Tamal en Cazuela Clásico

Classic Tamale in a Pot

Carmen and Enrique have a small, word-of-mouth paladar (private restaurant) with three tables in the backyard of their house on the road to Camaquey. They have a modest vegetable garden and raise a few pigs and chickens. Carmen cooks good, unpretentious dishes using the fresh produce from her garden. The day that Marty and I stopped by for lunch, she was serving tamal en cazuela, one of her specialties, with a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion and crusty yuca bread rolls. The fresh sweetness of the corn, the flavor and tenderness of the home-raised pork, and the warm hospitality of our hosts made it a very special meal.

The dish is called tamal en cazuela because it is really a thinned-down version of the fresh corn and pork mixture used to make the tamales that are wrapped in corn husks and boiled. When I asked Carmen if, as I had heard, it could also be made with cornmeal, she answered that there was another similar dish made with cornmeal, but that real tamal en cazuela, like authentic Cuban tamales, must be made with fresh corn. The corn used to make tamales in Cuba is field corn; it has a higher starch content than the sweet corn sold in the United States. With this in mind, I have taken the liberty of adding a small amount of cornmeal to Carmen’s original recipe to thicken the corn puree. If you can get fresh field corn from a local farmer, however, it may be omitted.

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Ingredients

  • 2 pounds lean pork shoulder, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed in a garlic press
  • teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ cup fresh bitter orange juice, or 2 tablespoons regular orange juice and 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 8 large ears fresh or frozen corn
  • ¼ cup olive or corn oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion (1 small)
  • ¾ cup chopped green bell pepper (1 small)
  • 2 to 3 ajis cachuchas (mild Cuban chiles), seeded and minced (optional)
  • ½ cup tomato sauce
  • ¼ cup vino seco (Cuban dry cooking wine)
  • ¼ cup harina fina (finely ground yellow cornmeal; optional)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or cilantro

Method

Place the pork in a nonreactive container. Mash the garlic, salt, oregano, and cumin together to make a paste, then stir in the bitter orange juice. Pour this marinade over the pork. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours.

Husk the corn, and remove and discard the silk. Using a sharp knife, cut off the kernels. Place the cobs in a pan with 3 cups warm water and set aside. In a food processor with steel knife blade, puree the corn. Squeeze the cobs and use the back of a knife to scrape as much of the corn milk as possible into the soaking water. Mix this corn water into the corn puree and press the mixture through a coarse sieve into a bowl. Set aside.

Remove the pork from the marinade with a slotted spoon and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve the marinade. In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it is fragrant, then add as many pieces of pork as will fit easily in one layer without touching. Reduce the heat to medium and brown the pork on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes. As it is browned, remove the pork and set it aside. Continue until all the pork has been browned.

To the drippings in the pot, add the onion, bell pepper, and chiles, if using. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the onion and peppers are softened, 10 to 15 minutes. Return the meat to the pan and stir in the tomato sauce, wine, reserved marinade, and corn mixture. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. If using sweet corn instead of field corn, combine the cornmeal with ½ cup cold water and stir it into the pot. Reduce the heat to low, cover, with the lid slightly askew, and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until the corn thickens to a porridgelike consistency, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Ladle the tamal into wide shallow soup bowls. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.