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Carb Solutions: Cinco de Mayo Tamales!

Image of Chicken & Pepper Jack Cheese
By Dennis Linden

Over half of the U.S. adult population, some 154 million, qualify as being overweight or obese. Another 29 million of us have Diabetes, many as a direct result of being overweight. Then there are the 23.9 million overweight children who are dutifully following the example of their XXL adult role models. Diabetes and these extra pounds cost this country billions annually in both medical and economic resources; not to mention the affect these weight-related maladies have on a person’s overall mental well-being and happiness. However, both diabetes and being overweight are very manageable, even preventable, with a few lifestyle tweaks. By maintaining a sensible diet in conjunction with some consistent exercise, no matter how minimal, we can all be in total control of our own weight. One easy way to start taking that control is to make decisions about the foods we eat based on the glycemic index [GI] and glycemic load [GL].

Simply put, our bodies convert all foods into sugar calories that provide energy to the body via the blood stream. The Glycemic Index assigns a score of 1 to 100 to all foods based how speedy the body converts that food into sugar. Foods that break down slowly enable the body to assimilate theses calories of energy more efficiently without overwhelming the body with more sugar than it can process. While this is especially important for diabetics who process sugars much slower than others, everyone can benefit from eating foods that have low glycemic scores since they also reduce appetite and encourage the metabolism to burn body fat. Conversely, a diet of foods high on the glycemic charts have been proven to actually increase appetite and impede effective fat oxidation.

A Quickie Glycemic Primer:
  • The glycemic index of a food compares its effect on blood sugar level to that of pure glucose, which has a score of 100. White breads, which are made of processed white flour, are at the top of this scale, scoring a “perfect” 100 on the glycemic index. For perspective, a score of 55 or below denotes a low-glycemic-index food; 70 or above is considered very high. Serving size is not a consideration in arriving at a food’s Glycemic Index number.
  • The glycemic load, on the other hand, focuses on how much digestible carbohydrates (sugars) a food contains in a typical single serving, which is defined as approximately 3.5 ounces. For glycemic load, a score of 20 or more is high, while 10 or less is low.
Tamales have been an iconic dish in Mexican cuisine for centuries and for good reason. Invented by the Aztecs as the first K-ration for their eat-on-the-run army, the simple ingredient combination is hard to beat. Who can resist a slightly flavored masa flour dough stuffed with an almost infinite number of savory filling options, all wrapped in a corn husk, steamed until the dough is cooked through, unwrapped and slathered with guacamole or a favorite salsa! Unfortunately, a dish whose main component is a corn-based dough puts these tasty little packages of goodness out of reach for all diabetics or anyone on a limited carbohydrate diet. Before I was forced to pay close attention to my own blood sugar levels, I made a big batch of tamales twice a year. My friends had come to expect a batch every December during the holiday potluck season--tamales always attract a crowd at a buffet table. Then, each May, I used Cinco de Mayo as a ready-made excuse to soak another pile of corn husks!

I’ve really missed those all-day tamale making sessions and I’m sure that my friends have missed the results! That is, until I bumped into a no-masa flour recipe on the net that comes very close to replicating the traditional original in both flavor and texture! In fact, the only difference I detect is that each of these tamales have only 4g of net carbs, compared to the 16g of net carbs of a typical masa flour original. Plus, to speed up prep and eliminate the waste of soaking corn husks, I have also started using the very convenient pre-moistened husks that are in Melissa’s Tamale Kit. So, having found a great low carb, easy to make “alternative fact”, tamales are back on my menu!

While the many options of tasty fillings are certainly an important component, what makes a really good tamale is a slightly flavorful dough, be it masa or the mix of almond-coconut flours in this feature’s low carb version. While the tastes in the filling takes center stage, the surrounding dough should contribute a subtle, supportive flavor without overpowering the filling. Conversely, a very bland, tasteless dough would take away from the tamale. It’s a fine balance -- detectibly present just enough to complement the filling with each forkful. This can be done by simply adding cumin to flour as well as using chicken broth instead of water. Still, these additives just cannot replicate the unique flavor of corn flour – nothing can. So this recipe lowers the carb count by creating a flour that is “flavored by” corn rather than “made from” it. Enter one can of whole baby corn, which can be found in the canned veggie aisle of most grocers. Build the dough by first whipping the baby corn smooth in a food processor, then slowly blending in the flours, broth and other dough ingredients.

Melissa’s Tamale Kit is still worth its weight in pre-moistened corn husk convenience, even if your doctor or dietician cautions against the equally convenient masa flour mix that comes with the husks. Every tamale recipe starts with the same instructions: “submerge corn husks completely in hot water for 60 minutes.” Sounds simple enough, right? This has always been my least favorite part of the tamale making experience and this kit solves it. In my experience a retail package of dried husks has always been a culinary crapshoot. I know that Ma Nature does not grow corn to cookie cutter specs, but a package of corn husks usually takes the word diversity to a new level! And that range of diversity is never known until AFTER the sixty-minute soak when the peeling away of each husk from the clump starts. That is, carefully separate each husk, then thoroughly examine for tears, slits and irregular size issues that render a husk useable or not. In the end I can usually come up with enough relatively uniform husks between two packages, with enough in the reject pile to make a basket large enough to hold the tamales!

The air-tight package of moistened husks are a gift from the tamale gods. Each husk separates and is amazingly uniform in approximate size. Looks like someone did some initial QC for a change! In fact, this product was obviously designed by someone who knew something about tamale making; while the package says “serves twelve” I counted a much more practical sixteen husks. That’s twelve to fill with dough, two to strip into tie-strings to secure each tamale with two extra for human errors! Seriously, what a great product that gets those tasty little wrappers to the steamer quicker with little fuss and much less waste! And if you are not counting carbs like I am forced to do, the masa mix that is the other half of the kit is wonderfully tasty and quick as a flash to make! O.K., so I just could not resist doing a comparative prep and tasting using both parts of the Melissa’s kit…for the sake of culinary research, of course. The plan was to eat just one to compare and then give the rest away to my tamale-deprived, carb-resistant friends; I was able to stop myself at two--don’t tell them. Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Low Carb Tamales – Chicken & Pepper Jack Cheese
Yield: 12 serving
Image of Ingredients


1 can baby corn
1/3 cup coconut flour
1/3 cup almond flour
½ cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons lard, melted
½ tsp salt
1 TBS cumin


4 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
2 TBS Canola oil
1 fresh green chile pepper, like an Anaheim or Poblano, small diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ yellow onion, finely chopped
1 TBS dried ancho chile, ground fine as possible
1 TBS cumin
At least 12 corn husks

Image of dough
To make the dough: Drain the baby corn and blend in food processor until smooth. Mix in both flours and the melted lard until fully incorporated. Then add in the chicken broth, mix thoroughly, transfer to a bowl and set aside -- given time, the liquid will be fully absorbed by the flours.
Image of cooking chicken
Meanwhile, season chicken thighs with salt and pepper, sauté in oil over medium high heat for about 5 minutes on each side, until chicken is cooked completely. Remove from pan and set aside to cool. Chop into bite-sized pieces. In the same pan used to cook the chicken, add garlic, onion and the pepper to the chicken drippings. Cook for 3 minutes, then add back in the chopped chicken, cumin and ground chile. Cook for another 2-3 minutes. Let cool.
Image of assembling tamales
To build the tamales: Lay one Melissa’s pre-moistened corn husk out flat on a cutting board. Place a large dollop of dough in upper center of husk, then spread out with a flat knife, leaving 1-inch on each side, ½-inch across the top and a good two inches at the bottom so there is enough husk to fold up. Spoon in a tablespoon of the spiced chicken mix down the center of the dough. Pinch and roll the two sides of the husk together tight so the dough completely envelops the mix. Then fold up the bottom end of the husk and tie with piece of corn husk or string to hold the contents inside.
Image of tamales in steamer
Place the tamales upright in a steamer basket over a large pot filled with water, steam tamales over medium heat for 35-40 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then serve.
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