I had been looking for a way to make tamales with no added refined fats for a long time. I've made vegan tamales for years now, but always adding either oil or Earth Balance margarine, which I thought was the "healthier" option. And it probably is a lot healthier than the original version with lard and meat.
However, lately I have really eliminated oil from my own diet and even reworked all my recipes in my cookbooks to reflect that. Oil is such a refined, processed food, devoid of all fiber and nutrients, that I have a hard time recommending it anymore. Even with the traces of vitamins some oils have, their nutritional value pales in comparison to the less processed, more natural sources of healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds and avocados.
But I was really convinced in my mind you simply couldn't make tamales without refined fats such as oil or shortening. I had never heard of such a thing. I was convinced the refined fat is what gave the tamales their texture, which otherwise might end up dry and tough.
Then I heard a sweet Mexican lady tell me she makes tamales without oil, but really couldn't give me the recipe, since she just "doesn't use one." Since I only make tamales like once a year (for Christmas) I put it in the back of my mind.... until now.
Here comes Christmas again, and I felt curious once more to see if I could do it. I looked online for recipes of no-oil tamales and there's a few, but none that convinced me. So I decided to make up my own recipe. After a few years in the kitchen you learn a few tricks of the trade; how to make things more moist and creamy, how to replace fats in recipes, etc.
So I decided to use a combination of two things to replace the refined fat in tamales, that I thought might make them moist and soft: sweet potatoes and cashews. And it worked! And since I used a small amount of cashews, these tamales are actually low in fat, yet the texture is amazing. You won't miss the oil or the shortening!
So here we go:
Low-fat Vegan Tamales
Ingredients for 12 tamales:
2 cups masa harina
2 cups white sweet potato, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup raw cashews
2 cups of water (I used the water from boiling the sweet potatoes, or you can use vegetable broth and omit the seasoning)
1 tablespoon of vegetarian broth seasoning (such as Better Than Bouillon or the powder kind, optional)
1/2 teaspoon of salt (or more if not using any seasoning)
1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
Filling of choice (I'll tell you what I used)
Soak the corn husks in very hot water until they are soft and pliable. I always soak more than what I need since I use the leftover ones in the steamer to put under and over the tamales.
Boil the sweet potatoes until they're soft (about 15 minutes). Drain and mash the sweet potatoes, and let them cool down a bit.
Mix the masa harina, salt and baking powder. Blend the cashews with the water and seasoning until very creamy. Add to dry ingredients and mix well. Incorporate the mashed sweet potatoes and mix well until you have a homogenous mixture. I use a mixer for this, but it can be done by hand too. Make sure the dough is not too dry or too runny. It should be the thickness of peanut butter, more or less.
Prepare the filling. There are so many choices here (see below). This time I went for easy and fast. I bought a package of baked tofu at the store, which is already seasoned, cut it in strips and mixed it with half a can of red chili sauce I had in the pantry. But there so many other possibilities.
Rinse the corn husks and apply the dough first, spreading 3 or 4 tablespoons over the smooth side of the husk, depending on the size of your husk. Spread only half to three quarters across the bottom of the husk, leaving the narrower top section empty for folding up after you roll it. Put one to two tablespoons of filling in the center of the dough, roll up the husk and fold up the narrow end. Repeat this until you have used up all your dough.
Place your tamales standing up, with the opening towards the top, in your steamer. Steam for 90 minutes. Remove from the steamer and let them cool for 15 to 30 minutes before serving so they have a chance to firm up. Serve and enjoy!
Other options for filling:
Jalapeño strips and vegan cheese
Black beans and corn
Seasoned seitan, jackfruit or soy "meat"
Potatoes, peas and vegetables, seasoned with your favorite spices
Etc., etc., etc..... the possibilities are literally endless!
For more whole-food, plant-based recipes like this one check out my cookbook!