I love tamales! I've loved them since I first tasted them as a kid. My uncle's first hamburger stand in LA, Tommy's, had a limited menu of chili burgers & cheeseburgers, chili dogs, and tamales -- everything smothered in his special chili sauce. Whenever we'd visit him there, we'd always get a chili cheeseburger and I'd often get an additional tamale for "dessert." My mom would grab a few gigantic onions and humongous beefsteak tomatoes to take home. Me? I'd take home a couple of Xlnt tamales.
Since then I've regularly ordered tamales at Mexican restaurants, picked them up from small stands, and bought them either in the deli or frozen foods section of local grocery stores. However, I've never tried making them myself. I've always assumed it would be too difficult for me to tackle and too much work to motivate me.
I also like traditional tamale pie. It's a very tasty casserole -- a chili flavored hamburger mixture that often includes corn, olives, & sometimes beans nestled underneath a cheesy cornbread topping. Good stuff & very flavorful. Just not true tamale flavor. The most striking difference is that tamales use Masa Harina while tamale pie casserole uses ordinary cornmeal. Masa Harina is specially made from a large kernel corn that is dried and processed with lime; it is used in making tamales and corn tortillas. Also, traditional tamale pie is baked; true tamales are steamed.
I always wondered if there was a way to use true tamale ingredients but to cook them casserole style like tamale pie. I decided to give it a try.
The first thing I did was cook a 3-4 pound pork shoulder roast. I cut it in two gigantic pieces, removed excess fat, and stuck the pieces in my slow cooker. I added a 19 oz. can of Las Palmas red enchilada sauce, a couple of cloves of garlic, a small, finely minced onion, and a teaspoon of cumin. I did not add any additional liquid because slow cookers have a tendancy to make foods too watery. I let everything cook until the pork was falling-apart tender. Then I removed the pork, let it cool a bit, and chunked it up while removing any additional fat I discovered. I used my kitchen scissors to cut longish chunks so that there would be no long strings of meat in the final mixture. I refrigerated the broth & meat separately overnight. The next day I scraped off all the solidified fat from the broth and combined it with the meat, once again, in the slow cooker. I added about two cups of low sodium chicken broth, about a tablespoon of salt-free chili powder, and a 1/2 teaspoon of cumin powder to the mixture. I also added about 3 tablespoons of Wondra flour that had been mixed with about 1/4 cup of water. I cooked the meat mixture in the slow cooker on high for another hour, stirring to shred the meat further, until the mixture was quite thick.
Then I started working on the tamale dough. The masa package recipe called for 2/3 cup lard or vegetable shortening. I didn't want to use either of those ingredients. I don't have any problems with lard. After all, lard, along with butter & olive oil has been used by human beings for thousands of years. I don't care much for vegetable shortening, however, because it's one of those "new-fangled" fats. But my real problem with both those choices is that they needed to be beaten until fluffy. Hey! I'm way too lazy to beat lard or shortening! The whole point of making tamales in a casserole is to cut down work. So I took a cue from Ginger of the Recipe Exchange. Her tamale dough recipe used oil rather than the solid fats.
Once I mixed up the tamale dough, I pressed half of it into a lightly oiled glass casserole dish. I pressed the mixture as evenly as I could on the bottom and up the sides. I spooned in a generous amount of the pork mixture evenly over the dough. I used a slotted spoon so that the filling wasn't too juicy. Then I placed the remaining tamale dough over the filling, trying to make the top portion the same thickness as the bottom. I found the top difficult to spread, so I ended up patting out "blobs"of dough in my hands to get the right thickness before putting them on top.
I did not want to just stick the casserole in the oven & bake it. I knew it would crisp up and not have the nice steamed texture of true tamales. So I baked the casserole in a water bath. I filled a large roasting pan with about 2 inches of very hot water and put the uncovered tamale casserole in the water bath. I covered both the casserole & roaster with one layer of heavy duty aluminum foil and stuck the whole thing in the oven. I baked it a little over 45 minutes, until the masa was set. I removed the entire roasting pan, took off the foil, lifted out the casserole, and let it cool slightly before serving with some chili gravy. The verdict? Yes, I had duplicated true tamale flavor without all the work. I was happy!
Since I had quite a bit of pork left over, a few days later I made tamale pie again. This time I made half the dough recipe and only covered the bottom of the casserole. I wanted to see if I could make the dish a little lighter but still keep the true tamale flavor. It worked out fine too.
Tamale Pie with Steamed Masa Crust
2 cups Masa Harina
2 cups lukewarm broth (I used low sodium chicken broth)
1 teaspoon baking powder (I used Featherweight no sodium baking powder)
1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 cup light flavored oil (I think you could use only 1/3 cup and still get good results)
Combine masa, broth, baking powder, salt, and oil in a large bowl, Mix together until dough has the consistency of soft paste. Cover & let rest for at least 15 minutes at room temperature so the dough can thoroughly absorb the moist ingredients.
1-1/2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder (you may substitute chicken, turkey, or beef)
10 oz. can red chili or enchilada sauce (green chili enchilada sauce would also work well with pork, chicken, or turkey)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1-3 cloves minced garlic
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
2-4 cups water or broth (I used low sodium chicken broth)
1 teaspoon salt-free chili powder (I use Grandma's brand)
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons Wondra flour mixed with 1/4 cup water
1 cup water or broth if needed (I used low sodium chicken broth)
Remove excess fat from meat. Place meat, sauce, onion, garlic, and cumin in dutch oven or slow cooker. (If using slow cooker, use only about 1 - 2 cups water or broth.) Cook over low simmer until meat is quite tender and shreds easily. Remove meat and let cool a bit. Cut meat into large chunks, and discard any fat pockets; refrigerate overnight.
Refrigerate broth overnight too. The next day, remove solidified fat from broth. Combine meat, leftover cooking broth, spices, Wondra flour slurry, and additional broth (if needed). Simmer the mixture, stirring often, until it is quite thick.
Tamale Pie Assembly:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 square ovenproof baking casserole dish.
Press half of the tamale dough into the casserole dish. Press the mixture evenly on the bottom and up the sides, about 1/4 inch thick. Spoon a generous amount of the pork mixture evenly over the dough, being careful not to spoon in too much gravy. (a slotted spoon is helpful here). Spread the remaining tamale dough over the filling, trying to make the top portion the same thickness as the bottom. (As mentioned above, I ended up patting out "blobs"of dough in my hands to get the right thickness.)
Place the tamale casserole into a large roasting pan. Cover both pans with foil, leaving one corner folded back. Place the two pans on an oven rack. Pour very hot water into the exposed corner of the outer pan, filling with about 2 inches of very hot water. Seal the folded back foil.
Bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until the masa is set. Take off the foil and remove the tamale casserole from the roasting pan. Let it cool slightly before serving. Remove the water filled large roasting pan after the oven has cooled off.
Serve warm with chili gravy, sour cream, shredded cheese, chopped onions, salsa, or whatever your heart desires. Leftover pork mixture may be used in tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and tostadas, or frozen for later use.
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (Mexican oregano, if available)
2 tablespoons unsalted chili powder (I use Grandma's brand)
2 cups water or broth (I use low sodium chicken broth)
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the flour and continue stirring for 3 to 4 minutes, or until it makes a light brown roux.
Add all the dry ingredients and continue to cook for 1 minute, constantly stirring and blending ingredients. Add broth or water, mixing and stirring until the sauce thickens. Turn heat to low and let sauce simmer for 10 minutes. Add water to adjust the thickness. Makes about 2 cups.