Achiote and Chicken Filling

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Banana leaf tamales can be filled with just about anything that you think sounds delicious. In our Winter Issue, along with an article on how to make banana leaf tamales from scratch (find the instructions here), we promised five additional filling ideas for you to use or draw inspiration from. Here is one from the Yucatan in Mexico. Achiote, aka annatto, is a very red seed that imparts both a startling and beautiful color, and an appealing flavor. You can find it in most Latin or Mexican markets.

artichoke1/2 small white onion, thinly sliced
3 sprigs epazote (or a handful of cilantro) plus extra leaves to use when forming the tamales
Fine sea salt
2 large (about 1-1/4 lbs) chicken breast halves with bone and skin
2 tsp store-bought achiote paste
1/2 cup fresh corn masa or dried masa harina
1 medium-large ripe tomato

1. Measure 4 cups water into a medium-size saucepan, add the onion, 1 sprig of epazote (or a third of the cilantro) and 1 tsp salt. Set over medium-high heat. When the liquid comes to a boil, add the chicken breast halves, lower the heat to medium, cover and simmer until just cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Remove the chicken from its cooking liquid and set aside. Strain the liquid (discard the solids), skim off any fat that rises to the surface,measure 2 cups of the liquid into a blender jar, and save any chicken broth that’s leftover for another time. Set the pan aside.

3. Add the achiote and 1/2 cup fresh masa or dried masa harina to the blender jar. Blend until smooth, then strain through a medium-mesh strainer into the saucepan used for cooking the chicken. Whisk constantly over medium heat for several minutes as the rusty–red liquid comes to a simmer and thickens (it’ll be a little softer than a just-opened can of cream soup.) Taste and season with salt. Scrape into a bowl to cool, stirring occasionally.

4. Skim, bone and coarsely shred the chicken breast. Core the tomato and slice into 10 rounds. Pick 10 large leaves from the remaining 2 sprigs of epazote (or remaining cilantro).

5. Follow instructions for preparing banana leaf tamales here. Once you are ready to add the filling onto the masa you’re spread in the center of a banana leaf, spoon 2 Tbsp of the achiote-flavored sauce, 2 Tbsp chicken, a slice of tomato and a leaf of epazote (or a few leaves of cilantro.) Fold tamale according to the instructions, repeat with remaining banana leave squares, and steam.

6. Serve with spicy salsa or hot sauce.

Makes filling for 10 large tamales

Recipe based on one which appeared in Rick Bayless’s Fiesta at Rick’s, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010

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