With all the political issues that have troubled us lately, it’s easy to get sidetracked and forget about the simple pleasures in life. There’s nothing like relaxing with family and friends, especially when it comes to enjoying a great meal. So to celebrate the upcoming baseball season, I wanted to share a favorite entree from Panama, TAMAL DE OLLA, in honor of future Hall of Fame pitcher Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees.
Rivera, 47, retired three years ago with five World Series rings. The famed bullpen closer grew up in the small fishing village of Puerto Caimito, but now lives in New York and was once a restaurateur in the bedroom community of New Rochelle as well as in Manhattan. The “Sandman” is a connoisseur of sorts when it comes to Panamanian cuisine and although he served mostly steak specialties is his eateries, maybe Tamal de Olla should have been on the menu. The entree is basically one huge tamale baked as a casserole, and is fitting for special holiday occasions or simply as a break from the everyday tacos or meat and potatoes fare.
Like regular tamales, the main filling for Tamal de Olla is chicken or pork. We favor the latter because it mixes well with Panama-style ingredients and where this amazing dish has it roots, although some of our Cuban friends might disagree. If it’s a week night and you’re in a hurry to feed a family on the go, don’t even think about pulling this off. Tamal de Olla takes time and patience to prepare. But it makes a great Sunday feast, especially on religious occasions like Easter
Important “starter” ingredients
One pound of chopped onions, two ribs of chopped celery, four cloves of garlic and one chopped bell pepper. In another bowl, get to work on the masa (dough). Start with one pound of pre-cooked harina de maiz, six cups of water, two teaspoons of salt, half a cup of olive oil, one tablespoon of vinegar, two teaspoons of fresh oregano and one large can of corn (get the baseball reference?). For the filling, you’ll need four pounds of chopped pork, two tablespoons of vegetable oil, a cup of golden raisins (available at Walmart), one cup of green olives with pimentos and one half cup of capers. Sprinkle with pepper.
Heat the vegetable oil in a two quart sauce pan. Add the chopped chunks of pork and brown on medium heat for about 20 minutes. Make sure the pork is fully cooked but remains tender. A bit of remaining fat on the pork adds to the ultimate flavor. In a large 12″ skillet, saute the onions, celery, the crushed garlic and bell pepper in olive oil. If you wish to dice up a medium-sized tomato in the mix, we won’t stop you. When the veggies are well cooked, put them in a food processor and blend. Return the processed puree back to the skillet, add vinegar, the oregano and three cups of water, then simmer covered for about 10 minutes.
Chop up the pork into 1/2 inch pieces and put into the food processor. Once finished, add the pork to the veggie skillet and simmer for another 10 minutes. Remove the pork and place in a separate bowl with all the filling ingredients (raisins, olives, etc.) Set the remaining cooking liquid from the skillet aside in a large measuring container. Add enough water to the container to make six cups of liquid. In the masa bowl, begin the preparation by pouring in the harina de maiz and add the liquid one cup at a time, stirring vigorously. When all the liquid has been added, the consistency should be similar to mashed potatoes. Avoid lumps. Finally, stir in the corn kernels and mix well.
Now you can prepare the casserole dish and begin to bake. Set your oven at about 350 degrees F. The dish should be deep enough to hold about 3 1/2 quarts. Line the surface with olive oil to prevent sticking. Pour half of the masa mixture and spread evenly in the dish. Now add the pork and all the filling for the next layer. Finally, add the remaining masa over the filling, spreading from side to side until completely covered. Protect with foil and bake for about 50 minutes, then remove foil and return to oven for another 10 minutes. Let your creation cool and serve.
Accept all complements graciously and pretend that your unique, delicious meal was something you contemplated as a last minute idea!
-Esteban “Steve” Randel