Some of the ingredients necessary for this dish, like the dried avocado leaves, chiles, nopales (a green vegetable that comes from the young pad of the prickly pear cactus) and banana leaves can be found most easily at a Latin American market or a well-stocked grocery store’s international aisle.
- 4 to 5 pounds chicken drumsticks
- 15 dried avocado leaves
- 13 dried guajillo chiles (stems, seeds and veins removed)
- 4 dried pasilla chiles (stems, seeds and veins removed)
- 7 roma tomatoes (or 1 can of tomatoes)
- 10 peeled garlic cloves
- 1 medium Spanish or white onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 (4-inch) stick Mexican cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
- 10 whole allspice berries
- 3 whole cloves
- 3 pinches whole cumin seed
- 1 tablespoon chicken bouillon powder
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 6 1⁄2 cups water
- 1 jar nopales (or 1 pound sautéed fresh nopales)
- 3 cups peeled and sliced carrots, cut to approximately match the size of the nopales
- 1 package frozen banana leaves
- Aluminum foil
Salt the chicken legs and set aside. Heat up 1 dry comal (a traditional Mexican griddle) or a skillet (cast iron works great) and bring 6 1⁄2 cups water to a simmer on another burner.
Toast avocado leaves in the dry griddle or skillet until fragrant, but not burned. Once toasted, place the leaves in the simmering water and lightly toast the cleaned chiles until just fragrant and pliable. Place the chiles in the simmering water with the avocado leaves.
After cooking the chiles, char the onion, whole tomatoes and peeled garlic cloves in the same skillet. Once the onion, tomatoes and garlic are just charred, add them to simmering water and then remove from the heat.
Once the mix is cool, place it all in a blender along with the cinnamon, oregano, allspice, cloves, cumin, bouillon, a little salt and vinegar and blend until smooth.
Pour blended mixture over drumsticks and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Once the meat mixture is marinating, trim thawed banana leaves so that they are sized to be folded to make individual packets containing 1 chicken leg each.
Once trimmed, pass banana leaves over an open flame to make them pliable.
Place 1 drumstick and some of the marinating liquid over a piece of banana leaf, add a few pieces of nopales and carrot, fold the leaf so it contains the chicken in a nice parcel and wrap the whole parcel in aluminum foil to make sure nothing leaks out. (If banana leaves are unavailable, parchment paper makes an acceptable substitute.)
After all the chicken packages are made, place them in a steamer (a huge tamale steamer is the preferred vessel, but any steamer or large pot can be made to work) and steam for 1 1⁄2 hours.
The folded packages can be held for a day before steaming, but once steamed they should be consumed immediately.
After 1 1⁄2 hours, remove packages and place them on a serving plate before removing the foil.
When the foil is removed and the banana leaf unwrapped you should be left with tender, flavorful chicken that’s full of rich chile flavor but not overly spicy.
Serve with rice or tortillas, guacamole and a tamarind agua fresca.