Breaking the mold – a Mexican Casserole

I’m always surprised when I hear people say they don’t like casseroles, but then I realize they are talking about those canned cream soup, crumbled hamburger, frozen vegetable, and Tater Tot concoctions.  Unfortunately, somehow that is my husband’s frame of reference, and it’s a hard sell to whip up enthusiasm for a casserole around here.  Nevertheless, when I saw a recipe in the Washington Post for a Meaty Tamal Casserole, I had a feeling about it.  The recipe was part of an article by Patricia Jinich, chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC.  She also appears on the PBS program Pati’s Mexican Table and has a website/blog.  Periodically, Pati and the Mexican Cultural Institute put on a popular Mexican cooking demonstration and tasting dinner, and one of Kara’s birthday presents from us this year was a ticket to the March demo and dinner (which will be the topic of a post in the near, near future).

The combination of ingredients in Pati’s casserole recipe sounded wonderful, but I happened to glance at the comments after the article and one reader pointed out the calorie count – 740 per serving (!).  Now, my philosophy is everything in moderation, but I decided to lighten the recipe up some.  My first thought was to substitute vegetables for some of the meat, and I also used a trick I learned from Sonia Ortiz of Cocina al Natural and made the masa by combining equal amounts of yogurt and masa harina plus some water to get the right consistency.  It worked perfectly and made a big difference in calories – I used 1½ cups whole-milk yogurt (about 225 calories) for eight generous servings, while the original recipe used 1¼ cups butter (more than 2,000 calories) plus a quart of chicken broth for 12 servings.  I’m not a dietician, but I estimate just using the yogurt instead of butter and broth saved around 250 calories per serving.



I was scaling the recipe down in quantity as well as calories, and the first time I made it I used 2½ cups of masa harina.  We really liked the casserole but the masa layers were a lot thicker than needed, so on my second attempt I cut back to 1½ cups and that was just right for my big oval casserole dish.  I used ground beef the first time around, and this last time I used some leftover cooked chicken.  I liked the chicken even better, but if you want to go with beef, use a pound of extra-lean ground (browned and drained), and swap beef broth for the chicken broth.  For the vegetables, choose something fairly sturdy, because the casserole filling will bake inside the masa for an hour and you don’t want the vegetables to turn to mush.  We really liked the carrot and chayote combination – chayote is a mild-flavored squash and it keeps its texture during long cooking much better than zucchini.  You could also use frozen corn and peas, added to the filling mixture right before you pour it into the masa-lined casserole dish.  In this recipe, I think it’s nice to have at least part of the vegetables be something slightly sweet, so other good choices would be some kind of winter squash or red bell peppers, and you could round it out with green beans or mushrooms.

Before I get to the recipe, just a note about the seasoning: the dried chiles give a wonderful flavor and texture to the sauce, and you really can’t get the same consistency with chili powder.  The taste is full-bodied but still quite mild, so if you want more of a tongue tingle, blend in a couple of canned chipotles in adobo in addition to the guajillos and anchos.  I adjusted some of the other seasonings to suit my preference (just a little garlic in a seasoning blend, no cloves, etc.), and it also seemed to take a fair amount of salt (but I didn’t measure).  The raisins and olives are key components; I used a mix of golden and black raisins, and I didn’t have pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives so I used the rest of a jar of black olives that had been hanging around in the fridge since Christmas.  The olives turn sort of fruity tasting when cooked, and the raisins lend the perfect note of sweetness.

Chicken Tamal Casserole
Adapted from a recipe by Pati Jinich of Pati’s Mexican Table

For the filling:

  • 4 guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed
  • 4 ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 to 2½ cups vegetables (any combination) cut in bite-size pieces – I used two sliced carrots and a sliced chayote
  • 1½ cups chicken broth
  • 2 to 3 cups cooked chicken, diced
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped black olives
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts (slivered almonds like in the original recipe would be good but I didn’t have any)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon seasoning blend, such as Goya Adobo (or use some oregano and fresh garlic)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For the masa:

  • 1½ cups masa harina
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ cups plain yogurt (I used 3.5% fat)
  • ½ cup water or more if needed
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder, if desired (I used several shakes of Don Enrique Pico de Gallo seasoning blend)

In a heavy 3-quart or larger dry saucepan, toast the chiles over medium heat until they become fragrant, turning frequently.  Add the two cups hot water, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes until the chiles are very soft (stir occasionally).  Pour the chiles and water into a blender and let cool while you are making the rest of the filling.

In the same saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions until they are tender and golden; remove from the pan and set aside.  Pour the chicken broth into the pan and add the carrots.  Heat to a simmer and cook for about five minutes, then add the chayote and cook for another five minutes, or until the vegetables are crisp-tender.

Blend the chiles until you have a smooth puree.  Pour the mixture into the saucepan, add the cooked onions and the rest of the filling ingredients, and season to taste.

If you plan to bake the casserole right away, heat the oven to 400 F. while you are mixing the masa.

Baking dish prep: this quantity was just right for my Corning 2.8 liter oval casserole (about 8 x 11 x 3 inches).  If the dish you choose doesn’t have a lid, you can use heavy foil to seal tightly during baking.  The first time I made the casserole I had trouble getting the top layer of masa on evenly, so I experimented and came up with an easy solution.  Trace the outline of the baking dish on a piece of baking parchment and cut it out – you’ll spread the masa on the parchment to get a smooth thin layer (you could also use a banana leaf if available, and that would give a nice additional subtle fragrance and flavor to the masa topping).  Spray the casserole dish generously with cooking spray.

To make the masa, combine the masa harina with the salt, baking powder, soda, and chili powder (if desired).  Stir in the yogurt and water, beating well.  The mixture should be light and fluffy, so add more water if needed.


Spread about a third of the masa mixture on the parchment paper, using a butter knife or small silicon spatula.  Spread the rest of the masa in the casserole dish – it is easiest if you do the bottom first and then the sides, and it doesn’t matter if the mixture doesn’t go all the way up the sides.


Pour the filling into the masa-lined dish, then flip the parchment over onto the filling (just take a deep breath, aim, and flip).  Leave the parchment on during baking, and it will peel right off when the masa is done.  Put the lid on or cover tightly with foil – just like with traditional tamales, the masa is cooked with steam.


At this point you can go ahead and bake the casserole or refrigerate it for up to a day.  If you are preparing the dish ahead of time, remove it from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you plan to put it in the oven.   Bake at 400 F. for an hour, then carefully pull off the parchment (watch out for hot steam), put the lid back on, and let it sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes before serving.

This casserole is nothing like the school cafeteria chili con carne topped with cornbread “tamale pie” from my childhood.  I already mentioned my husband’s normal reaction to casseroles, but this meal prompted contented sighs and repeated exclamations of “This is amazing!”  I tend to be skeptical about claims that a dish is even better after a day or two, but in this case it is true.  The first day, there were occasional slightly sweet bites, but by the next day the flavor from the raisins had permeated the sauce and created an even more delicious blend.  I felt a little guilty eating the leftovers in front of my office mates after they both commented on how good it smelled.  This is Mexican comfort food at its best – I hope you’ll give it a try!


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