I peruse cooking magazines whenever I am in a rut with my repertoire of dishes. Last summer, I found a recipe for green plantain tamales in Saveur's May/June 2002 issue. I hadn't made tamales before, but Saveur's recipes have been foolproof for me. I decided to give it a try and put my shopping list together. One of the ingredients is culantro. Having no idea what this herb is, I asked a Puerto Rican friend about it (not telling him the dish I was making is Cuban).
"Oh! Culantro! I have not seen it here. I tried to bring some back from Puerto Rico, but it didn't make it," said Vern.
I Googled it and found pictures of a plant with small dandelion-like leaves. I then made the rounds of my favorite Asian grocery stores in Seattle's International District and found it at Viet-Wah. The leaves are packed with a cilantro-like flavor plus a hint of resin.
Shopping for seeds last winter, I found a source for culantro seed through Johnny's Selected Seeds. Even though it only costs 99 cents per bag in the store, I decided to grow my own culantro. And, I could surprise Vern with his very own plant.
Culantro (Eryngium foetidum) is in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and related to Sea-Holly (Eryngium maritimum). It produces a rosette of leaves and the flowers emerge from the base. I started the seeds in early spring, and I had plants ready to use by mid-June. They are growing in regular potting soil in a shady spot where the slugs can't get to them. I lost three whole plants to slugs! I remove the flower stalks to keep the plant going through the season. Vern was surprised when I presented him with his own culantro plant, and he gives me an update on how it's growing whenever I see him.
Last weekend, I made the tamales again--a 4-hour process, but they are so good. The first time I made them, the mixture was similar to pancake batter that I was sure they wouldn't turn out. I added masa harina to half the batch; making them easier to work with. I think they are better and more sweeter without it. This time I used my home grown culantro. Pictures of the tamale making and the final dish with prawns in a coconut sauce (another Cuban recipe from this Saveur) follows. You can also use culantro when cilantro is called for. Just remember that a couple leaves go a long way.
The flavors blending on the stove for the plantain tamale batter.
Batter is placed at one end of the banana leaf, rolled up, and tied at both ends.
Banana leaf-wrapped tamale will be wrapped in foil and steamed for 1 hour.
I did a second batch a couple days later. The batter thickened up and didn't need to be wrapped in foil. Here they are in the steamer--I used my large stainless steel colander.
Tamales underneath coconut prawns. Delicious!