The difference between wrapping tamales with banana leaves rather than using corn husks is appearance and taste. Banana or plantain leaves infuse the “masa” to a certain degree providing a unique flavor and aroma to the tamales. Growing up, I remember walking through a banana plantation looking for undamaged leaves. Once located, they would be carefully cut from the plants with a machete. Immediately a bonfire was created to pass each leaf over the fire. Cooking the leaves would release its oils making them pliable and suitable for wrapping the tamales. Well, not so fast; each leaf would have to be washed to eliminate dirt and collected ashes from the fire. Today, you can find banana leaves pre-packed and pre-washed – don’t you love convenience?
Tamales are a traditional Latino food that requires a little effort to prepare. Although you no longer have to go to a banana plantation to begin the process, you still have to invest some time. After taking the wrapping out of the equation, you must prepare the dough “masa” and the stuffing. The final step involves putting the tamales together and cooking them. The results are well worth the effort.
2 cups masa harina
1 (10.5 ounce) can beef broth
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 (4 ounce) jar diced pimento, drained
1 cup of annatto oil
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients, adding more broth as necessary to form spongy dough.
1 1/4 pounds pork loin
1 large onion, halved
1 clove garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 can tomato paste
2 cups water
Place meat into a Dutch oven with onion, garlic, salt, tomato paste and add water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is cooked through, about 2 hours. Spread the dough out over a 12 x 12 piece of banana leaf and press to less than 1/4 inch thickness and 5-6 inches in diameter. Place 2 tablespoons of the meat filling into the center (I added cheddar cheese on top of the meat). Fold the sides of the leaf in toward the center and fold the ends in (similar to wrapping a package). Tie together with string to hold. Place in boiling water for 1 hour.
1 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup annatto seeds
In a small saucepan, combine the oil and annatto seeds and bring to a simmer over low heat. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let the oil cool completely, about 30 minutes. Strain the Annatto Oil into a jar.
Annatto seeds are also known as onoto or achiote seeds. The seeds are used throughout Latin America to add a red color to sautéed foods, stews, rice and corn flower for the masa preparation. It can be used as you would use saffron. Annatto seeds are available at grocery stores and in the Latin section.