Sunday, November 2, 2008

Tamale Pie that Tastes like Real Tamales

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 put a large roasting pan in the oven. Then I put the uncovered tamale casserole in the pan and poured about 2 inches of very hot water in. I covered both the casserole & roaster with one layer of heavy duty aluminum foil. I baked it a little over 45 minutes, until the masa was set. I 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 Masa Crust
(Printable Recipe)

Tamale Dough:

2 cups Masa Harina
2 cups lukewarm NSA 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 (I used my Danish dough whisk). Cover & let rest for at least 15 minutes at room temperature so the dough can thoroughly absorb the moist ingredients.

Pork Filling:

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 NSA broth
1 teaspoon salt-free chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons Wondra flour mixed with 1/4 cup water
1 cup water or NSA broth if needed

Remove excess fat from meat. Place meat, canned 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, no thicker. 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. Place the two pans on an oven rack. Pour very hot water into the outer pan, filling with about 2 inches of very hot water. Seal the the large pan with 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.

Chili Gravy
(Printable Recipe)

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
2 cups water or NSA 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 NSA 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.


Lucy said...

This looks wonderful and I do believe you've got it! I've never attempted making tamales myself, but your method does seem doable for sure.

I like the fact that you've removed the lard and shortening, items I don't use. And when I have them out on occasions, I won't think about it.

Great recipe!!

OhioMom said...

WOW! I have made the tamale pie with regular cornbread, but this looks so fab, I've never made tamales either.

shambo said...

Thanks for your comments. This really did taste great. I was pleasantly surprised. Now I can have the true tamale flavor without the laborious task of making up all those individual tamales. If something is too labor intensive, I usually don't make it. That's why I only fix stuffed grape leaves once a year!

Sarah T. said...

I LOVE Tamale Pie!

Curator said...

This recipe looks delicious! I cant wait to try it! Although im going to use the lard, and probably twice the amount of sauce, but thats so I can use the extra sauce for other dishes, like making pork enchiladas or tacos...mmm.... Im reeeeaaaaly looking forward to trying this, im getting hungry just thinking about it, thanks for the recipe!

James said...

Lucy mentions that she is glad that it leaves out the lard. The recipe calls for oil, but doesn't say what kind.

Lard is less saturated than either butter or shortening. I is more saturated than most oils and margarines, but it's reputation is worse than reality.

shambo said...

James, the recipe calls for any light flavored oil. It's your choice. Corn oil, canola, all purpose vegetable oil, or even light olive oil would work well here.

I agree that lard has gotten a bad rap over the years. I wanted an oil recipe just because I always have oil on hand and I think it's easier to work with than lard and/or shortening.

Letha Hansen said...

This turned out AMAZINGly well. So much easier than spreading and wrapping in corn husks. We tried it in muffin tins and love the individual size. Tonight we are making it for the second time and are using green chili enchilada sauce instead of red. We have done a beef roast both times and we still add pieces of potato, carrot, a strip of jalapeƱo, and a green olive or two just like we would for regular tamales. So pleased, thanks for the innovation.

shambo said...

Letha, what a great idea! Individual tamales in muffin tins!

I'm glad the recipe inspired you. I'm another fan of green enchilada sauce, so I'll have to try that variation.

Thanks for your comments.

Mrs Potashman said...

I am a native los angelino transplanted to Boston and I am so glad I found this posting. #1) I loved Tommy's growing up...thanks for the memory. #2) I am so excited to try this. The Steaming of the pie is similar to the way Chi-Chi's makes it sweet corn cake. thank you so much!

Lili said...

omg! this stuff is so good my family is going to lynch me for more!

Anonymous said...

After living in Australia for 40 years, I still have a Tommy's chilli burger and tamale whenever I go back. I'm trying this recipe right now!

Anonymous said...

Never heard of Tommy's; must have been in a different part of town. My uncle George though was in charge of the suovlaki bbq pits at the Greek Easter picnics ... but that's another story. I grew up in East LA in the 40s on a steady diet of tamales and high school tamale pie. Tried using masa before but never worked right until I tried steaming with this recipe. Worked well but it took well over 1hr to firm-up.

I also stopped using salt 30 years ago.

Mary said...

Tried this tonight served over chopped romaine and it was a hit. Added chopped poblanos to the sauce and black beans in the casserole, with some cheese melted on top for my heathen children! The whole family loved it and no one noticed it was low salt, though my husband was compelled to add more hot sauce. The steaming was spot on; no dried out cakiness at all. Thanks for the recipe!

Anonymous said...

Just made this recipe with some minor changes as far as fillings go.... But it was sooo good it was my first time making masa and it turned out great and looks amazing .... It's cooking so wee will see if it taste half as good as it looks lol but thank u for the recipe


Jasmine said...

I've made this in cupcake tins like another review suggested for the second time now...just amazing! It was difficult to find recipes for tamale pie that included the masa. Thank you so much for posting! My whole family loves it. :)

Anonymous said...

I am making this recipe for my third time and we simply love it.

shambo said...

Wow! I'm so happy you're enjoying this recipe. I'm a true tamale lover but am definitely too lazy to do the necessary work. This is a pretty good shortcut.

Maryet said...

Thanks for all your work on this. in town, for $1 each, I can get the best, real tamales but don't eat the meat, just the dough. I am addicted!! I can't wait to try your low salt recipe and use some sort of bean and cheese filling instead of meat. Thanks for sharing.

shambo said...

Jasmine, what a clever idea. The individual servings make it more like real tamales.

shambo said...

Maryet, I think beans & cheese sounds yummy. I'm with you, I love tamales, but low sodium ones are impossible to find. So it's make it yourself. This tamale pie captures the flavor of real tamales without all the work, so it's a good alternative to the real thing.

Anonymous said...

Sounds great. I may make it in a crockpot though. The masa steams very well except i am not sure how the bottom layer would turn out. I also use instant masa and just add water.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to make this using corn husks to cover the casarole, maybe giving it more of a true tamale flavor and covering the roasting pan with the aluminum foil. Thank you for the receipe.


shambo said...

Using corn husks is a great idea. I think the keys are making sure the masa mixture is not too dry to start with and keeping the masa layers on the thin side. You can use your favorite filling too. Good luck with the recipe.

Fortune Cookies said...

I do make tamales, having been raised in a Mexican family who regularly get together for weekend long tamale making parties. It's great fun, when you have an army of aunts and cousins to help. On your own, it is a task to embark upon. I had the same, "I want tamales, without all that hassle" thought as you. I'm so glad I found your blog while searching a reasonable way to utilize my Masa Harina into tamale pie.

shambo said...

Fortune, I can only imagine how much fun it is to make tamales when it's a family affair. This casserole is not a perfect solution, but it's pretty good when you want tamales and follow a low sodium diet.

I really like the taste of masa harina, so I use it as a thickener for chili con carne, chicken tortilla soup, pork chili verde, and anything that has a South-of-the-Border flair to it.

horsecrazy said...

I can't eat tamales in a restaurant since I'm gluten intolerant. I made this for dinner tonight with a gluten free flour blend and it was fantastic. Thanks for posting this, I will definitely be making this again.

shambo said...

Horsecrazy, I'm glad you enjoyed the tamale pie.

Nina Baldwin said...

you're right...the taste of real masa is fabulous compared to the tamale recipes calling for a cornmuffin mix...another excellent way to use the masa is as a thickener in soups!!! it adds so much flavor! i just keep it in one cup servings in plastic in my freezer...can't wait to try the muffin tin tamales...great idea!! thanks so much for the recipe and ideas!!

shambo said...

Nina, I do the same as you. I use masa for thickening my homemade chili and also for chicken tortilla soup. It adds a wonderful authentic flavor. Much better tasting than other thickeners.

Bernade said...

I have searched and searched today for an alternative way of cooking tamales and did not want yellow cornmeal mixture glad to have found your recipe..i can not wait to try it out. I love the corn taste of tamales..I bought a bag of masa flour and cant wait to use it!!
Thank you

Anonymous said...

For the top, try parchment paper. I've made tamales once before, using corn husks, so I knew how to smear the masa. Try cutting a piece of parchment to the size of your pan. Working from the center out, smear the masa on the parchment, working your way to the edges. Then flip the masa side on top of the tamale pie. Push down to make a seal. Bake with the parchment on top, using the above instructions. There will be a little water on top from the steam, when you pull it out of the oven. I just soaked it up with a napkin before pealing the paper off. It was perfect. Thanks for the recipe, I was out of Crisco.

shambo said...

That's a great idea! That would keep it from getting too dry and be easier to deal with when spreading the top layer. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I've made this recipe a few times now and I love how the masa turns out. I don't like tamale casseroles that use cornmeal. Thanks for the great idea!

shambo said...

I'm glad you enjoy the recipe. I really have a fondness for the flavor of masa. I use it for thickening chili and also chicken tortilla soup.

Anonymous said...

It's much safer to put the casserole in a larger DRY pan. Cover the whole thing with foil except for a folded-back corner.
Boil a pan of water and pour in the corner. Tap down, and done.
Moving big pans of hot water is no bueno.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your recipe after doing a search for low sodium tamale pie. Your's popped up as a very well documented recipe and how exactly to make it. Thank you for that!

My son suffers Meniere's so everything I cook has to be thought out with regards to low sodium content (not to mention I am sixty six and know I need to watch my sodium intake). On the other hand, I am a huge fan of tamale pie, though never truly enjoyed the cornmeal variety. Like you, I love tamales so this recipe is a God send. I made it as prescribed but added some fresh corn and sliced olives since that is what I am used to in a tamale pie. Otherwise I made it exactly as prescribed. What a fabulous recipe! The entire family loved it. Great taste! The Masa Harina and the steamed in the oven make it perfect!

Thank you for sharing your recipe.


shambo said...

Don, thank you for your kind comments. And I'm glad your family enjoyed the recipe. I certainly can understand your desire for real tamales. I love them. But finding some low sodium tamales? No such luck! So this recipe is a pretty decent alternative.

I like your additions of corn & olives.I buy the low sodium Lindsay black olives from Healthy Heart Market specifically for enchiladas, tacos, and other Mexican favorites.

Good luck with your low sodium cooking. I know that such a diet has brought relief to several Meniere's sufferers.

flora said...

What is wonka flour? I would like to try this recipe.

John Padron said...

This recipe was fantastic! Made tamales first time this weekend and they came out good but then I decided to try this to avoid using parchment paper to roll the tamales and thsee came out better. I will never roll another tamale again! Great job!

Rachel said...

Delicious! Thank you sooo very much for sharing!

Linda said...

Hi! could I steam this a day ahead then reheat in the microwave? Sounds delicious-- I have already made the pork filling and it is very tasty. Linda

shambo said...

Flora, Wondra flour is made by Gold Medal. It's a quick mixing flour that's good for gravies and sauces because it dissolves quickly without lumps. It's very finely ground and includes malted barley flour.

shambo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shambo said...

Rachel & John, thanks for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the tamale casserole.

shambo said...

Linda, I don't see why you couldn't reheat the tamale pie in the microwave. I'd try a little lower setting to avoid drying it out. Also, you could lightly spray a bit of water on it before reheating.

Cindy said...

I grew up in So. Calif where tamales are everywhere. I learned there to add a dollop of sour cream, grated cheese, and olives after the filling was added. Mama Mia

shambo said...

Sounds good to me. I grew up in LA too. My uncle started a chain of hamburger stands featuring a chili sauce similar to Xlnt. It was served over hamburgers, hot dogs, & Xlnt tamales. I especially loved the tamales.

__Diane__ said...

I looked all over the internet for a tamale pie. Most were baked and I didn't want a biscuit like crust, but one that tasted like the steamed masa in a true tamale. My tamale masa gets rave reviews from family and friends. Not having enough corn husks to make a batch, I looked for something else to use up some left over port roast and gravy. I am going to line the casserole dish with soft/damp corn husks, then add the masa, filling and a top of more masa and will again cover the top with more husks. Then steam/bake the pie and hope for the best. Will serve with left over gravy and hot sauce, garden fresh tomatoes and cukes on the side.

shambo said...

I bet it will taste wonderful. I think lining the casserole, top & bottom, with the corn husks will make a big difference. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I tried this masa recipe using my Instant Pot and it was fantastic!! I cut the oil by half and added more salt to the masa dough, along with some cumin. I used store bought, standard maseca brand masa harina and corn oil, with plain old ta water. My filling was just mashed black beans flavoured with onions, cumin, garlic, Tapatio hot sauce, and Mexican oregano. The filling is secondary to the dough, I must say. Once I assembled the pie according to the instructions above, I steamed it for 40 minutes in my Instant Pot with a 10 minute natural release. I sprayed the 8 inch diameter glass baking dish with no-name cooking spray. The key is to let it rest for at least 15 minutes before attempting to cut it and eat it. The flavour and texture is almost identical to the tamales I get at the el salvadorean restaurant near my place. The corn flavour is not as deep, given the lack of corn husks, but one could easily line the baking dish with them, or with banana peels, to achieve the same taste. Adding corn kernels to the filling would also work I'm sure. I am very glad I tried this recipe and tweaked it slightly to get the excellent results I did, because I can now recreate the flavours of my favourite restaurant without the cost.

shambo said...

Thank you for sharing your Instant Pot experience. What a great idea! I just got one a month ago, and I'd like to try your method. It combines the ease of a casserole with the benefits of true steaming. I also like the idea of lining the casserole dish with corn husks.

I'm so glad it worked out for you.