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.
Vegetarian Banana Leaf Tamales
- 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.
- Sauce Ingredients
- 3 dried ancho chilies
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 whole cloves
- 2 whole peppercorns
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Calabacitas (Mexican squash)
- Filling Ingredients
- Extra virgin 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
Prepare 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. Knead in a couple tablespoons of olive oil.
Prepare the Sauce
See the instructions in this red chili sauce recipe for preparing the chili sauce with the ancho chilies. Before you start to handle chilies, either wear protective gloves or rub a little olive oil over your hands. Once you are finished handling chiles, wash your hands well with warm soapy water. Be careful not to touch your eyes if you've been handling chiles!
Open the chiles, remove seeds and stems:
Use a sharp knife and make a cut down the side of each chile. Pry open the chiles and remove the seed pods and stems. Pull off any visible veins that run down the insides of the chiles. Reserve a few of the seeds if you need to add them later for more heat.
Soften the chiles by heating them:
Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Flatten out the chiles and place them open-side down on the skillet. Press down on them with a metal spatula. After a few seconds turn the chiles over and cook them a few more seconds. Heat them only enough to soften them and to release their flavor, do not heat them to the extent that they would brown or toast.
Soak chiles in hot water:
Place the chiles in a small saucepan and cover them with water. Bring the water to a boil and remove the pot from the heat. Let the chiles rest in the hot water for 10 minutes until they have softened. Alternatively, place the chiles in a bowl and pour boiling water over them, let them sit for 15 minutes, until softened.
Blend with garlic, spices:
Place the chiles and 1 1/2 cups of the chile soaking water into a blender. Add the garlic, salt, pepper, and ground cloves. Purée until completely smooth, a couple of minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Add more salt and/or chili seeds if needed.
Strain into a skillet, then simmer:
Place a sieve over a skillet and pour the sauce into the sieve, pressing it through to the skillet. Heat the skillet and bring the sauce to a simmer. Add a tablespoon of olive oil. Simmer for 10 minutes, skimming off any 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
Sauté the vegetables:
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.
Add chile sauce:
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.)
Press some masa into center of banana leaf rectangle:
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.
Add chili sauce, cheese, vegetable filling:
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.
Fold banana leaf to form tamale:
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
Assemble steamer in pot with water, line with banana leaves:
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.
Layer with tamales and banana leaves:
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.
Steam for one hour:
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Steam cook for approximately one hour.
Makes approximately one dozen tamales.
Many thanks to Sacramento caterer Arturo Vargas for taking several days to teach me the finer points of cooking nacatamales (banana leaf tamales) and introducing me to the local Mexican markets. Arturo is married to Martha, one of my oldest and dearest friends (since we were 13). Pictured here is their 6-year old son Christopher, who was very patient with his dad and me while we cooked tamales at their house. "Why can't you play Elise?!"