Hot tamales: Try making the casserole version of this southwest dish at home

Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Butternut Squash Tamales in Cazuela capture the taste of tamales in a casserole.

Where would you go for the best sushi in the world? You might answer Tokyo, but in this era of celebrity chefs, many connoisseurs maintain it's New York -- at the eponymous restaurant run by transplanted Japanese culinary star Nobu Matsuhisa.

Similarly, there is a growing consensus that the best Indian food these days is found not in New Delhi, but, thanks to immigration patterns, in London. Likewise, if you want to experience the finest Indonesian rijsttafel, you'd be well advised to go to Amsterdam, Netherlands, not Jakarta. Dutch colonists, after all, created the dish.

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the best tamales in the world are found not in Latin America, but in Southern California, which, in fairness, was at one time part of Mexico.

I made this discovery on a recent trip to Santa Barbara, Calif., home of La Super Rica, the little taqueria that Julia Child, a loyal patron until her death, called the best restaurant in the city. There, on Milpas Street, home to dozens of hole-in-the-wall places specializing in Mexican food, people happily stand in block-long lines to order the specialty tamales filled with squash, corn and chilies.

Those little corn dough packets are fit for Montezuma, the emperor of the Aztecs, a race of people for whom, as food writer James Badham notes, "tamale-ness" was next to godliness. The Aztecs also named the dish, originally calling it tamalli.

Photo by Tom Harte
A cook makes homemade tortillas at La Super Rica in Santa Barbara, Calif. The small restaurant is famous for its tamales filled with squash, corn and chilies.

La Super Rica is carrying on a tradition that is thousands of years old. Tamales can be traced back at least as far as 5000 B.C., perhaps even to 7000 B.C. They are a classic example of necessity giving birth to invention; they were developed as a portable foodstuff that could be taken into battle by warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations.

These days the only major battle they figure into is the tamale-eating contest at the annual International Tamale Festival in Los Angeles. Now that I've been to La Super Rica, I'm ready to enlist.

Butternut Squash Tamales in Cazuela

I won't pretend that these tamales are equal to those served at Santa Barbara's La Super Rica, but they're plenty good enough to tide me over until I can get back there. Layering ingredients in a casserole dish, as in this recipe adapted from Bon Appetit, eliminates the need for traditional wrapping.

1 pound poblano chilies

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 1/2 cups frozen corn

1 to 2 jalapeno chilies, seeded and finely chopped

2 chopped garlic cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes

3/4 cup thinly sliced green onions

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and sliced

1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese

7 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 cups cornmeal

1 cup yogurt

2 sliced tomatoes

Broil poblanos until blackened, wrap in paper bag and let stand 10 minutes. Peel, seed and coarsely chop. Cook corn in oil over medium-high heat until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add jalapenos, garlic and spices. Saute 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Drain tomatoes, reserving 3/4 cup juice. Add tomatoes, 1/2 cup juice, poblanos, onions and cilantro to corn. Season with salt and pepper. Cook squash in boiling water until crisp-tender. Drain. Bring 5 cups water and salt to boil. Combine cornmeal and remaining 2 cups water and gradually whisk into boiling water. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, until thick. Remove from heat. Stir in yogurt. Spread 2/3 cup cornmeal mixture in greased 15-by-10-by-2-inch glass baking dish. Top with squash. Season with salt and pepper.

Combine cheeses and sprinkle 2 cups over squash. Top with corn kernel mixture. Spread remaining cornmeal mixture over all. Top with tomato slices. Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with remaining 1/4 cup juice and cover with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour until golden. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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