1928 Vegan Tamale Pie--Yes, It's Possible, Thanks to Avanti Cafe

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Earlier this summer, I issued Mark Cleveland of Avanti Cafe--perhaps the county's best practitioner of the vegan arts--a challenge. I gave him a copy of a recipe for tamale pie taken from a 1928 cookbook compiled by members of the Ebell Club of the Santa Ana Valley. I don't have the recipe in front of me, but it sounded downright vile (I do remember the recipe called for "watered meat" or something of that caliber). I asked Mark to take that recipe--filled with lard, butter, pork, more animal than masa--and veganize it. Tamale pies, like canned tortillas and Taco Bell, are one of those antiquated dishes that have no use in this post-Reconquista United States, a relic of a time when housewives and consumers wanted the tastes of Mexico sans the Mexicans. Seriously--bigotry can be the only explanation for the dish. I've had my share of tamale pies, and even the best ones can't match to the worst tamales. Tamales do take their time to make, but better that then tamale pie--and if all else failed, they could find tamales in Mexico-town.

But the idea of a vegan tamale pie fascinated me, and Cleveland was up to the challenge. After experimenting for over a month, he finally came with a recipe that suited his extremely demanding standards and invited me to taste it.

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Curse Mark, the mock-meat magus! Not only was this tamale pie delicious, it actually tasted like a tamale--it was even better than the tamales Avanti Cafe has made (which weren't bad). The masa stayed together and didn't clump up like in most vegan tamales; the mushrooms tasted like pork; the spicing, just like a tamale before Misa de Gallo. Cleveland was kind enough to share the recipe below, but has this caveat: Vegan tamales (let alone tamale pie) is an extremely controversial subject for Latinos and gabachos alike. Broach the subject con mucho cuidado from Santa Ana to Coto de Caza."

Avanti Cafe, 259 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 548-2224; www.avantinatural.com.

Avanti Cafe 1928 Vegan Tamale Pie

Ingredients:

For the masa dough:

1 cup vegetable broth, warmed on flat top until just lightly simmering
1 ¼ teaspoon miso (optional), or ¼ teaspoon salt
6 ounces Earth Balance, or vegan butter substitute
¼ cup grapeseed oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
2 ½ pounds fresh masa (make sure it doesn't have lard already; if it does, it's not vegan)

Directions:
1. Beat Earth Balance and oil in Kitchen Aid type mixer with whisk attachment and whip on high until fluffy, about 3 minutes.
2. Turn the mixer to low and alternate adding masa and broth until combined.
3. Add salt and baking powder and increase to high for 5 to 7 minutes.
4. Check using the water float test. Drop a small bit into water with a couple of ice cubes in it. If the dough floats nicely and immediately, you have become a tamalera.

For the pie filling:

Ingredients:

5 medium tomatoes
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon chipotle powder
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 medium Portobello mushrooms with stems
1 pound oyster mushrooms
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon mushroom-flavored soy sauce (or regular soy sauce)
3 tablespoons cream sherry
Small pinch of black pepper
1 ½ cups scallions, thinly sliced
½ cup yellow corn kernels
1/3 cup pepitas
3 tablespoons fresh epazote leaves, rough chop

Directions:

1. Heat a cast iron or stainless steel skillet or flat griddle over medium-high heat. Do not use non-stick pans for this.
2. Trim the stem and bottom from the tomatoes and cut in half horizontally. Place cut side down and roast until the bottoms color a bit, about 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Remove to a bowl and while still very hot immediately add chili powder, smoked paprika, chipotle powder, black pepper, and sea salt; stir to combine.
3. Cool, then use a blender to puree. Meanwhile, clean Portobello mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. Cut any rough end off the Portobello stems and slice the good part thinly.
4. Cut the Portobello caps into wedges, about 6 per cap. Remove the tough ends from the oyster mushrooms and break them apart.
5. In a large skillet set over medium heat add olive oil and garlic. When the garlic just starts to go blond, add in the mushrooms and sauté for 2 or 3 mins.
6. Add 1 Tablespoon mushroom-flavored soy sauce (or regular soy sauce), 3 tablespoons cream sherry, and a small pinch of black pepper. Saute until just tender about five minutes more.
7. Remove from heat then stir in scallions, yellow corn kernels, pepitas, and epazote leaves.

To Assemble the Pies:

Directions:

1. Spray two nine-inch pie pans with oil. Spoon 1 ½ cups of masa in to each pan.
2. Use the back of a spoon to flatten the dough out into a disk. Do not push up the sides.
3. Bake in a preheated 350-degree medium fan convection oven (or 375-degree regular oven) for 20 minutes until lightly golden.
4. Divide the pie filling among the two pie pans. Pipe or dollop the remaining 3 cups of masa mix over the top of the pies. Return to the oven and bake another 20 minutes until the top masa is just golden but still tender.
5. Heat in a small saucepan over medium heat 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Add 1/4 cup shallots cut into thin rings and 2 or 3 medium-sized shallots until the shallots just begin to color. Remove from heat and cool. Garnish tamale pie with some of the shallot rings, more chipotle, scallion and epazote as desired. Serve hot or warm.
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