Healthy Tamales

Looking back at my days in El Salvador, I remember how excited people would get about tamales. Theirs were large, thick, and wrapped in banana tree leaves. They tasted different than the ones my mom used to make when I was a child, which were wrapped in corn husks. I think the difference in taste had to do with both masa (corn dough) preparation, as well as the taste difference of the wrapping.

In the US, tamales are generally seen as an unhealthy menu item due to the fat and salt content. But at a Healthy Tamale workshop, I learned that there are ways of making tasty, healthy tamales. During a recent trip, I shared these recipes with a Salvadoran friend, who really enjoyed them.

So here are the recipes for healthy tamalesšŸ™‚

TAMALITOS DEL NORTE (Northern tamales)

Makes about 354 inch tamalestamales

The Filling

  • 1 pound chicken meat (thighs or breasts) shredded
  • 2 large Ancho chilies, seeds and veins removed
  • 2 Guajillo chilies, seeds and veins removed
  • 2 Pasilla chilies, seeds and veins removed (optional)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • Salt to taste

The Masa

Use either fresh dough, or follow recipe on the corn flour package

  • 1 pound tamal dough (about 2 cups)
  • 4 1/2 ounces Margarine “Smart Balance” OR 3/4 cup canola oil OR 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons of reserved chile sauce
  • Salt to taste

About 36 halved corn husks

(about 3 inches wide at the top, softened in water, drained, patted dry)

  1. Soak the chilies in water until soft. Drain them.
  2. In a blender, put the chilies, garlic, and 1/2 cup of the chicken broth, and blend well.
  3. In a saucepan, put the chicken meat, add all but 3 tablespoons of the sauce, and 1/2 cup of the broth. Season with salt and cumin, and cook over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until well seasoned and the sauce is slightly reduced.
  4. Adjust the season and set aside to cool.
  5. In a large bowl, mix the masa with the margarine (or oil, if using), the reserve 3 tablespoons of chilies sauce, and about 1/3 cup of the broth with your hand, or an electric mixer until all the ingredients are well incorporated. Add salt if necessary.
  6. Line the top of the steamer with some of the corn husks and place an inverted soup plate in the middle. Set over medium heat.
  7. Spread 1 rounded tablespoon of the dough very thinly over the entire width of the top and for about 4 inches.
  8. Put the filling and fold one edge of the husk over the other. (the overlapping masa will stick and help to close the leaf securely. Double the point of the husk up to cover the seam.)
  9. Stack the tamales in circular layer, the first layer supported at a gentile angle by the top of the plate. (Add a little water to steam cook, about an inch of water)
  10. Cover the steamer and cook over high heat for about 50 minutes. The tamal is cooked when the dough separates cleanly from the husk.

Recipe provided by Chef Ana Martinez:


Chicken with Roasted Tomatillo

  • Stewed Chicken, deboned and shredded
  • 8 Tomatillos, cut in wedges
  • 1/2 large Yellow Onion, cut in wedges
  • 4 Serrano peppers, with stems removed
  • 4 cloves Garlic, peeled
  • Fresh cilantro to taste, leaves and stems
  • Salt to taste

Spread vegetables on a sheet pan rubbed with canola or olive oil. Place in a preheated oven, 375 F, until soft and lightly browned. Place cooked vegetables in a blender with fresh cilantro. Blend until smooth. Add to half of shredded chicken.

Beans with Chile Sauce and Panela Cheese (vegetarian option)

Prepare Beans without added fat, see recipe below. Mash beans slightly, adding chili sauce from Tamalitos del Norte Recipe to taste. Salt to taste. Add a strip of Panela cheese on top of the bean filling for each tamal.

Low-Fat Pinto Beans Recipe

Yields 10 servings; 5 ounces per serving

  • 3 cups Dry pinto beans
  • 9-12 cups Hot water
  • 2 medium Garlic cloves (whole)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • 2 medium Fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 6 canned whole tomatoes)
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup Chopped coriander
  • 2 Hot jalapeƱo peppers (optional)
  • 1/2 small Chopped onion

Clean and wash beans under running water using a colander. Place 6 cups of hot tap water in a stockpot or large saucepan on top of the stove on low heat. Add beans and garlic cloves; cover (add extra water as needed). Cook for 1 1/2 hours (if necessary add extra water). Add salt. Remove garlic cloves if desired. Add remaining ingredients. Cook for 1/2 hour longer.

Note: Beans may take anywhere from 2 to 3 hours to cook, depending on type of pot used and tenderness of beans.

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