Vegetarian Banana Leaf Tamales
Tamales are a Latin American favorite, a delicious filling surrounded by corn meal dough, and steamed until cooked. Most tamales that we have the occasion to eat here in the US are wrapped in corn husks, the method typical of central and Northern Mexico. In the more tropical areas of Mexico and Central America, you’ll commonly find tamales wrapped in banana leaves or plantain leaves, which have their own unique and subtle flavor.
If you’ve never made tamales before, it’s a pretty long and involved process, which is why the making of them is so often a social event. Several dozens are made at a time, with the help of many hands. Tamales freeze well, so it makes sense to make more than you can eat at the time. The following process for making these wonderful banana leaf tamales was taught to me over several days by my good friend Arturo, who calls them “nacatamales”. I have since made them several times for our family with great results. This recipe is for a vegetarian filling, but you could also use a pulled pork or shredded chicken filling. The recipe makes about one dozen tamales; you can easily scale up the recipe. As Arturo says, !Delicioso!
- 1 pound package of banana leaves, frozen or fresh (available at most Asian or Mexican markets)
- 2 pounds of already prepared tamale masa, or 3 cups masa harina (masa flour NOT regular corn meal) Note that prepared masa often has lard in it, so if you are going vegetarian on this recipe consider making your own masa from scratch, or buying a vegetarian prepared masa.
- 3 dried ancho chilies
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 whole cloves
- 2 whole peppercorns
- Olive oil
Calabacitas (Mexican squash)
- Olive oil
- 1 cup chopped carrots (about 1 1/2 carrots)
- 1/2 cup chopped red onion (about 1/2 onion)
- 3 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 2 calabacitas (Mexican summer squash, can substitute zucchini), roughly chopped (1 1/2 cups)
- 2 plum tomatoes, cored and chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 small bunch of spinach (about 15-20 leaves), rinsed, stems removed and discarded, chopped
- 12 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, cut into 3" x 3/4" x 1/2" pieces
Special Equipment Needed
- A large stockpot with a steamer rack
MethodPrepare the Masa
If you have purchased prepared masa, you can skip this step. If you have masa harina (masa flour), add warm water to the masa harina, amount according to the instructions on the package. Stir to incorporate. Let sit for several minutes. Need the dough with your hands just enough so that all of the masa flour is incorporated.
Prepare the Sauce
See the instructions in this red chili sauce recipe for preparing the chili sauce with the ancho chilies.
1 Working on one chile at a time, use a paring knife to cut a slit all the way down one side of a chile. Open up the chile and remove the stem and seeds. Remove as much of the veins as you can. Reserve a few of the seeds or veins for adding later if you want added heat. Note when working with chilies, either wear protective gloves or wash your hands very thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling the chilies.
2 Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Flatten out the dried chilies as well as you can and place on the skillet to heat. Press down on the opened chilies and leave for a few seconds. Turn the chilies over and heat a few seconds more. You do not want to toast or burn the chilies, just heat them enough to draw out more of the flavor.
3 Add the chilies to a small saucepan and add enough water so that they are just covered. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes, until the chilies have softened and plumped up. (OR pour place the chilies in a small saucepan and pour boiling water over them to cover. Let sit for 15 minutes, until softened.)
4 Reserving the soaking water, remove the chilies from the pan and place in a blender. Add the garlic, salt, ground pepper, ground cloves, and 1 1/2 cups of the soaking liquid. Purée for 2 minutes, until the sauce is completely smooth. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. If you want more heat, add in a few of the seeds or veins and purée some more. Add more salt if needed.
5 Pour the sauce through a sieve into a skillet. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the sauce. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to maintain the simmer, cook for 10 minutes. Skim off the foam. Remove from heat.
Prepare the Banana Leaves
If you are using frozen banana leaves (available at many Asian and Mexican markets), rinse them under warm water to defrost. Cut away the thick edges of the leaves.
If you are using fresh banana leaves, also cut away the thick edges (and central stem if you are using freshly cut leaves). Note that you can cut off sinewy strips from the stem edge of the banana leaves to use as ties for the tamales. Rinse the leaves.
Banana leaves may be brittle and tear when you try to fold them. One way I've heard of to soften them is to soak them in warm, salted water for about an hour. Another way to soften them which I have found effective, is to hold them over heat, either over a gas burner or a hot pan for a few seconds. Heat them only enough so that they turn color (brighter green) and soften. If you heat them too long, they will toast and become brittle again.
Cut the banana leaves into rectangles about 8"x10". Dry off with a towel.
Prepare the Filling
1 Coat the bottom of a very large sauté pan with 1-2 Tbsp olive oil. Heat to high heat. Add the onions, garlic, and carrots. Sauté for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the tomatoes and squash. Sauté for a couple more minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, until just wilted. Remove from heat.
2 Stir in 1/2 cup of chile sauce to the vegetables. Taste. Add more salt if needed.
Assemble the Tamales
Banana leaves have two sides. One side, the top of the leaf, is deep green and has somewhat thick ridges. The other side, the bottom of the leaf, is lighter green and is smoother. According to Diana Kennedy (and they guy I talked to at the local Mexican market) you will want to place the masa on the lighter green, smoother side of the leaf. (I've done it both ways and haven't found it making that big of a difference to the taste.)
1 Lay out the rectangle piece of banana leaf, light side up. Place a 1/4 to a 1/3 of a cup of masa on the center of the banana leaf. Press down on it with the palm of your hand to spread it out a bit.
2 Place a small bit (about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon) of the red chili sauce on the masa. Place a strip of Monterey Jack cheese on top. Scoop some of the vegetable mixture (1/4 to 1/3 cup) on top of the cheese and masa.
3 Bring together the two long sides of the banana leaf and fold over, tucking one edge over the other if you can (if not, don't sweat it). Fold the two remaining sides under the tamale. Secure with a piece of kitchen string, or with some of the long stringy pieces that you can cut from the stem edge of the banana leaves. You can also make ties by pulling off some long thin strips from the larger part of the banana leaf and tying them together to form a long enough strip with which to tie up a tamale. Or, you can skip the tying step all together and just fold them well.
If upon your first attempt to wrap a tamale the banana leaf is too brittle and tears, you may need to soften the banana leaves by heating them first as mentioned earlier.
Steam the Tamales
1 Place a steamer rack in the bottom of a very large stockpot. Add enough water to almost come up to the level of the steam rack, about 3/4 or 1 inch. Line the top of the steam rack with banana leaves.
2 Carefully place the tamales in layers on the bottom of the pan. When you have added all of the tamales, add another layer of banana leaves. Cover the pot.
3 Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Steam cook for approximately one hour.
Makes approximately one dozen tamales.