Considered a Latin American delicacy, tamales can be made with seasoned meat, vegetables, cheese or fruit. These fillings are rolled with cornmeal dough — also known as masa — and then wrapped in a cornhusk and steamed.
While it is a holiday tradition for many families to make tamales in the weeks that follow Thanksgiving in preparation for December festivities, tamales are enjoyed year-round. They are delicious, but they are also infamously unhealthy. So it's important to maintain proper portion control when indulging.
"Unfortunately for those who love tamales, this holiday treat is not the healthiest of choices," says Erika Killian, registered dietitian affiliated with Sharp HealthCare. "However, there are many nutritious alternatives one can add to the dish to create a healthier tamale."
For the filling: Tamales traditionally include pork or beef. However, shredded chicken is a healthier alternative that provides a lean protein.
Vegetarian options: For those who do not eat meat, Killian suggests using a low-fat cheese with vegetables for the tamale filling. Vegetables can include bell peppers, black or pinto beans, squash and even a serrano chili to make it spicy.
For the dough: Replace lard or vegetable shortening with canola oil or vegetable oil.
For extra spice: Pork drippings are typically used to flavor the masa. However, chili powder is a wholesome substitute that still packs the same heat and flavor without the added fat or calories.
When making tamales this season, Killian recommends the following recipe adapted from Cooking Light, while still maintaining proper portion control.
Healthier Chicken Tamales
Yields 16 tamales
For the filling
1 1/2 cups onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound of white meat chicken
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground, dried red New Mexico chile
For the dough
3 cups masa*
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 cup fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup water
*When shopping, ask your local grocer for masa that is made without lard.
16 large, dried cornhusks
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Prepare the filling
Coat the inside of a large Dutch oven with cooking spray, and heat over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add chicken and brown on both sides. Stir in the water and the salt, and bring mixture to a boil. Cover and bake in oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
After chicken is cooked thoroughly, transfer the meat into a bowl and shred into pieces. Once chicken is shredded, coat Dutch oven with cooking spray and heat over medium-high heat. Add shredded chicken, sprinkle with the flour and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the ground, dried red New Mexico chile. Reduce heat and cook for 7 minutes or until liquid evaporates, stirring often. Remove the Dutch oven from heat and cool to room temperature.
Prepare the dough
Combine the masa and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the canola oil and mix well. Add the chicken broth and water, then stir until a soft dough forms.
Assemble the tamales
One cornhusk at a time, add enough dough to cover the inside of the husk about 90 percent full; leave a little space around the edges. Spoon 2 tablespoons of chicken filling down one side of the dough. Using the cornhusk as a guide, roll the tamale. Fold over each end of the cornhusk.
Once the cornhusk is secured around the tamale, place the tamale upright in a tamale pot or steamer.
Repeat steps with remaining cornhusks, dough and chicken filling.
When the tamale pot or steamer is full, steam the tamales for 50 minutes or until the dough is firm. Remove tamales from tamale pot or steamer. Let stand for 5 minutes.
Serve with a small garden salad dressed with a light vinaigrette.