First of all, this recipe for super fast, healthy, and delicious vegetarian tamales is NOT traditional! If you are looking for a traditional tamales recipe, just stop reading here! This is a fast, healthy, and easy idea for lunch or dinner that just looks like and is inspired by tamales! Traditional tamales use a masa dough that is most frequently mixed with lots of lard, steamed slowly in the corn husks, and, if you’re lucky, includes ingredients like fresh corn or even huitlacoche. This is very, very different!
(I have to take a quick second to mention again how exciting it is to be able to run outside and grab a bunch of produce from the garden. Napa is paradise!)
Besides tamales themselves, this tamales recipe is also strongly influenced by the flavors that Cindy Pawlcyn uses. Lucky enough to have been one of her sous chefs, I learned so many fun and exciting flavor combinations that few other Chefs work with on a regular basis. Long ago, she had a tamale dish on the menu at one of her restaurants and, though it was very different from this one (and used far more traditional ingredients and technique), I can’t pretend for a moment that this recipe here wasn’t heavily influenced by that dish of hers.
Working for her was such a gift. In her restaurants, we were encouraged to bring dishes to the menu that used ingredients like huitlacoche, masa, queso fresco and oaxaca, wild mushrooms, and dozens of different types of peppers, plus farmers loved to work with her, bringing us the freshest and most exciting local produce imaginable. It was absolutely incredible!
So, inspired both by tradition and by an incredible Chef, here’s a recipe for fast and simple healthy gluten-free vegetarian “tamales” with tons of flavor that are incredibly easy to make and don’t require many special ingredients or tools! If you’re having trouble finding corn husks, try your local Mexican market, or, if necessary, go without. You can use the kale leaves in their place. If you’re looking to make things ahead, by all means make the “dough” and wrap the tamales. You can keep them in the fridge overnight, or keep them warm in a steamer basket until ready to serve. The tomato sauce can also be made the day before. Just heat it before serving!
Fast and Healthy Vegetarian Tamales Recipe with Mushrooms, Kale, and Spicy Tomato Sauce
- 1 cup quick cooking grits
- 3/4 cup water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 pinch chili flakes (Aleppo or Chipotle would be great here)
- 1 dash hot sauce (like Tapatio)
- 1/4 cup cheese (queso fresco was perfect, but shredded Jack would be fine)
- 1 Tbs sour cream
- 4 each dried corn husks, softened in hot water overnight (or at least 1 hour)
- 2 medium to large kale leaves
- 1 Tbs olive oil
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
- 1 dried ancho chili, crumbled (or dried red pepper flakes)
- 1 hot chili, sliced thinly (I used rooster, but ancho, serrano, or even thai bird would be fine)
- 1 habanero pepper, whole (this is totally optional! Serious spice on this one!)
- 1 Tbs tomato paste
- 1 can diced tomatoes
- Salt, Pepper
- 10-12 oz mushrooms, sliced (use your favorite!)
- 1/2 cup kale leaves, tough ribs removed, slice into thin ribbons
- 1 Tbs olive oil
- 1/2 Tbs butter
- Salt, pepper
- Micro (baby) kale, chard, or spinach, or freshly chopped parsley or cilantro
- Put the quick-cook grits, salt, and chili in a bowl.
- Bring the water to a boil and pour over. Mix well.
- Let stand for 5-10 minutes and stir in cheese, hot sauce, and sour cream. Taste and adjust. (Or simply follow the instructions on the package.)
- When cool enough to handle, sprinkle your hands with water (this will help keep the grits from sticking to your hands), shape the dough into balls, place on the kale leaves, and wrap in corn husks. If you are waiting until later to serve, keep the wrapped "tamales" warm until ready to eat.)
- Heat the oil in a pan large enough to hold all of the ingredients over a low heat.
- Add the onions and saute until translucent.
- Add the chilies and garlic and saute until the garlic is soft and translucent.
- Add the tomato paste and stir. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, raise the heat to a low simmer, and cook until reduced by half to two-thirds.
- Taste and season with salt and pepper. (Too acidic? Try adding a pinch of sugar!)
- Heat the oil in a saute pan large enough to hold all of the mushrooms in a single layer over medium-high heat until shimmering.
- Carefully add the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss.
- Let the mushrooms sit until one side is starting to color and toss. Cook until all of the mushrooms are becoming golden on both sides.
- Reduce the heat to low, add the butter, and toss.
- Add the kale, toss briefly, turn off the heat. Taste, and adjust seasoning.
- Spoon the sauce onto a plate.
- Place 1-2 tamales on the sauce.
- Top with mushroom mixture.
- Garnish with fresh herbs. Enjoy!
Still hungry? Check out this recipe for vegetarian avocado and black bean quesadillas!
Looking for a larger pan of comfort food? You might like the Vegetarian Enchiladas with Homemade Red Sauce and Lime Sour Cream or you might just want to check out this list of healthy dinner recipes! On the other hand, you might just want to find a good healthy salad recipe to go with your tamales… Take a look around and let me know if you’re not seeing something that you’re dying to see. That could be the next recipe I decide to tackle.