Green Chili and Cheese “Tamales”

Green Chili and Cheese “Tamales”
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polenta tamales
Not authentic, but really good.

Okay, a confession. We have no idea how to make tamales. Well, that’s not quite true; we know that you make a dough from masa harina (flour made from dried hominy), place some on a corn husk, layer with chili and cheese, more masa harina, wrap and tie the husk, steam, and finally enjoy. We’ve always heard that it’s a lot of trouble, and, because it is, one makes dozens of tamales at a time. Well, we don’t have masa harina in the house, and we’re not going out to buy some. We really don’t need yet another type of flour in our cupboard. Maybe we can use stuff that’s in our cupboard to come close enough.

So, we scratched our heads and realized that polenta thickens up nicely, not quite like tamales, but close; maybe we could use that. Even if it doesn’t turn out exactly right, we love polenta, so we know we’ll eat it. And what to wrap the tamales in? Well, we read someplace that baking parchment works, so let’s try that, shall we? It sounds as if we have an Italian-Mexican dish in the making.

Green Chili and Cheese “Tamales”

Yield: 4 tamales

Green Chili and Cheese “Tamales”


  • 3 1/2 cups water
  • 1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 cup polenta or coarse ground corn meal
  • Kernels from 1 ear corn
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 roasted green chilies, cleaned and cut into strips.
  • 2 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, cut into strips

Abbreviated Instructions

Bring water and salt to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. While whisking continuously, slowly pour in polenta. Continue whisking for 5 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary.

Lower heat to medium-low, and begin stirring mixture with a wooden spoon. Stir and cook until quite thick, 20-30 minutes, then add corn kernels and stir in. Add butter and stir in.

Cook, stirring very often, until kernels are cooked and the mixture thickens again, about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat and cool 10 minutes.

Place four 18-by-12 inch pieces of parchment on a work surface. Place a scoop of polenta in the middle, followed by green chilies, and cheese. Place another scoop of polenta on top, and fold parchment around to enclose the mixture. Place on a baking sheet, folded side down, and refrigerate.

To cook, place a wire rack in a large skillet along with 1/2 inch water and bring to a boil. Place packages on the rack, cover, lower heat, and steam for 30 minutes.

Unwrap and serve.

Ingredient discussion:

green chilies
The seeds and membranes in chilies are the hottest part, so remove them. We still have a few seeds to go.

Please don’t write in to complain that these aren’t tamales. We know that, but they’re kind of close. For the polenta, feel free to substitute corn meal or grits; the cooking times might change, so use your best judgement to adjust. For the chilies, we had some pre-roasted from the CSA; we did have to peel off the tough skins and remove the seeds. If you need to roast chilies, pierce them with a knife so they don’t explode, then place them under a broiler, on a grill, or hold them over a gas flame, turning as needed, until the skin is blackened, then pop them into a paper bag for 10 minutes. Now, peel and remove seeds and slice into strips.

Procedure in detail:

Boil salted water. Easiest part: bring the water and salt to a rolling boil over high heat.

adding polenta
Pouring in the polenta slowly will prevent it from lumping in the water; no one likes lumps in polenta.

Add polenta. Start whisking the water, rapidly. Rapidly enough to form a whirlpool. Now, while whisking, slowly pour in the polenta from about a foot above the water. This will add the polenta a grain at a time and prevent it from sticking together in a lump (ugh, lumpy polenta). Once you’ve added all the polenta, keep whisking, adjusting the heat to prevent a boil over, for 5 minutes, giving enough time so the outsides of the grains have cooked and won’t form lumps.

stirring polenta
It seems like a lot of stirring but it’s not too bad.

Stir, Stir, Stir. Switch to a wooden spoon (don’t want to burn your hands), lower the heat to medium-low, and stir the polenta mixture until it’s quite thick, about 20 minutes. No, you really don’t have to stir it continuously, but you can’t wander away, either.

adding butter
The fresh kernels add sweetness, and the butter, well, everything’s better with butter.

Add kernels and butter. Stir in the corn kernels, followed by the butter. Or the other way around, or even both at the same time; it really doesn’t matter. Just get them both in there.

Stir, Stir, Stir. While the kernels cook, they’ll release moisture, so the polenta will thin out a bit. Continue cooking, stirring often, until the mixture thickens up; about 20 minutes should do it. Don’t be too worried if it’s not super thick, just so it seems as if much of the moisture is evaporated or absorbed.

adding pepper
Near the end, taste and season with salt and pepper.

Season and cool. Taste and season the poleta with salt and pepper. Then, to make it easier to handle, let the polenta cool for about 10 minutes. It’ll thicken up, but give it a good stir right before you’re ready to make your “tamales.”

layering polenta tamales
You want the chilies and cheese surrounded by the polenta mixture.
layering polenta tamales
Additional polenta will seal in the cheese and chilies.
folded tamale in parchment
A couple of folds and you’ll have something like a tamale.

Layer and wrap. Tear off four pieces of parchment, each about 18 inches by 12 inches, and set them out on a clean work surface. Place a scoop of the corn mixture in the center, spreading it to elongate it a bit. Layer on the green chilies and the cheese, followed by another scoop of corn mixture. Fold the parchment around the polenta and fold over each end to seal the packet.

Chill. Place the packages on a baking sheet with the folded side down (so they don’t come unwrapped), and pop them into the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook. If it’s more than a few hours, transfer them to a plastic bag after they’ve chilled completely.

steaming tamales
Steaming will heat everything through and melt the cheese.

Steam. Maybe you have a dedicated steamer — some people do — but we haven’t, so we have to construct one from a wire rack and a skillet. If we didn’t have a round rack that fit into the skillet, we might have used a roasting pan with a rack and covered it with aluminum foil. Be creative and construct a steamer. Bring about 1/2 inch of water to a boil, place the packages on top of the rack, and cover tightly. Reduce heat and let steam for 30 minutes, checking to make sure the water doesn’t boil away. To serve, simply unwrap and slide off the parchment.

These taste a lot like tamales, but were quite a bit softer. We used mild green chilies, so they weren’t too spicy, and a very sharp Cheddar cheese, so that flavor stood out. We love having polenta with fresh kernels mixed in, it adds a nice sweetness to the mix. Plus, these didn’t seem too difficult to make, and we were able to most of the work hours ahead of time, which is a big plus. Easy five stars, and maybe we’ll search out some masa harina for our next tamale experiment.

Worth the trouble?

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