The Recipe

Mexican Tamales

As Jenny Sanchez, of Leon, Nicaragua, taught Lindsay Sterling in Freeport, Maine, October 2013. (She learned this from her Mexican friends when she lived in California).

Serves: 6 (2 each) 
Cooking Time: 4 hours

20 dried corn husks
4 chicken breasts (2 lbs.)
5 cups masa flour
6 dried California chilis
1 tsp pepper
2tsp + 3tsp salt
1 yellow onion + 1/2 onion
2 + 4 cloves garlic
2 cups water
1 lb bacon
6 oz. sliced black olives (plain, no sugar, vinegar, salt, etc) or small pitted green olives
bunch fresh cilantro
1 red pepper
2 jalepenos

2 large mixing bowls
large steamer pot with lid
medium sauce pot
paper towls
sheet pan
medium bowl
6 small bowls

Soak California chili peppers and corn husks in separate bowls in hot water for 30 minutes.

Cut bacon into 1/2" long pieces and cook on medium low in a large saute pan until bacon is golden brown and crispy, about 15 minutes. Strain bacon and reserve the warm melted fat.

Put chicken beasts and 2 cloves garlic in a 4 quart pot, and fill the pot with water 3/4 of the way up the meat. Heat on medium until the chicken is cooked and the liquid has turned to broth, about 20 minutes.

Wipe corn husks dry on both sides with paper towel, dip the paper towel in bacon fat, and wipe the inside of the husk (so the masa doesn't stick). Make a stack of dried and oiled husks. Wrap the stack in damp paper towels to keep the husks from drying out while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Put the bowl of soaking chilis next to your blender. Remove the tops of the chilis, open them up, and wipe and rinse the seeds out from the chili into the soaking water. Put the cleaned chili skins in the blender, discard the soaking water. Blend chilis with 1 tsp pepper, 2 tsp salt, 1 onion (peeled and cut into chunks), 4 cloves garlic and 2 cups water until smooth and dark red.

When chicken is cooked, strain the chicken and reserve the broth. Slice a large v-shape into each chicken breast. Put chicken back into the sauce pot they cooked in, and pour the chili puree over them. Fill up the blender with water and pour this rinse water into the bottom of a steamer pot (with lid). Simmer chicken in sauce on medium low about twenty minutes until sauce reduces a bit. Pull the chicken apart with a fork so you have delicious pulled chicken in red sauce, which you'll put in the middle of the tamales.

In a large roasting pan put 5 cups masa flour. Mix in the chicken broth with a spoon until all the flour has turned into clumps. Then add melted bacon fat. Knead fat into dough with your hands until smooth. Add 3 tsp salt. Taste.  It should taste magical. If it's not quite magical, add more salt. It should be smooth and malleable, a little softer than Playdough. If it cracks at the edges, add a touch more broth or fat - it's too dry.

Slice red pepper into 1" strips. Slice onion into 1/2" pieces. Wash cilantro and break of 3 inch segments of stem and leaves. Strain olives. Slice whole jalapeno into 1/4 inch thick circles. Make an assembly area with those fixin's, the shredded chicken, the masa and the corn husks.

Assemble your first tamale. Put the first corn husk the oiled side facing up and the wider end furthest from you. Make about a large lime sized ball of masa, and press it into a rectangular shape inside the top third of the husk, keeping a 1/2" on the top of and sides of the corn husk clear. Put a small pile of meat in the middle (1-2 Tbsp). Top the meat with 2 pieces of red pepper, 4-5 pieces yellow onion, 2 stems cilantro, 2 slices of jalapeno, and squish an olive into the top and bottom of the pile of meat. Then match the left and right sides of the husk together over the masa and fillings. Roll the matched sides (the seam) over itself twice (like you would fold the top of a brown lunch bag). Inside the husk, the two sides of the masa flour will get sealed together to enclose the filling.  Fold the bottom empty part of the husk with no filling under and against the back of the stuffed part. Press the open top end of the tamale closed so that the chicken filling is sealed completely inside the masa. Place the open end of the husk facing up in a steamer pot with water on the bottom.

(Optional) Rip strips off of an extra husk to make ties. Tie two strips together to make a tie long enough to wrap like a gift ribbon around the tamale. Jenny made plain tamales (no jalepeno) for kids. The plain tamales didn't have ribbons, and the jalapeno tamales had ribbons so we could tell them apart.

Repeat, filling your steamer basket with tamales. Steam with lid on for 15-20 minutes until masa is firm.

Serve with beans and salad.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2013