water to 24 cups.)
2 chopped onions
8 minced garlic cloves
2 Tb chipotle powder
2 Tb cumin powder (comino)
2 tsp cocoa powder
2 Tb dried oregano
6 cups diced Roma (plum) tomatoes or a 28 oz can (or two 14 oz cans) diced tomatoes. Frie roasted tomatoes are nice.
2 green bell peppers
2 Tb salt to taste
6 dark green poblano chilies (sometimes sold as fresh pasilla) (add 4 more for filling for vegetarian tamales)
18 dried pasilla chilies (3 cellophane packets)
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves and 6 chicken legs
Heat a large pot with the water and bring to a boil.
There’s the easy way to add chili to the broth, which my mother-in-law did, by adding chili powder to it.
Then there’s the labor-intensive way, adding fresh poblano and dried pasilla chilies. Pasilla chilies are dark and wrinkled, like giant raisins (pasa is raisin in Spanish) They make for a more intense, earthy flavor. I use a cast iron comal (coMAL), which is a shallow frying pan to toast the chilies and peppers to intensify their flavor. I wear thin disposable latex gloves when I work with the dried chilies and poblanos. This way I emerge from the process without stained and sore hands and can rub my eyes afterwards without fear of blinding myself.
Rinse the dried chilies and pat dry. Toast them lightly on the comal. If you don’t have a comal, use a heavy frying pan. Sometimes the pasilla will blow up like a balloon! Remove them to a plate while they are still soft.
Wear gloves for this part: Discard the stems and some of the seed pods from the chilies and but keep some seeds for spiciness, depending on your taste. Ladle 3 cups of the boiling water into a medium saucepan. Boil the chilies for 10 minutes, then soak them for 20 minutes until they soften. Chop the chilies and add them along with the soaking water to the broth.
While the pasilla chilies are boiling and soaking, prepare the rest of the broth ingredients:
Wearing gloves, Cut out the stems and scrape out the ribs and some of seeds of the poblano and discard (add a few poblano seeds or ribs to make the broth spicier if you want.) Do the same for bell peppers. Cut into strips and blister them on the comal. Set aside poblano strips from 4 poblanos to insert whole into vegetarian tamales. Coarsely chop up the rest and add to the water.
Add all ingredients except salt and chicken, and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If making Frijoles pintos, pour out 8 cups into a separate pot.
For vegetarian tamales: Salt the broth to taste. You will use it for mixing in the masa and making sauce.
For chicken tamales: Salt the broth and bring it to a boil. Add chicken legs and cook for 45 minutes. Cut chicken breasts into large chunks and add to the broth, cooking for 20 minutes, until done. Remove chicken from water with slotted spoon, reserving broth.
Drain broth through a sieve into a large bowl. Place the chilies, peppers and onions and tomatoes in another bowl, with enough broth to make it soupy enough to blend into a thick sauce. Blend in batches to make the chili sauce and set aside.
Let chicken cool until you can handle it, then remove the bones from the legs and break off the cartilage at the ends of the bones to expose the marrow (I use a kitchen shears). Bring the strained broth back to a boil. Return the bones to the soup and let it cook at medium heat while you shred the chicken by hand. The marrow will add great flavor and nutrients to the broth.
Refrigerate the broth until the fat solidifies. Skim the fat from it. (If you are short on time, use a fat skimming cup.) If you don’t have enough fat from this broth, you can add chicken fat from homemade chicken soup. We will add the fat to the masa for flavor. Reserve 5 cups of broth for the masa. Reduce any leftover broth in a saucepan to add to the sauce for the tamales.
Pour 2 cups chili sauce into a skillet and heat it Add half the shredded chicken. Simmer and stir until chicken absorbs most of the sauce, but is not too dry. You should be able to see some sauce between the meat. Make the second batch, (I use 2 skillets at a time) then store in refrigerator until ready to use. It’s best to make this part the day before so that the chicken will absorb the sauce while it sits overnight. If you don’t have time, just let it cool in the freezer or fridge.
This is plenty of chicken. If you don’t want to turn it all into tamales, they are great in tacos or enchiladas.
Vegetarian tamales: Cook Frijoles pintos the day before. Roast 4 more fresh poblano chilies on a grill or heavy frying pan until the skin chars. Cool in a covered container to aid in peeling, then peel charred skin, discarding skin, seeds and stem, and cut into strips. You can use canned chilies to save time, but I am giving you the fresh recipe, which has a much more earthy and intense flavor. Slice jack cheese.
Preparing the tamales:
Soak an 18 oz. package of hojas (OH-hass) (dried corn husks) in warm water in a large pot (such as the tamale steamer) until soft, about 1 hour. I put the steamer pan on top of the hojas and weight it down with a large bowl of water. Rinse them well afterward and remove the corn silk.
Most of the Mexicans I know with swear by lard, the traditional fat used to make tamales. I make my masa with heart-healthy olive oil or coconut oil, combined with a couple of spoonfuls of chicken fat and bacon grease for flavorful chicken tamales. You can substitute 1/2 cup + 1 Tb (5 Tb) chicken fat if you want Kosher tamales. I use only olive oil or coconut oil for vegetarian tamales.
I make my masa in 2 batches, so I can fit it in my electric mixer. I’m giving the 1/2 measurements in parentheses.
Masa for 40 tamales (20):
7 (3 1/2) cups masa harina (corn flour) for tamales. This is coarser ground than the masa harina that is used for tortillas.
1 Tb + 1 tsp (2 tsp) salt
1 Tb (1 1/2 tsp) baking powder
2 Tb (1 Tb) paprika
6 1/2 to 7 cups (3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups) reserved warm broth. If you run out of broth, add some chili powder to warm water
For chicken tamales: 1 1/2 cups (3/4 cup) olive oil or coconut oil
1/4 cup plus 2 Tb (3 Tb) solidified chicken fat.
1/4 cup (2 Tb) solidified bacon grease
For Kosher tamales, use 1/2 cup plus 2 Tb & 1 tsp chicken fat (5 Tb) and no bacon grease.
For vegetarian tamales:
2 cups (1 cup) olive oil or coconut oil
Mix masa harina with salt. Sift in baking powder and paprika. Mix well.
For chicken tamales: Beat coconut oil, chicken fat, and bacon grease in mixmaster on high until fluffy.
For vegetarian tamales: Beat coconut oil or olive oil on high
Add broth to the dry ingredients, mixing with a spoon, then with your hands until the dry ingredients are moistened. Add about a quarter of the masa to the oil and beat well, then add another quarter of the masa, repeating until all masa is incorporated. Beat until dough has a fluffy and moist consistency.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate the masa for an hour or so, then return it to the mixmaster. Beat it again, adding more broth if necessary to make a soft dough.
Assembling the Tamales
Now you are ready to assemble the tamales. This is best done with your family and/or friends helping – a tamalada.
Spread the masa in a thin layer on the wide end of the hoja, leaving about 3 inches bare on the pointy end and a small border around the sides.. You can use the back of a spoon, or your fingers. I find it works best if your fingers are moist and not too full of masa.
When all tamales are assembled, heat water in the bottom of a tamale pot or large steamer Put a dime in the water. Add the tamales with the folded end down and the tied end up on the steamer tray. Cover the steamer, and cook on low heat for 1 ½ hours. The dime will rattle in the water. If the water runs out, the dime will stop rattling and you must add more water or the tamales will burn!
When the masa separates easily from the corn husk, the tamales are done. Uncover the pot, turn off the flame and let dry out for 15 minutes or until you can’t wait any longer to eat them!
Unwrap and enjoy with sliced Roma tomatoes. Warm the reduced broth mixed with leftover chili sauce and pour over the tamales, or top with Frijoles pintos.