On New Year’s Eve, I ate my best dish of 2020: a matzo ball soup tamale. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The inventive plate came from Abe Fisher in Philadelphia, the Jewish restaurant from James Beard Award–winning chef Michael Solomonov’s hospitality group, CookNSolo. It was the first thing that caught my eye when I looked at the menu, nestled among Montreal smoked meat–inspired short ribs, borscht tartare, and Boursin-and-smoked-walnut-topped crispy sweet potatoes. And the tamale came through. It tasted like they infused all the concentrated flavor of my Jewish grammy’s soup into a corn husk–wrapped pillow of masa and matzo. Chunks of tender chicken and bits of schmaltz-infused vegetables were tucked inside like hidden treasure, and I was devastated when I finished in four bites.
Luckily, that didn’t have to be the last time I ate one. After some sweet-talking, I got Abe Fisher’s chef de cuisine, Mario Juarez, to part with the recipe so I could make it for my family for Passover. I’m half Jewish and we don’t usually do a big Seder or an Easter dinner, but since I am with my family sheltering in place for both, I’ve decided to make a roast chicken and these matzo ball soup tamales on the side. During my extended time indoors, I’ve been missing restaurants and attempting to re-create some of my favorite dishes, plus just generally challenging myself to be more adventurous in the kitchen. I hope you’ll give this project a shot, too.
Before I jump to the recipe, a few tips for ingredients during these tough times. First, if you can’t get a hold of corn husks at your local grocery store—though Goya is an easy-to-find brand at major grocers and I snagged some from Walmart with two-day shipping—my friend Rick Martinez suggests using collard greens or another tough green to wrap the tamales. It won’t impart the same flavor as corn husks, but will do in a pinch. Second, make sure to buy masa harina, which is the dried corn dough flour used to make tamales and corn tortillas. Maseca is a popular brand ($3.79 at Target), but any brand will do. Just don’t accidentally buy cornmeal, regular corn flour, cornstarch, or masarepa (a precooked corn flour used to make arepas). Lastly, the chicken stock is key to infusing the flavor of soup into the tamales. I recommend making your own stock (my go-to easy recipe is Smitten Kitchen’s, which can be done in an Instant Pot or slow cooker) or using a high-quality store-bought version like Brodo. Don’t go with the cheap boxed stuff or the quality will show in the finished dish. After all the hard work of making these tamales, you want them to taste incredible.
Matzo Ball Soup Tamales
Serves 5 as a side, 10 as entrée
For the Vegetable Filling
- 2 large carrots, peeled
- 2 Spanish onions, peeled
- 2 large leeks, tender white parts only, cleaned
- ½ head of celery
- ½ cup (4 oz) dry white wine
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 cups (16 oz) chicken stock, homemade or a high-quality brand such as Brodo
- 4 tbsp schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), such as Fatworks.
For the Tamale Masa Mixture and Assembly
- ⅓ cup cold schmaltz
- Heaping ¼ tsp baking powder
- ⅔ cup matzo meal
- ¾ cup masa harina (such as the brand Maseca)
- 1½ cups warm chicken stock
- 10 corn husks or large collard green leaves
- 4 cups shredded cooked chicken (mix of white and dark meat preferred)
Slice vegetables into ¼-inch pieces. Melt schmaltz (or add canola oil) in the bottom of a heavy-bottom pot. Cook the vegetables with a generous pinch of salt, stirring often, until onions are translucent. Deglaze the pot with white wine and reduce the liquid until it is almost dry. Add the chicken stock; bring to a boil and then lower to simmer until carrots are tender. Using an immersion blender or after carefully transferring to a blender, roughly puree the vegetables and stock. Season to taste with salt and fresh ground black pepper until it tastes like chicken soup.
Next, make the masa filling. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip together cold schmaltz and baking powder until white. Switch to a paddle attachment and add the dry ingredients; mix on low speed until thoroughly combined. Increase the speed and slowly add the warm stock. The mixture will look wet. Continue to mix until the masa is fully hydrated, about 5 minutes. The finished product should feel tacky and slightly firm, hold its shape, and be the consistency of creamed butter and sugar.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the shredded chicken and tamale vegetables. The mixture should be very moist but not runny. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as necessary. Soak the corn husks in water until pliable, if using, or wash and separate collard green leaves. With a triangular husk in your hand with the point up, scoop a heaping ¼ cup of the masa in the center bottom half. Flatten the masa leaving space around the edges. Place a scoop of the chicken filling in the center of the masa, keeping the edges clear. Pull the left bottom corner in toward the center, followed by the right bottom corner, forming a rectangle with the filling. Bring the top flap down to form a little package. Place seam side down in a steamer basket set over simmering water, cover, and steam for 45 minutes. Let the tamales rest and cool for 15 minutes, then open and enjoy!