Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Tamale Pie (no, really)



I still remember when I first got Two Cooks and a Suitcase, the Lupe Pintos cookbook that effectively launched my journey into authentic Mexican food.

Near the beginning Doug Bell and Rhoda Robertson wrote "if you make only one recipe from this book, make tamales or tamale pie". I made both on the same night.

Now, "tamale pie" isn't something I remember eating as a kid. In California we mostly have norteña style tamales with a savoury filling, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed.

But the amazing thing about tamales is that they have about a million variations throughout Mexico.

One of those variations is a kind of tamale pie called Muk-Bil Pollo, typical of the Yucatán.

(The Yucatán is one of the regions where Doug Bell and Rhoda Robertson lived in Mexico; Two Cooks and a Suitcase is teeming with Yucatecan recipes.)

So this year, for día de los muertos, I decided to make a tamale pie as a kind of simplified version of Muk-Bil Pollo.

With limited success.

The main issue with anything tamal-related is time, because you but only have to mix up some tamal dough, but also make a filling, and then the dish will need 45 minutes to an hour's cooking time.

For the pie version, you can dispense with the faff of rolling the tamales into corn husks, but this doesn't save as much time as I'd hoped.

The other issue I had in particular was the filling itself. I read a traditional recipe for Muk-Bil Pollo and found it was another of these achiote-marinated fillings, which I've been eating a lot of recently.

I simplified the dish by omitting the pork (Muk-Bil Pollo is traditionally a combination of chicken and pork) and the banana leaves (again, traditionally you would wrap the pie in a banana leaf before baking it).

Even so, I was cooking for several hours.

The finished dish was good. But it wasn't really great. It was certainly not the best thing I've ever put into a tamal.

However, the kids loved it (I made them a chile-free version); my four-year-old ate about twice as much of it as she usually does of things I cook.

I just kind of ended up wishing it was filled with pollo en salsa verde.

Definitely not pollo en salsa verde
If you want too make this, you'll need to make the filling first.

I poached some chicken breasts with a quartered white onion, 3 cloves of garlic, 10 black peppercorns, and a teaspoon of Mexican oregano.

Then I shredded the chicken and reserved the stock for the tamal dough.

I roasted some red, yellow and green bell peppers on a hot dry frying pan until they blackened a bit, then cut them into strips (rajas).

I made a sauce by reconstituting two chiles guajillos and blending them with one recipe of recado rojo, adding enough of the chiles' soaking water to make it a loose, pourable sauce.

Then I diced half a red onion and sweated it for a few minutes in a frying pan over medium high.

Then I added the rajas and fried them a few minutes more.

Then I added the shredded chicken and fried it until the chicken took on some texture.

Then I added the sauce and continued cooking until everything was heated through.

For the tamal dough, I sifted 300 g of masa harina with 1/3 tsp of baking powder.

Then I poured in 150 g of melted butter (you can also use pork lard) and mixed it gently until it was fully incorporated.
Then I gradually poured in 250 mL of chicken stock, mixing all the time, until I had a soft dough.

Then I greased a casserole dish, lined the bottom and sides with dough about 5 cm thick.

Then I added the filling and covered it with the remaining dough. This is hard, because if you pat the dough down too hard the filling will squidge out.

Cover the dish and bake at 180° C for 45 minutes.

I sold this to my kids as "Mexican cornbread", and it does have a "breadier" texture than steamed tamales, verging on being too dry. It's possible I overbaked it slightly, or perhaps if I'd used the banana leaves I could have preserved some of the moisture.

In any case, I have to admit I still prefer steamed tamales, especially considering that tamale pie isn't much less work.

If you're going to spend three straight hours in the kitchen you might as well have classic tamales.

I served the tamale pie with some salsa verde I got from La Costeña, which was very good and the perfect complement to the richness of the filling.

On the side I whipped up a "winter salad" of watercress, avocado, sliced radish, satsumas, and pomegranates, with a dressing of lime juice, extra virgin olive oil, and minced shallot. Delicious!

This was the highlight of the meal.
Next year I think I'll opt for pumpkin and chorizo tamales. Can't go wrong with that!

By the way: if you wanna have a go at this but don't wanna use the same filling, try poaching the chicken and prepping the rajas as above, but fry them in salsa verde (store-bought or homemade) instead of the achiote sauce. You can even loosen it up with a bit of crema or sour cream. Simple but delicious.

And on a final geeky note, in Spanish, the singular of tamales is tamal, but in English tamale is an acceptable singular.