February 15, 2012 10:28 AM
Make It, Freeze It, Take It: The Mexican Casserole

Every few months, my family gets together with a Latin group of friends and their families for a pot luck.

This winter it was our turn. As tradition goes, the host brings the main dishes to the table and the others bring the rest. I eagerly announced my plans to share Mexican casseroles, also called cazuelas, budines or pasteles. The Mexicans couldn't hide their joy- "Pati! De veras? Budin Azteca? Cazuela de Tamal?!"- and quickly thought of other "very" Mexican sides to pair with them. The Argentines and Costa Ricans tried to understand what "Mexican casserole" meant and whether it was supposed to be any good. The Americans in the group (though they consider themselves Latin) were clearly not excited about it.

No doubt about it, casseroles have had their ups and downs in culinary history. Their weakest stand seems to have been in the United States, after being fashioned into "two-step-many-can" versions in the 1930 and '40s. But think of all the bright stars in the casserole universe: French cocottes enveloped in mother sauces; British potpies encrusting fillings as wet as British weather; irresistible Italian lasagnas layered with pasta; Peruvian causas with seasoned meat encased in mashed potatos; Greek spanakopitas with an extra-savory cheese-spinach mix covered with phyllo dough; Middle Eastern moussakas stacked with layers of eggplant; and the not-so-well-known, yet gloriously tasty Mexican cazuelas...

All of those casseroles are assembled, baked and served in the same vessel, which makes them convenient, practical and savvy. They are cooked tightly covered without a hurry, giving their fillings time to become succulent with fully blended flavors. Then their messy beauty unravels on your plate. One has to wonder: Why don't we see more of them around, when we all crave flexible meals that can be made in advance?

In the Old World, casseroles' prestige may have peaked in the early Renaissance.They were served at royal feasts, with artful decorations fit for competitions and complex fillings; some even had live birds fly out of them with an exhilarating song as the first piece was cut. Such a high-pitched recipe is found in the first British cookbook published during the mid-16th century. It also was recorded as part of one of the most extravagant banquets ever: the wedding of Marie de Medici and Henry IV of France, held in 1600 in Florence. This theatrical dish might have inspired the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence," in which "four and twenty blackbirds" are baked in a pie.

Fast-forward to 2009: British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal felt obliged to replicate it in his Medieval episode of "Heston's Feasts" in England.

Surprisingly, I recently found the nursery rhyme's muse of a pie in the anonymous 1831 Mexican cookbook "El Cocinero Mexicano." I am always amazed at how ingredients and recipes hop around the globe. But this I found to be absurdly funny: As if Mexican cooks needed any more outrageous ideas of what to do with casseroles.

Centuries before Old World cooks were trying to impress guests with interactive creations, Mexicans were baking casseroles in underground pits and cooking them over rustic fires. The fillings might not have been able to take flight, but they did contain wild turkey, boar and/ or iguana.

The first version of a Mexican casserole seems to have been the muk-bil (literally, "to put in the ground"). Made by the Mayans on the Yucatan Peninsula since pre-Hispanic times, it is the King Kong of tamales. Truly gigantic. The corn dough wraps around a filling of turkey (after the Spanish arrived, chicken and pork were used as well) rubbed with a pungent paste seasoned with achiote (annatto) seeds, spices and tomatoes. It resembles the flavors of cochinita pibil, a robust Yucatan dish.

So prized was this tamal in ancient times that it was designated meal for major festivities, and it still is. You can bet there will be a lot of muk-bils made this year with all the talk of 2012 marking the end of the Mayan calendar. So it is the right time to head down there if you want a true taste.

This tamal is traditionally wrapped in fragrant banana leaves and baked underground, which gives it a smoky flavor.

Other tamal casseroles throughout Mexico have regional spins, ingredients and salsas. Just across the border in neighboring American states, tamal pie recipes appeared in cookbooks at least a hundred years ago. They called for cornmeal rather than fresh corn masa; the former leads to a much grainier and less fluffy result. That was probably because making masa from scratch involves the ancient nixtamalization process, which takes days (drying, soaking, cooking and grinding) to treat corn so that its nutritious content is fully exploited. It makes a masa so soft that it is practically airy. Today, outstanding instant masa flour that has already gone through that process is widely available, so it's a snap to put together a real tamal casserole at home.

Here my go-to version: The masa dough is set in two thick layers that hold a rich and baroque filling, typical of the Mexican colonial era, when nuns used to combine Spanish and Mexican ingredients in their convent kitchens. The filling has a sauce made with my preferred pairing of dried chili peppers: sweet, almost chocolaty and prune-flavored ancho and mild, bright-tasting guajillo. It's seasoned with onion, garlic, oregano, cloves, cinnamon and a pinch of cumin, then made hearty with juicy ground meat that is sprinkled with crunchy almonds, chewy raisins and salty manzanilla olives.

Just like a tamal casserole is a giant version of a tamal, a tortilla casserole is like a hefty stack of open-face tacos with layers of sauce and cheese. It's a homespun version of tacos, one of the most sought-after street foods in my native country: Taco elements are layered in a cazuela, or earthenware pot. That takes away the hassle of making individual portions and allows for endless filling possibilites, just as with tacos and tamales.

The most popular casserole of them all has an imperial name: Aztec. It is traditionally made with corn tortillas, as they are much more resilient than flour tortillas. Think of a lasagna gone way down south, soaked in a spiced-up tomato sauce with handfuls of exuberant, fruity, addictive roasted poblano peppers and crunchy, sweet corn. Chicken is sometimes added to the mix, which is then bathed with Mexican crema and melty cheese. When I was growing up, and Aztec casserole was a must for successful potlucks.

Some versions use salsa verde or mole sauce instead of a tomato sauce, as well as other kinds of meats and vegetables. Good-quality corn tortillas can be found at the market, so there's no need to make your own.

The rice casserole is the most modern of the three I've offered here. Brought over from Europe by the Spanish, rice has grown deep roots in Mexican cooking. The dish I have been obsessively repeating came about because I wanted to use the bounty of fresh mushrooms found in stores this time of year. Although I don't have the wild varieties that crop up in Mexico's rainy season, I have experimented with an accessible mix of mushroom textures and flavors, fresh herbs, epazote, cilantro, parsley, that salty crema and tangy cheese. This stew goes on top of the rice with a topping of grated dry and aged cheese. As the casserole bakes, the rice absorbs the flavored cream, the mushrooms meld with the sauce and the cheese morphs into a perfectly browned crust.

I'm wondering whether Mexican renditions can lend a bit of prestige to the state of casseroles in the United States. They certainly receive a royal welcome from my potluck friends, who heap seconds on their plates.

Article written for and published by The Washington Post. Photo taken by Deb Lindsey Photography

Mushroom and Rice Casserole
Cazuela de Arroz con Hongos
Serves 8-10

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium white onions, chopped (2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
1 jalapeño or serrano pepper, finely chopped (seeding optional if you want less heat; may add more to taste)
2 pounds mixed mushrooms, (such as white button, baby bella, portobello and shitake), cleaned, dry part of stem removed, sliced
1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves and thin part of stems
2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves and thin part of stems
1 cup Mexican cream (crema) or Latin-style cream or heavy cream
8 ounces (about 2 cups) farmers cheese or queso fresco, crumbled
6 cups cooked white or brown rice
1 cup freshly grated queso anejo, Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano

Heat the butter and oil in a large, deep 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to coat; cook for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent and the edges begin to brown. Add the garlic and jalapeño or serrano pepper; cook for 2-3 minutes, until softened. Add all of the sliced mushrooms; sprinkle with salt and pepper, and gently combine with the onions. Cover and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, until the mushrooms have exuded their juices and the flavors have melded. Uncover and cook for 7 to 8 minutes or until the juices have evaporated.

Add the cilantro and parsley, stirring to combine. Add the cream and the crumbled queso fresco or farmer cheese; stir until the mixture is thoroughly combined and the cheese has melted. Continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes, adjusting the heat to keep the mixture barely bubbling at the edges. It should still be very saucy. Turn off the heat.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a little butter to grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or the equivalent.

Spoon the cooked rice into the baking dish and level it out without pressing down hard. Pour the mushroom-cilantro mixture on top and gently spread to level it. Sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and gently browned.

Serve hot.

Meaty Tamal Casserole
Cazuela de Tamal
Serves 10-12

For the dough
1 1/4 cups vegetable shortening or lard
1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 pounds (about 5 cups) corn masa flour for tortillas or tamales, such as Maseca brand
4 1/2 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth, (may substitute water)
For the filling
8 dried guajillo chili peppers, stemmed, halved and seeded
8 dried ancho chili peppers, stemmed, halved and seeded
2 cups hot water, or as needed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch ground cumin
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for the baking dish
1 medium white onion, chopped (1 cup)
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 1/2 pounds ground meat, such as veal, turkey, beef, pork or a combination
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth, (may substitute water)
1 cup raisins
3/4 cup slivered almonds
3/4 cup pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives, chopped

For the dough: Place the vegetable shortening or lard in the bowl of a stand mixer; beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until it is light and airy. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add the salt and baking powder; on low speed, gradually add the corn masa flour and the broth in alternating additions, making sure each time that the addition is well incorporated. Beat for about 10 minutes to form a masa dough that is homogeneous and fluffy. Let the dough sit at room temperature while you make the filling.

For the filling: Heat a comal (tortilla griddle) or skillet over medium heat. Add the guajillo and ancho peppers; toast them for about 15 seconds per side, until they become more pliable, lightly toasted and fragrant and their inner skin turns opaque. Transfer to a medium saucepan and cover with at least 2 cups of hot water. Cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, or until the peppers have rehydrated, plumped up and softened.

Transfer the peppers and 2 cups of the liquid to a blender and add the oregano, cloves, cinnamon and cumin. Remove the center knob from the blender lid and cover the opening with a dish towel to contain splash-ups. Puree to form a smooth sauce. The yield is 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups.

Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring continuously, until the onions are cooked through and beginning to brown at the edges. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, less than a minute, then add the ground meat, salt and black pepper. Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and using a spoon to break up the meat, until it has lightly browned. Add the sauce, the broth, raisins, almonds and olives, stirring to combine; reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet and cook for 20 minutes. Uncover, stir and cook uncovered for 5 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Use a little vegetable oil to grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or the equivalent.

Spoon half of the prepared masa dough into the dish, forming a bit of a lip on the sides and gently leveling it out; don't press hard. Spoon all of the meat filling on top. Cover evenly with the remainiing dough. Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour or until the masa is completely cooked and the top appears to be firm. Remove from the oven and let it sit, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Chicken and Tortilla Aztec Casserole
Cazuela Azteca
Serves 8-10

For the sauce
3 tablepoons vegetable oil
1 medium white onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and pureed, or whole canned tomatoes, drained and pureed (to make about 5 cups tomato puree)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt
For the tortillas
1 cup vegetable oil, or more as needed, for frying the tortillas
8 to 10 corn tortillas(9 ounces total)
For assembly 4 cups cooked, shredded chicken
4 cups fresh corn(may substitute frozen; see NOTES)
1 pound poblano chili peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into rajas (see NOTES)
1 cup Mexican cream (crema), Latin-style cream, creme fraiche or heavy creamh
12 ounces grated Oaxaca, mozzarella, Monterey Jack or mild white cheddar cheese (about 3 cups)

For the sauce: Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the tomato puree, oregano, bay leaf and salt and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and darkens in color. Remove from the heat and discard the bay leaf.

For the tortillas: Cover a large plate or baking sheet with several layers of paper towels. Pour the oil into a medium 10-inch skillet to a depth of 1/4 inch (about 1 cup). Heat over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking, about 2 to 3 minutes. Working with one tortilla at a time, use a pair of tongs to pass the tortilla through the oil for 10 to 15 seconds per side; this will make the it pliable and resistant to the sauce. The tortilla will first appear to be softening and then will become barely crisp, and its color will darken. Drain on the paper towels.

To assemble: Spread one-third of the tomato sauce on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or the equivalent. Cover with half of the cooked chicken, half of the corn, half of the poblanos and one-third of the cream and cheese. Top with half of the tortillas, tearing them into large pieces if needed to make an even layer without much overlap. Repeat, adding one-third of the tomato sauce; the remaining half of the cooked chicken, corn and poblanos; and one-third of the cream and cheese. Top with a layer of the remaining tortillas, the remaining one-third of the sauce and the remaining cream and cheese.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover the casserole dish with a lid or with aluminum foil. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove the lid or foil and bake for 15 minutes or until the top is bubbly and the cheese has melted. Serve hot.

NOTES: To create rajas, or strips, char or roast the chilies, either by placing them under the broiler or directly on a grill or hot skillet. Roast for 6 to 9 minutes, turning every 3 to 4 minutes, until they are charred and blistered but not burned. Immediately place in a plastic bag; close the bag tightly and cover with a kitchen towel; this will facilitate skinning. One by one, remove each chili from the bag, peel off the skin and lightly rinse the chili with water. Cut out the stem and cut each pepper in half. Remove and discard the seeds, then cut the peppers into strips 1/2-inch wide and an inch long.

Frozen corn will make the dish watery if it is not precooked to remove moisture. First, defrost the corn completely. Heat a large skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon of unsalted butter; when it has melted, add the corn and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.