My Favorite Tamal of All Time: Chicken in Green Salsa

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My Favorite Tamal of All Time: Chicken in Green Salsa

Tamales are it. If you’ve eaten one, you know it.

Simple. When ready and steaming hot, unwrap the edible bundle and eat swiftly, no fork, no knife, bite by bite.  So good.

Yet as simple as it may sound to write a post about tamales, I could dedicate an entire series of cookbooks to their endless possibilities, and in the end, not have covered them all.

Ancestral, iconic, yet humble, is each single tamal. And the tamal universe, immense, imagine: tamal refers to anything wrapped and cooked in a husk or leave. Usually made with masa, typically corn masa, either mixed with or swaddling ingredients, or both! As you move through Mexico, and increasingly outside, you find them in different shapes (round, square, flat, puffed up, even triangular like Michoacán corundas); with different wraps (corn husks, either fresh or dried, banana leaves and even fresh edible leafy greens like chaya in Chiapas); with an infinity of ingredients, from savory, like chicken, meat, seafood, vegetables, beans, all sort of grains, salsas and cheese…to sweet ingredients, like fresh and dried fruits, nuts, chocolate, cajeta

The consistency and texture vary greatly, too, from thin and dense like tamales found in Oaxaca; to sticky and gelatinous from Yucatán; to spongy and cakey like the ones from northern and central Mexico, where I grew up.

Tamales are so big in our kitchens that entire meals are devoted to them: the famous Tamaladas! Festive get-togethers we all get very excited about, where all you eat are different kinds of tamales, from beginning to end. Trust me, where there is a variety of tamales, you want to eat them all.

Aside from Tamaladas, tamales are present in all sorts of celebrations and holidays including Quinceañeras, Posadas, Christmas Eve and New Years parties: they have been fiesta food since pre-Hispanic times, when they were considered gifts from the Gods.

But tamales are also everyday food, for an entire country, an entire culture. Accessible to everyone and anyone who can get to the corner stand and has 10 pesos (less than a dollar) in their pocket for a quick breakfast, a filling lunch or an easy merienda (light dinner).

See photo below…. I was with my school friends eating tamales at the tamal stand on the street right outside our middle school. I used to day dream about those tamales; they were so alluring we used to sneak out of school to eat them…

Pati eating tamales with her school friends

Tamales are as fascinating and varied as the stars above. So to land this philosophical rambling about tamales somewhere practical and edible, for you, I will focus on my favorite tamal of all time. The Tamal de Pollo con Salsa Verde.

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.

salsa verde

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.

dried corn husks

Then you work to make your masa. Or let the mixer help you out! I have the complete recipe below, but let me just highlight a few things…

In Mexico, you can go into the tortillería and buy fresh masa, made from scratch. And wouldn’t it be heavenly if there were tortillerías in all towns and cities in the US, so we could all indulge? But the truth is many, if not most, people in Mexican kitchens make their own masa at home from the instant corn masa flour, and you can get fabulous results.

Traditionally, tamal masa is made with lard. If top quality and fresh, it adds a delicious taste and texture and doesn’t have as much cholesterol as people think. If you ask me, I think it is a matter of moderation. Yet, many people prefer vegetable shortening and you can use it too. Now, vegetable shortening has, as of late, been questioned even more than lard.

If you don’t want to use either, I have a wonderful solution: use vegetable oil, substitute exact amounts, but to maintain depth of flavor and dimension, season the oil by heating it over medium heat and cooking a slice of onion and a couple garlic cloves in it for 15 minutes. Then remove the onion and garlic before using. Great trick for vegetarians as well. In fact, before the Spanish arrived to Mexico, and there was no pork, oils extracted from fruits, vegetables and seeds, were used to moisten and season tamales, so feel free to play around with oils you like!

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! Tamaladas don’t only happen on February 2nd (when according to tradition you must host a Tamalada and invite EVERYBODY, if you got the baby hidden in the Rosca de Reyes eaten on January 6th), they can happen anytime (but I am writing this post before February 2nd, just in case!).

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.

Note: I’ve been asked for a quick casserole version in a few emails… All you need to do, is spread half the masa in the recipe below in a large baking dish, then add a layer of the chicken in salsa verde, top with remaining half masa dough. Cover well with aluminum foil, and bake in a 400 degree oven for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and if you want, drizzle with some Mexican crema and crumbled queso fresco. Serve in squares.

Chicken in Salsa Verde Tamales

Tamales de Pollo con Salsa Verde
18 tamales
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Mexican
Keyword: chicken, masa, pati's mexican table, salsa verde, Tamales, tomatillos
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes
Tamales are it. If you’ve eaten one, you know it. Simple. When ready and steaming hot, unwrap the edible bundle and eat swiftly, no fork, no knife, bite by bite.  So good. Yet as simple as it may sound to write a post about tamales, I could dedicate an entire series of cookbooks to their endless possibilities, and in the end, not have covered them all.

Ingredients

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 (about 3 1/4 cups) instant corn masa, for tortillas or tamales
  • 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 Prepare

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.
  • 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.

127 comments on “My Favorite Tamal of All Time: Chicken in Green Salsa

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  1. Made these for the third year in a row, along with your mole poblano and “immaculate conception” empanadas–they were all phenomenal as usual but for some reason the tamales this year wouldn’t set or firm up after an hour…or two hours. A web search tells me I need to tie a corn husk to the pot to ward off bad omens if that’s the case, but there must be a better way!

    1. I wonder what may be different this time. Sometimes they need time in the pot, after they have cooked for an hour, with the closed lid on top, to settle and harden a bit. Maybe just give them a bit more time to cook and give them time to sit.

  2. I watched an episode a long time ago now (a few years maybe??) Where you made 3 different types of tamales and I so wish I could find that episode! I believe one was a sweet corn, one green sauce and one red? But I have searched high and low for that episode, one of my favorites!

  3. Pati, I have been watching your show for several months now. Ever since I found you on Create TV, I am hooked! I’m from Puerto Rico and have made Texas my home for over 35 years. I cook a lot of Puerto Rican food and have written a couple of cookbooks of my Puerto Rican recipes. Living in Texas, I do enjoy eating Mexican food, too! OK..mainly Texmex, and the only dish I could make was Tacos. But, since I started watching your show, I have been learning how to cook Mexican food, too! I also bought your Cookbook Pati’s Mexican Table. I absolutely love it! I am making tamales for the very first time this weekend!! Also, I’m looking forward to this weekend because Create is having a Pati Jinich Marathon. Yeah!
    Pati, I congratulate you for your show, your wonderful spirit, and charisma. I also want to congratulate you on your Emmy and James Beard award nominations.
    Dios te bendiga a ti y tu hermosa familia. Sigue adelante promoviendo tu cultura, la historia de Mexico y tus recetas deliciosas.. Recibe un abrazo Boricua…Nellie Zapata

  4. Pati, you wonderful lady!

    I’ve always wanted to make tamales and after trying out this recipe I’ve been making sooo many different kinds. This chicken with salsa verde is one of my favs along with queso & jalapeno. My mom kept saying “You don’t know how to make tamales” (jokingly) but after I made these she kept telling me how good they were! Thanks so much for sharing, I just made some Pozole Rojo de Pollo, your recipe of course and everyone is loving it! Every time I look at the avocados on my counter I think of you! Thanks again!

    1. Awesome! I’m so happy to hear you are having so much fun making all kinds of tamales. Keep having lots of fun kitchen adventures, Reyna.

  5. I am very happy with the recepie and extremely please they way my tamales came out. I did exactly as your recepie to make sure I would get the result and now my family is hooked and want more and more. Thank you, I love and watch all your shows.

  6. Pati
    So disappointed with my tamales. They have been slipping down the husk when cooking. They look so sad. They stay in the husk but puddle at the bottom and look so sad. They taste good but are not presentable. i’ve tried 2 times with the same results. I’m following the recipe with One exception, i’m using unprepared masa instead of masa harina. I feel the masa is too wet when i add all the broth. Is the amount of broth appropriate for the unprepared masa? After mixing my masa looks like loose oatmeal, not runny but very loose. It floats with the water test. My mother never learned from her mom because she passed away when my mom was a little girl. So my daughter, mom and I are trying to establish our family tradition. Love you and your show. I hope you can help.

    1. Thank you for tuning in, Cathy! If you are using prepared masa, you don’t need to add any broth…just add lard and salt.

  7. This italian girl made these Tamales last week and brought them to work. I shared them with a handful of my friends. I asked my 3 brutally honest friends who so happen to be Mexican to critique the tamales. The consensus was that they needed more salt. Pati I missed watching your program since I moved to N. Texas but by chance on Thanksgiving weekend I happened across Create TV. I used to watch your program weekly on PBS when I lived in Massachusetts. I love your perspective and recipes. I hope to try out more of your recipes.

  8. I’ve been searching the internet for a “replacement” recipe to my grandmother’s tamales and came across this. Can’t wait to see how the family responds to them this weekend. My grandmother used to make her tamales with a red chili and pork and haven’t successfully found a replica. Pati, I adore you and your cooking, would you mind sharing a similar recipe with me?

  9. Pati,

    It’s not clear to me whether this recipe is calling for masa four or prepared masa. I’m eager to try these for our family Christmas party.

    Thanks!

  10. I love your idea to season the oil. I usually use homemade lard but can’t do that for the vegetarians. I’ve used coconut oil in the past too with good results.
    Do you serve yours with a certain salsa? Or prefer plain?

  11. Sweet Tamal with a Hot cup of Coffee!
    I also love Beef and Pork with My Red New Mexico Chile.
    I have such wonderful memories of my Belated father, how he used to warm them up on a Hot Comal he would toast the husk until it had a nice black char. it gave the Masa a wonderful savory flavor.

  12. My daughter and I made these, they are wonderful! I whole heartly recommend these! We are going to make again this year.

  13. My question is: If I buy the prepared masa, can I just mix it until it is fluffy without adding lard or anything else?? The first time, I added a couple tablespoons of lard and the tamales took FOREVER to cook and came out very oily!! I prefer to just buy the prepared masa from local Mexican market. Thank you very much!

    1. You can absolutely use the prepared masa, Yolanda. You’ll still add the lard/vegetable shortening/seasoned oil, the chicken broth (or other broth), and the salt, and beat the mixture for a long time until it becomes puffy and floats.