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Slice of Life

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Tamales too tricky? Give them a twist

Every Cinco de Mayo for the past five years, I have tried to make tamales. And every Cinco de Mayo for the past five years, I have failed to make anything that even resembles tamales, or at least the kind I can get at several of my favorite Mexican restaurants.

Maybe it’s the wrappers I use, or that the masa harina (the traditional flour used to make tortillas, tamales and other traditional Mexican dishes) isn’t the right kind, or that I don’t have the right sauce or peppers. Or maybe it’s the recipe. Or, and this is probably it, I have no idea what I’m doing and nobody to show me how to do it (any help for next year gratefully accepted).

So this year, I turned to tamale pies and casseroles. And even though this year’s Cinco de Mayo celebration has passed, don’t pass on these recipes, which can be made any time.

Tamale Casserole

1 large onion, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound lean ground beef or chicken

3 large tomatoes, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons chili powder

4 cups water

1 cup cornmeal

1/2 cup sliced black olives

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Sour cream (optional)

Sliced avocado (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. In a skillet, sauté the onion, green pepper and garlic in the olive oil just until it’s crisp tender. Add the ground beef and cook until it’s no longer pink. Add the tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon chili powder. Mix to combine and then simmer, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes.

Boil 3 cups of water. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining cup of water and the corn meal and mix until all the lumps are gone. Add remaining salt and chili powder to the boiling water, mix briefly and then, stirring constantly, add the water/corn meal mixture to the boiling water. Cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes. Remove the mixture from heat, cover and let cool.

Spoon half of the cornmeal mixture into the pan and spread it across the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Fill with the meat mixture. Sprinkle the sliced black olives and 1/2 the cheese, if using, over the top of the meat mixture. Spread the remaining cornmeal mixture over the top. Bake for 20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top immediately after you take the pie out of the oven. Let sit for 5 minutes, and serve with sour cream and avocados if using. Serves 6 to 8.

Vegetarian Black Bean Tamale Pie

For the filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 red onion, diced

1 green or red bell pepper, diced

1 tablespoon chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup tomato sauce

1/2 cup water

1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 small jalapeno, seeds removed and diced, or 1 4-ounce can chopped green chilies, drained

2 cups frozen corn, thawed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

2 cups grated cheese, cheddar and/or Monterey jack

For the topping:

1 1/2 cups water

1 cup milk

1 cup cornmeal

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 large egg, beaten

1 tablespoon butter, cut into pieces

To make the filling: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat; then add the garlic and onion. Sauté until the onion softens and starts to color, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the bell pepper and sauté until it softens, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the chili powder, cumin and cinnamon; keep stirring to toast the spices, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce, water, drained and rinsed black beans, chilies, corn and salt. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and stir in the chopped cilantro. Pour the mixture into a shallow 2 1/2 -quart baking dish and spread it evenly. Sprinkle the cheese over the top and set aside.

To make the topping: Whisk together the water, milk and cornmeal in a medium saucepan. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking continuously. As the mixture bubbles, keep whisking until it gets very thick and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan (5 to 7 minutes). Remove from heat and whisk in the sugar, salt, baking powder and beaten egg.

Pour the topping over the bean mixture and spread out evenly with a spatula. Dot with the pieces of butter. Place the baking dish on a sheet pan or cookie sheet (just to catch any drips that might bubble over) and bake for 45 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting. Serves 6.

– Submitted by Rene Darsten of Indianapolis – Adapted and modified from “Vegetarian Classics” by Jeanne Lemlin Slice of Life is a food column that offers recipes, cooking advice and information on new food products. It appears Sundays. If you have a question about cooking or a food item, contact Eileen Goltz at or write The Journal Gazette, 600 W. Main St., Fort Wayne, IN 46802.