(Bleck. I don’t know what they put in those things, but they do not taste like cinnamon to me.)
Naw, naw, I’m talking these hot, “beefy” vegan tamales…
…steaming fresh and wrapped up like a gift of food should be.
It’s a present inside of a present!
Okay now, before I continue, on behalf of my mother, let me set one thing straight. The word “tamales” (pronounced ta-MAH-less) is the plural of “tamal” (ta-MAL). There is no such thing as a “tamale” (or ta-MAW-lay or ta-MAW-lee). Now repeat after me: “One tamal, two tamales. One tamal, two tamales…” We cool? Good, moving on…
Tamales are arguably the most traditional Christmas dish in Mexican culture.
They consist of masa (corn flour) dough filled with desired mixture, wrapped up in corn husks, then steamed to perfection (when done correctly). Growing up, someone in the family inevitably made a big batch to share almost every year around this time. Even the neighbors and coworkers sometimes had extra to go around (the neighbors next door would steam theirs in banana leaves… mmm what a treat).
Savory tamales were typically filled with shredded beef, pork, or chicken simmered in red, green, or smoky mole sauce. There were also cheese-filled tamales with “rajas” (sliced peppers), but I never liked those. And as if tamales for dinner weren’t enough, we also had sweet tamales for dessert. Usually we had pineapple tamales studded with plump raisins, but on a few rare (and cherished) occasions, someone would offer strawberry tamales.
As you might have guessed, there isn’t a single, uniform, “master” tamal recipe. Every abuelita, doñita, hermana, tía, prima, commadre, and vecino* has their own style – some better than others. Some tamales I’ve tried had bland fillings, others were really dry or, worse still, super greasy (the dough is traditionally made with lard, after all).
*Didn’t mean to leave out any other males from the list; it’s just that the only tamales I recall eating that were made by a man were those made by my restaurant-owner vecino (neighbor).
I, personally, had never made tamales of any kind until this week. As much as I love cooking, the idea of attempting such a delicate and time-consuming dish on my own just never appealed to me. But, this being my first Christmas as a vegan and not wanting to miss out on traditional holiday food motivated me to make some blessed-good vegan tamales. Challenge accepted.
These vegan tamales are moist and not at all greasy.
The protein-packed filling is a little spicy (but not too much) and has lots of Mexican-style flavor that reminds me of the way beef tamales are seasoned. Plus, you can feel good knowing that these are 100% cholesterol-free, lower in fat and sodium, and none of our animal friends were harmed in the process. Amen, to that!
Salsa, to taste (I used the Kirkland Signature organic medium salsa, from Costco)
For the dough:
4 cups masa harina (Find in the flour section or Latin section of your grocery store; Maseca is a popular brand)
1/4 - 1/2 tsp salt
3 cups low-sodium vegetable broth, warm
1/2 cup refined coconut oil, soft (I used refined to prevent the end result from tasting like coconut)
About 20 corn husks, to wrap (it's good to have a couple of extras ready in case any rip; find in the Latin section of your grocery store)
Bring 3 cups water to boil in a medium saucepan, add a pinch of salt and the dry lentils. Return to boil, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 30-40 minutes to desired texture (they should be soft, but not mushy), adding more water as needed.
Meanwhile, pulse the walnuts and pecans in a food processor or Vitamix on a medium-low speed (easier done in 2 batches if using Vitamix). You're looking for a crumbly texture with pieces about the same size as lentils, not big chunks or super-fine.
In a large skillet, warm 1/4 cup of the vegetable broth over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and saute in the broth. Keep adding 1-2 Tbsp broth at a time as it dries out, continuing to stir the onions until they soften. This is a low-fat method of sauteeing which takes a little bit longer than using oil, but it works well.
With the heat on medium-low, add the pulsed nuts to the skillet, stirring well for 2-3 minutes to let toast without burning. Start shaking in your taco seasoning (I probably started with about 2 teaspoons). Add your cooked lentils, stirring carefully. Combine tamari or soy sauce with 1/4 cup water and pour over the lentil mixture. Add more taco seasoning and salsa (start with 1/2 cup and work your way up) to desired level of spiciness. Set filling aside.
Soak the corn husks in a large bowl of water for 10-20 minutes to make them pliable.
In a large bowl, mix the masa harina and the salt. Add the warm broth and coconut oil; stir well with a wooden spoon to form dough. I also used an electric handheld mixer to try to make it fluffier (per another recipe), though I'm not sure if it made any difference.
Roll the dough into 16-18 equal-sized balls. Make an assembly line with the softened corn husks (remove from bowl and dry off excess water), dough balls, and filling.
Take a corn husk, flatten out a dough ball in the center of it, and press it evenly into a rectangle shape about 1/4-inch thick. I found that it's best to have it slightly longer going across the husk (parallel to the longest edge). Place 1-2 tablespoons of filling in the center of the dough leaving about 1/2 and inch of space from the top and bottom edges, then carefully roll the dough over the filling one side at a time, pressing gently to close any gaps. Wrap the husk around the dough packet and fold up the bottom. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling (you will have plenty of extra filling for tacos!).
Arrange the tamales, standing open side up, in a steamer (use a tamal steamer if you have one), a slow cooker, or a large pot. If using steamer, bring a couple of inches of water to boil in the pot, add steaming insert (it should not touch the water), reduce heat, cover, and let steam for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, checking occasionally to make sure it has enough water. Similar instructions if using a regular large pot, except use 1/2 inch of water at a time, and know that the bottoms of your tamales will get wet and a little soggy (but they will dry off once cooked and removed from the pot). For slow cooker, no need to add water, just cook on high for 5-6 hours.
Serve warm and top with salsa or enchilada sauce, if desired.
You may wish to break up the preparation process, since it is quite time-consuming and labor intensive. The filling can be prepared ahead of time. You can also prepare the tamales in the husks a day or two ahead, keep in the fridge, then steam the day they will be served.