Following are a couple of those entries from last year, as I think they aptly describe the beginning of a neighborly friendship here in Shorelandia:
-Nesting in the love seat, with the cat vying for space with my book on the pillow balanced on my belly, iPhone, water and Kleenex at arm's length, drowsily watching steam from the laundry vent dispersing into the gray, drizzly day outside the window, trying to decide if I should nap or forage for food, nap or forage, nap or forage? And there is a knock at the door. Blanket, book and cat fly off me and I stumble to open the door, rumpled and mussed in Joe's sweats and polar fleece, mouth-breathing all the while. "Tamales?" It's the enterprising Spanish-only speaking lady who lives down the street, holding out a cooler filled with steaming pollo y puerco tamales, and I buy two of each and I try to tell her – Filomena is her name, hereafter known to me as Saint Filomena, Patroness of Tamales – I'm sick and yes I can get my own plate and my name is Lori, and I want to cry I love her so much, but all I can manage is a very sincere and heartfelt "gracias."
-Filomena, Patron Saint of Tamales has re-entered our lives! (Are there Matron Saints?) She has been noticeably absent for months, but with the return of the blessed rain, she appeared on our doorstep again tonight. I have successfully arranged to have nine tamales, in a mix of chicken and pork, delivered from her loving, skilled hands to our door tomorrow night. My mouth drools already in anticipation of that first bite through the steamy, smooth outer cornmeal layer to the spicy meat hidden within. I am saddened though, that neither one of us has improved our language skills enough to converse without our fingers waggling, and sweat appearing on our raised brows as we search desperately for the right Spanish/English word. I'm pretty sure I got the price, time, and quantity correct though, and that I thanked her properly, told her daughter she was beautiful and to have a good night. De nada, baby.
I don’t recall my mother ever making tamales for us when we were kids – I have my doubts whether the Navy Commissary carried corn husks – but I do remember her tamale casserole. Simple, hearty and filled with the spicy warmth of chili powder, which at the time probably seemed quite exotic to me. A couple days ago I wanted to make something with chicken, and looking for inspiration picked up one of a dozen James McNair cookbooks I have, Chicken. The man is awesome. His cookbooks are gorgeous, with plenty of photos of artfully styled food accompanying the recipes. (I forgot to take a picture of my finished dish, so have used the one from the cookbook below.) I don’t believe I’ve ever made a recipe from any of his cookbooks we haven’t raved about. Some I return to again and again. This recipe for Chicken Tamale Pie is going to be one of them.
Let me say that “pie” is a fancy word here for casserole. (James McNair says that he got the recipe from a friend of his who entertained Richard Nixon during the early days of his political career in California, calling it President’s Pie, as it was one of his favorites.) McNair added the cheese, and I added a couple of chipotle chilies from a can I’ve had sitting in the fridge for a while. If you don’t have a Patron Saint of Tamales in your neighborhood, and are too (lazy) busy to make your own, this is an excellent alternative.
4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes,
or 1 can (28 oz.) Italian-style plum tomatoes, with their juices
1 can (16 oz.) cream-style corn
3 – 4 tsp. salt
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ Tbsp. chili powder, or to taste
(and/or 1-2 canned chipotles chilies with sauce)
1 cup milk
½ cup yellow cornmeal
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup pitted ripe olives
2 cups coarsely chopped, cooked chicken
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese, mixed with
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
Olive oil for drizzling
Combine tomatoes, corn, salt, onion, olive oil and chili powder in a large saucepan and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the milk, cornmeal, and eggs; add to the tomato mixture and cook, stirring constantly to prevent scorching, until thick, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the olives and chicken.
Pour mixture into a lightly greased shallow ovenproof dish. Top with the cheeses, drizzle with oil, and bake until the pie is firm and the cheese is crusty, 35 – 45 minutes. Serve piping hot.