Category Archives: Tamales

Making Banana Leaf Tamales

Rick Bayless calls these Juchitán-style tamales, which is a word I love to say: “hoochie-TAHN.” Juchitán is a city located in the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca (also fun to say: wah-HOCK-ah). It’s a town known for food, art, cross-dressing and indigenous languages. Don’t ask me about the third thing, it’s a long story…Mrs. Pastry will tell you all about it if you ask her, she was in Juchitán in November on a research project.

The differences between banana leaf tamales and their better-known corn husk brethren are a.) the look, but also b.) the flavor. Banana leaves impart a green-banana-like flavor and aroma to tamales, which works surprisingly well with corn masa and grilled chicken (or refried beans). Here I’m doing a bean version which is the simplest.

The masa in Bayless’ recipe is different from that of classic corn tamales in that it omits the baking powder and includes a little puréed epazote leaf. I can’t get epazote in Louisville. I can get cilantro, which makes a nice substitute, but neither of my girls like it so I omit it. If you want the full delicious complexity of a hoochie-mama Juchitán tamal, add a purée of ten epazote leaves (or half a bunch of fresh cilantro, puréed) to your stock when you’re making the masa. I suggest leaving the baking powder in for a lighter product.

But before you even begin, you need to source some banana leaves. They come in large, flat packages like this and can be found in international food stores in the freezer section (they’re used in Indian and southeast Asian cooking as well).

To prepare them for tamal-making, tear them into pieces about 10″ x 10″ (discard any stiff stems), then pass the pieces slowly over a gas or electric stove burner to soften them. You’ll see them change from drab to shiny as the waxes on the leaf melt — that tells you they’re done! For about 12 tamales you’ll need the wrappers, a recipe of corn masa and about two cups of refried beans (preferably homemade).

As with corn husk tamales, you’ll want a bowl of water nearby to dip your fingers. Spoon about 1/4 cup of filling onto the banana leaf. Pat it into an oblong strip about half way up your section of leaf and all the way to one side.

Add couple of teaspoons of refried beans on one half.

To shape, bring up the edge of the wrapper…

…and fold it over, thus enclosing the filling.

Fold in the other side and wrap it around the tamal.

Fold the bottom up…

…and the top down.

The tie it up with a strip of banana leaf. You’ll find that banana leaves can be less uniform than corn husks with all their tears and folds. Get creative with your wrappers. As long as the filling can’t leak out you’re doing well!

Steam them for 75 minutes (60 if you’re using fresh masa).

Remove them from the heat and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes before serving — then serve warm straight from the steamer. They’ll keep very well in the refrigerator for several days and freeze beautifully for several weeks.

Refried bean tamales go great with a little tomatillo salsa. What, you didn’t know you could put salsa on tamales? You can!

Filed under:  Banana Leaf Tamales, Pastry | 10 Comments

Making Classic Tamales

Now just to be clear, I don’t have to eat the wrapping too, do I? I remember quite clearly asking that question when I was first confronted with non-convenience store tamales. How the heck do you eat these things? It’s a fair question for any inexperienced tamale-eater, since very few foods land on our dinner plates still in the wrapping…unless of course Dad got lazy dishing up the Happy Meals at the kitchen table this week (something you can pretty much count on at our house).

Tamales are members of the “anything goes” family of hand-held foods, along with pasties, pies and sandwiches. Just about anything can go in them. They’re a superior (if somewhat time consuming) way to use leftovers like grilled meats and vegetables, refried beans, cooked or rehydrated fruit…you name it. Soak a few corn husks, whip together a little masa and you’re in business.

Of course there are several more “formal” recipes for tamales, one of which I shall now show you. It’s for classic pork tamales of the kind found in Mexican restaurants all over America. Before we begin I must credit Rick Bayless, a world class chef and all-around great guy, from whom I’ve learned most of what I know about tamales. His recipes have been my inspiration all week. So then, for the filling we’ll need:

2 ounces dried ancho chiles (before rehydration, about 4 large ones)
half a white onion, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
8 ounces pork stew meat (shoulder, say)
1 recipe masa for tamales
about half a package dried corn husks

Begin by placing the corn husks in a large pot. Put in a plate (to weigh them down), cover with water and bring to a simmer. Once the water has been brought to the boil, turn the heat off and let them sit for an hour.

Now then, place the rehydrated chiles, onion, garlic cloves and pepper in a food processor. Add enough water to come most of the way up the ingredients (the exact amount isn’t terribly important).

Give it all spin…for maybe a minute.

Now pour the mixture through a medium sieve.

You’ll need to press it through with the back of a spoon. Discard the last couple tablespoons of solids, they’re mostly the tough skin of the anchos. Those peppers — poblanos in their former life — have particularly tough skins.

Now add the meat. There should be plenty of sauce to cover them. If not add some water and stir! Simmer all that for a good hour until the meat is very tender. Meanwhile make your masa batter.

Remove the meat from the sauce and pour the sauce into a small bowl. Shred the meat and put it into a separate bowl.

Now for assembly. Select one of the longer corn husks and tear off about a dozen very narrow strips. These will be your ties.

Lay out your shredded pork, the sauce and the ties. A small bowl of water isn’t a half bad idea either. Take one of the husks out of the water and give it a wipe-off with a paper towel.

Spoon about 1/4 cup of the masa batter onto the husk, in the center about two thirds of the way toward the top. It’ll be sticky so dip your hand in the water to spread the batter…just gently pat it into a rough square.

Spoon on a heaping tablespoon or so of the meat, then about a tablespoon of the sauce. Don’t overfill the tamales, since it’s important that the masa enclose the filling (otherwise the sauce will just run right out during cooking).

Now to shape. Notice that both my hands are in the photo. Normally they refuse to appear on screen together (bad blood from a past royalty dispute), but both hands have graciously agreed to put aside their differences on this very important occasion. So then, grasp the husk in such a way that your fingertips are positioned at the edges of the filling (on the underside of the husk, of course).

Bring your hands together until your fingertips meet, thus enclosing the filling in the batter.

Now flip both of the edges over in the same direction…left or right makes no difference…

…and wrap them around the tamal.

Fold up the bottom of the husk and you’re finished.

Just tie the tamal closed. Notice I’m down to just one hand again. Sadly my right hand unexpectedly stormed off the set in a huff for who-knows-what reason (puh…talent!). The left hand somehow found a way to soldier on and get the knot tied anyway. That’s what we in “the business” call professionalism.

Place the tamales in a steamer and steam them for 75 minutes (if you used fresh masa reduce the time by 15 minutes).

This recipe makes about a dozen tamales. Above I’m using a very small steamer insert. If you don’t have enough tamales to fill your steamer (whether it’s small or large) you can pack in any empty space with spare corn husks, so the tamales don’t fall over while they cook. The true pros use very large steamers and make dozens and dozens at a time.

Once the tamales are done, let them rest about ten minutes off the heat to let the masa firm up. Serve warm…right from the steamer. I should add that they keep very well in the fridge for a few days, and freeze very well. They can be reheated in the steamer for best results. The microwave fine works if you’re in a rush!

Filed under:  Classic Tamales, Pastry | 30 Comments