February 2010

Tamales are so much work.  There’s the pork braising, the lard whipping, the husk soaking, the bundle tying, the hour-long steaming.  Delicious, to be sure, but not something I’d attempt at home more than once every decade or so.

A tamale pie, however, combines the best parts of the tamale — the soft, fluffy masa dough and the saucy, spicy filling — in a big, weeknight-friendly casserole.

My version is lard-free and heavy on the vegetables.  Masa harina is available in most larger grocery stores, but if you can’t find it you can top the pie with cornbread batter instead.  A cornbread-topped pie takes about 35 minutes to cook and is done when lightly browned on top and a toothpick inserted in the center of the casserole comes out clean.

Tamale pie

Yield:  13 x 9-inch casserole, serving 6-8

For filling:

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 Spanish onion, finely chopped

12 oz. mushrooms, sliced

2 zucchini, cut into 1/2″ dice

3 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 tbsp. paprika

1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

15 oz. can fire-roasted, diced tomatoes (with or without green chiles)

3 c. shredded, cooked chicken, turkey, or pork

15 oz. can kidney or pinto beans, rinsed and drained

2 c. chicken stock

2 tbsp. cornstarch

For topping:

2 c. masa harina (corn flour)

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 c. cold butter (I use Earth Balance), cut into pieces

1 c. corn kernels (thawed, if frozen)

2 c. chicken stock

Make filling:

Warm a large, straight-sided skillet or dutch oven over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onion.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes.  Raise heat to medium-high and add mushrooms, zucchini, and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper.  Stir in paprika, oregano, and cumin, and cook until mushrooms have released their liquid and most of that liquid has evaporated, at least 5 minutes more.  Stir in cider vinegar, tomatoes, chicken, beans, and all but 1/4 c. of the stock.

Make a slurry by whisking cornstarch with reserved 1/4 c. stock until dissolved.  When filling in skillet comes to a boil, whisk in cornstarch.  Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 2 minutes.  Taste and season with additional salt and pepper as needed.  Set aside.

Make topping:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In the work bowl of a food processor, combine masa, baking powder, and salt.  Pulse to evenly combine.  Add butter and pulse until well incorporated.  The mixture will resemble wet sand.  (If you don’t have a food processor, use a pastry blender or your fingers to cut the butter into the masa.)  Add the corn and the stock and process until evenly moistened.  The mixture should be soft, light, and spreadable.

Lightly oil a 13 x 9-inch baking dish.  Pour in filling, then spread masa topping over the top.  I find the best way to do this is to drop small spoonfuls all over the surface of the filling, then use a rubber spatula to gently smooth the surface.  Don’t worry if the filling isn’t entirely covered, but do try to spread the masa layer to an even thickness.

Cover casserole with foil and bake for 40 minutes.  Uncover and continue baking 10-15 minutes more or until filling is bubbling around the edges and masa topping is set in the center and lightly golden in color. (If you’re not sure, pick up a bit of topping from the center of the pie — if it’s still raw underneath, return to the oven for 10 minutes more.)

Let sit 10-15 minutes before serving.  Tamale pie keeps well in the fridge for about 4 days, though the tamale topping won’t be as fluffy when reheated.  Reheat individual servings, covered with a damp paper towel, in the microwave.

Make it meatless:

Use vegetable stock instead of chicken.  Omit the shredded meat and add an additional 3 cups chopped vegetables, beans, and/or tofu.  Try, alone or in combination:

∙ Eggplant, peeled, diced, and added to the pan along with the zucchini and mushrooms.

∙ Butternut squash, peeled, seeded, diced small, and added to the pan with the zucchini and mushrooms.  Before adding the cornstarch slurry, test a piece of squash for doneness.  If it’s not tender, simmer filling a few minutes longer before you thicken it.

∙ Fresh or frozen corn kernels, added to the pan just before the cornstarch slurry.

∙ Whatever cooked beans (or lentils) you have on hand.  A 15 oz. can contains about 1 ½ cups of beans.

∙ Firm tofu, drained, pressed, diced, and added to the pan along with the beans.


A few tablespoons of non-dairy milk and a little extra baking powder replace eggs in this tender sugar cookie.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Egg-free, dairy-free sugar cookies

Yield:  Depends on the size of your cutters

2 1/2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

Scant 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1 c. Earth Balance Buttery Sticks or dairy-free margarine

1 c. granulated sugar

3 tbsp. soy or rice milk

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl.  Stir well with a whisk.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream Buttery Sticks or margarine and sugar until very light and fluffy, scraping bowl and beater occasionally, about 5 minutes.  Add milk and vanilla and mix until well combined.  Scrape bowl.  With mixer running on low speed, add flour in three additions.  Mix until just combined.  Divide dough into two balls, flatten into discs, and wrap tightly in plastic.  Refrigerate at least one hour or up to three days, or freeze for up to three months.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.  On a floured counter, with a floured pin, roll one dough disc to 1/8-inch thickness.  Cut out cookies, placing cutters as close together as possible.  Using an offset spatula, transfer cookies to baking sheet.  Gather scraps, re-roll, cut more cookies.  Repeat with remaining dough disc.

Bake cookies 8-10 minutes, until centers are set and edges are golden.  Let cool briefly on pan, then remove to a wire rack.

Snowy, gray February days cry out for comfort food.  In this simplified version of a classic pot pie, tender, fluffy biscuits become dumplings as they settle into a rich stew of chicken and vegetables.  Cook the filling ahead of time, if you like, and let it reheat on the stove top as you make the biscuits.  We ate this tonight with braised greens, but a simple salad would be just as nice.

Chicken and biscuit pie

Yield:  Serves 6

For chicken filling:

8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or use 4 c. shredded, cooked chicken)

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

3 1/2 c. chicken stock

2 tbsp. olive oil

3 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

2 stalks celery, thinly sliced

1 Spanish onion, finely chopped

1 tsp. finely chopped, fresh thyme leaves

3 tbsp. butter (or dairy-free alternative)

1/3 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

3/4 c. frozen peas

For biscuit topping:

1 1/2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

1 tbsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

4 tbsp. cold butter (or dairy-free alternative)

1 c. cow’s or unsweetened soy milk (or 3/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. unsweetened rice milk)

Make chicken filling:

If using chicken thighs, arrange them in a single layer in a large skillet.  Season with salt and pepper, then pour in stock (stock should just cover chicken).  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.  Remove chicken from stock, let sit until cool enough to handle, then dice or shred into bite-sized pieces.  Set aside.

Warm a large saucepan over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add carrots, celery, and onion.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender, about 8 minutes.  Stir in thyme and a pinch of salt and cook one minute more.  Remove vegetables from pan and set aside.

Return saucepan to heat and add butter.  When butter is melted, sprinkle in flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes.  Slowly add chicken stock, whisking constantly to prevent lumps.  Bring to a boil, then simmer gently for a few minutes until thickened.  Stir in peas and a few grindings of black pepper.  Taste and add additional salt if necessary.  Pour filling into a shallow, two-quart casserole or gratin dish and set aside.

Make biscuit topping:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl.  Stir well with a whisk.  Using a pastry blender (or whatever method you like best), cut butter into dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Stir in milk until just combined.

Drop biscuit dough by the heaping spoonful onto the filling.  Try to evenly distribute the dough over the casserole, but don’t worry about covering it completely.  Bake for 30 minutes or until filling is bubbling and biscuits are lightly browned.

Make it gluten-free: Replace the 1/3 c. all-purpose flour in the filling with 1/4 c. potato flour (NOT potato starch), and watch the butter/flour mixture carefully as it cooks — potato flour browns very quickly.   You can top the casserole with gluten-free biscuit dough and bake it as a pie, but I prefer baking gluten-free biscuits separately and then serving them with the filling.  Either way, here’s the recipe:

Gluten-free, dairy-free drop biscuits

Yield:  Makes about 15 biscuits

1 c. superfine brown rice flour

1/3 c. sweet rice flour

1/3 c. tapioca starch

1/3 c. potato starch

4 tsp. baking powder

3/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 tsp. xanthan gum

1/4 tsp. baking soda

4 tbsp. cold, non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening

1 c. unsweetened rice milk

1 tbsp. honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Sift together flours, starches, baking powder, salt, xanthan gum, and baking soda.  Stir well with a whisk.  Using a pastry blender (or whatever method you like best), cut shortening into dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Combine rice milk and honey, stirring well with a rubber spatula until honey dissolves.  Pour into flour mixture and stir well with a wooden spoon until evenly combined and thickened.  Drop dough by the large spoonful onto lined baking sheet, spacing biscuits about 2 inches apart.  Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned around the edges.  Serve warm.

Silky smooth, rich and creamy, and very easy.  Serve with crusty bread and a spinach salad.

Butternut squash soup with bacon

Adapted from The Naked Beet

Yield:  Makes about 3 quarts

6 slices thin-cut bacon

1 Spanish onion, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced

1 heaping tsp. minced fresh sage or thyme leaves

1 large butternut squash (3-4 lbs.), peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped

About 6 c. chicken stock

1 tbsp. brown sugar

1 tsp. cider vinegar

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Fry bacon in large soup pot or dutch oven over medium heat until crisp.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  Crumble bacon and set aside.

Pour off all but about 1 1/2 tbsp. bacon fat from pot and return to stove.  Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft and lightly browned, about 8 minutes.  Add sage or thyme and cook 1 minute more.  Pour in 1 cup of the stock and raise heat to high.  Using a wooden spoon, scrape browned bits off bottom of pot.  Add squash and enough stock to just cover vegetables.  Season with salt.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until squash is very tender, about 20 minutes.  Remove from heat.

When soup has cooled slightly, puree in batches in a blender or food processor.  Return to pot, add brown sugar, vinegar, and a few grindings of black pepper.  Taste and adjust seasoning or thin with additional stock as needed.

Serve hot, garnished with crumbled bacon.