When the universe closes a door, it opens a window.
And indeed it was so when our attempt to follow a recipe for a (naturally gluten-free) empanada using mashed plantains for the dough failed miserably. The recipe’s chipotle-spiked black bean filling was nothing short of miraculous. But while the plantain-based dough made a delectable fork-mate to the filling, it was too crumbly to respectably envelop it like a proper empanada pocket. As I wallowed in our tasty but decidedly unphotogenic empanada experiment, my resourceful husband Alex had a brilliant idea: why not change the recipe from empanada to tamale?
And just like that, the window had opened.
A healthy tamale? ¿Es posible?
Fact #1: Tamales are quite delicious.
Fact #2: Tamales are typically made with a dough that combines masa harina (cornmeal made from corn that’s been soaked in limewater) and a somewhat obscene amount of fat–usually butter or lard. The lard renders most restaurant tamales off-limits to the vegetarian crowd, and even the butter-based approach makes homemade tamales a tough sell for those of us trying to keep our intake of artery-clogging saturated fat to a minimum.
Given these two facts, the prospect of a tamale dough that’s appropriately textured, 100% fat free, vegetarian and nutritious is a pretty big coup.
A coup, I’m delighted to say, we pulled off, thanks to some cooked mashed plantains and a little bit of creativity.
Plantains (plátanos in Spanish) are a fruit that resemble large, thick-skinned bananas and are commonly featured in Caribbean cuisine. They are used both when unripe (green skin) as well as ripe (yellow to black skin); they are starchier when unripe and sweeter when riper. Although related to the banana, plantains are usually cooked prior to eating; they have a drier, starchier texture and less banana-ey flavor than bananas. Nutritionally, they’re closer to a starchy vegetable (like a potato) than to a fruit. Like potatoes, plantains are a great source of blood-pressure-lowering potassium. And as I recently discovered, when baked, mashed and lightly salted, plantains provide an excellent, fat-free alternative to a traditional tamale dough. Of course, a quick google search after-the-fact revealed that Alex and I were not the first people to come up with the idea of Plantain Tamales (hmmmph!), but I’m still pretty darn proud of us all the same.
Black Bean & Plantain Tamales
This recipe was inspired by and adapted from a recipe for Roasted Plantain Empanadas from NYC’s Dos Caminos restaurant’s “Mod Mex” cookbook, by Scott Lundquist and Joanna Pruess. (The more-addictive-than-crack black bean filling is taken exactly–and reverently– from the cookbook. I’d suggest doubling the recipe, in fact, if you’d like to serve extra on top of the tamales… or perhaps to accommodate nibbling while you wait patiently for the tamales to cook.) And if tamales seem like too much work, try making just the filling for omelets or to serve with rice… it’s SO very good.
Makes 6 tamales (serves 2 as an entree or 3 as an appetizer)
- 6 dried corn husks, soaked in warm water for 10-15 minutes until soft and bendable
- 2 medium ripe plantains (skins should be yellow speckled with black or mostly black)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 TBSP chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 TBSP canola oil
- 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup canned black beans
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce, chopped
- kosher salt
- 1/4 cup chopped scallions (including green parts)
- 1 ounce grated cheese (your choice of cotija, feta, pepper jack or sharp cheddar will all work great)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Soak the corn husks in warm water in a large shallow baking dish (per above instructions) prior to getting started.
- Make the tamale “dough”: Bake the whole plantains (unpeeled) on a cookie sheet until they are black, bubbly, splitting open and soft in the center. Remove from oven, let cool and peel. Place the baked plantains into a food processor with 1/2 tsp salt and chopped cilantro and mix until mashed. The mixture will be a little dry and crumbly. Add 1 TBSP water and briefly mix again until a uniform, smooth paste texture is achieved (depending on your plantain’s texture, you may need to adjust the amount of water… if 2 TBSP doesn’t yield a smooth texture, add 1 tsp additional water at a time until you get there.)
4. Make the tamale filling: Heat a medium, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add oil, then onion, and saute until onion is lightly browned–about 5-6 minutes. Stir in garlic, cook 1 minute, then add black beans, half of the water (1/4 cup) and the chopped chipotle chili. As the filling cooks, mash the mixture with a potato masher (or back of a wooden spoon) until chunky-smooth. Add remaining 1/4 cup water, season to taste with salt. Add the chopped scallions, the grated cheese and remove from heat.
5. Assemble the tamales: Lay a pre-soaked corn husk flat on working surface. Spoon ~1/4 cup tamale dough (mashed plantain mixture) onto center of the husk and, using your fingers, spread it on the husk leaving a 1″ border all around. Spoon 1/6 of the bean mixture across the dough. Fold the tamale shut as follows: start by pulling up the longer edges of the husk until the edges of the plantain mash meet and fold over onto themselves, forming a tube around the bean filling. Then, tuck one edge of the husk between the outside of the dough tube and the other husk. Now you will have a tube-like tamale open on two sides. Then, fold one of the remaining open sides so that the tamale has only one open end.
6. Steam the tamales: Drop a penny into a large saucepan and fill with water up until the level of a steamer basket. Bring water to a boil; you will hear the penny rattling around so long as there is sufficient water in the pot. (Over the course of the cooking time, listen for the penny rattling and add more water to the pot if the rattling sound stops.) When water is boiling, pile the folded tamales into steamer basket, seam side down, cover saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, and steam for 45 minutes, replenishing water as needed.
7. To serve: Remove tamales from steamer basket. Place on a plate, unfold the husk, and garnish with salsa of your choice (a chipotle salsa or salsa verde would work great), some additional shredded cheese and/or chopped cilantro to your liking.