masa harina-beef casserole

I miss New Mexico today.
It hits me without warning, and usually the missing gets in my nose first. My memory creates a smell and it gets stuck there. The most common is roasting green chile, but of course there’s also pinon. And there is the smell of the tamale.
There are a lot of reasons why I miss New Mexico, and even more reasons why I left. But there is no other place that makes me hurt when I miss it.
There was this little place up by school called Johnny’s Cash Store. They sold jumex juices, and milk and eggs and cigarettes and twinkies. The whole place smelled old and dusty because it was old and dusty. But on the counter, there was a steam table filled with tamales that someone’s mother had made. For a few dollars, you could have a red chile pork tamale and a green chile chicken tamale tucked in a little wax bag. That bag, along with a few napkins and a mango jumex, made a lunch that could turn anyone’s day around. There was a little splintery picnic table outside, and I swear that picnic table was one of my favorite places to eat in Santa Fe.
Those tamales tasted like love.

It’s vacation week around here, although I’ve taken off to New Mexico in my mind (and nose), I’m home with the girlies while Joey works at the school setting up his new classroom. We’re all doing okay together- luckily we have the garden and my sister’s handed down American Girl collection to keep us entertained. But yesterday, we all started out on the wrong side of the bed. There were early tantrums, and by the time I was trying to coax Rosie across the parking lot to get to the supermarket at 12:30 (Rose: Ow, Mom, you’re hurting me! Me: I’m holding your hand! We’re in a parking lot!), I thought I might just go ahead and lose it altogether.

Thank the lord for the playdate.

By 1:30, our friends had arrived. A playdate for me, and a sister for each of the girls, with a bonus two year old to eat cheerios at the table. We drank beer in the kitchen, I turned my mood around, and the girls, well, the girls, mostly just stood on the cars.

Every time I looked, they were each wearing different dresses. Then they would trade dresses, or pull out new ones, and get back up on the car.

They stayed until bedtime and then the girls fell into the mess that had accumulated in their room and fell asleep. It was a good day.

But of course, there was dinner. And although Johnny’s Cash store is 2,000 miles away, I needed something that smelled right, even if it contained canned green chiles and no one’s mom had made it. Oh, wait, hold on. Something really has changed since New Mexico.

Someone’s mom did make this.

We ate every bite.

This recipe is from a cookbook that I have talked about before, Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way. This book is an amazing resource, and it will tell you everything you need to know about how to cook, clean, and store whole grains. If you feel a little overwhelmed in the bulk section of your store, this book will open up your world.

It also has phenomenal recipes. Every recipe I have made from this book has been a success; Lorna Sass is both deliciously creative and looking out for the home cook. A lot of the recipes are meat based, which is unusual in a whole grains cookbook. For some reason, whole grains and vegetarian seem to get paired more often, but this one is for the healthy meat eaters.

Masa Harina is a corn flour that is used in tamales, as well as in making corn tortillas. It is combined with lime, and has a very specific smell to it, that is the smell of of Johnny’s Cash store tamale, or as I like to call it, love.
You can find Masa Harina in most grocery stores, and of course all Latin Markets. The brand I most often see is called Maseca. If you absolutely cannot find it, you can substitute cornmeal for the masa in this recipe.

Masa Harina-Beef Casserole
adapted from Lorna Sass, Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way

for the filling:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes with green chiles
optional: 1 additional small can diced green chiles

for the topping:
1 1/4 cups masa harina
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 large egg
1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup jack or cheddar cheese
1 cup fresh or forzen corn kernels

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and put a rack in the bottom third of the oven. Have ready a rectangular baking dish, about 11×7 or thereabouts. Lay it on a baking sheet and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet. When it is hot, add the onion and pepper and cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the beef, garlic, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper. Cook over medium high heat, stirring and breaking it up into small bits. When the meat begins to brown, stir in the tomatoes and green chiles and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer uncovered while you prepare the topping.
Pour 4 cups of water into a heavy saucepan. Whisk the masa harina into the water until it is smooth and thoroughly blended. Stir in the salt and chili powder. Bring the mixture to a boil. stirring almost constantly. Lower the heat and keep stirring until the mixture thickens to the consistency of batter, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
In a small bowl, beat the egg. Stir in the sour cream or yogurt and a cup of the hot masa mixture. Stir the egg mixture and the baking soda into the pot containing the remaining masa mixture.
Taste the meat and adjust for seasonings. Transfer the meat to the baking dish, leaving any liquid behind. Pour the masa batter over the meat. Sprinkle with the cheese, then the corn kernels.
Bake until the casserole is bubbly and the top is slightly browned, about 45 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.


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7 Responses to masa harina-beef casserole

  1. Nicoke says:

    Was the masa supposed to harden up? After 45 min my masa was still mushy…

  2. Kathleen Maltarich says:

    I just made this for dinner! It was delicious and 5 of us polished it off! My 8 and 4 year old had multiple servings, which never happens! I was nervous when I put it on the table, though. The masa mixture never firmed up. I read the earlier comment, cooked it a little longer (an hour). Still it looked the same as when it went in. The whole dish was hot and bubbly and a little browned on top. When we scooped it out onto plates, it all just mixed together. I was expecting a layer of soft tamale-like breadiness (for lack of a better word!) It didn’t look right and everyone took really small portions. But we were relieved at our first bites and proceeded to devour it all. The flavors were spot on. Still, the texture and (presentation) could have been better and I wonder if you have any insight before I try it again. I followed the recipe exactly with no substitutions. Thanks!

    • alana says:

      Hi Kathleen! I haven’t made this recipe in ages, but I’ve been thinking about it lately! I’ll revisit it and get back to you with more thoughts on texture. The cookbook that it comes from is just brilliant- I really recommend it.

  3. Sandra says:

    Thank you for posting this recipie!

    I was browsing for ideas on what to do with my leftover homemade chili, and I came across this. But I want to share some of the things I did, just for fun!

    My homemade chili was pretty much the same as the meat filling, except I used like 4 peppers. And I added the chili powder into it too. I actually added pork meat (boiled and shredded) instead of beef. The key is to simmer it for 4-6 hours, to let it get nice and dark and rich in taste.

    And reading Kathleen and Nicole’s comments about mushy dough, I cooked my masa in the casserole dish first for about 30 mins covered. After that, it was still mushy. So I stuck it in for like 5-10 mins more uncovered. That did the trick.

    Then I added my chili on top. For the topping, I did pretty much the same as this, minus the egg, chili powder, yogurt, and baking soda. Baked that for about 30 mins, and voila.

    I pretty much guessed for it all. And it turned out amazing. My husband absolutely loved it. The mass was cooked, but not dry. And the chili with the pork meat tasted like a tamale. The cheesy corn on top was a good addition.

    Thanks again for spurring this idea, and creating one happy cook and one very happy husband!

    • alana says:

      Thank you Sandra! It’s brilliant- adding this topping over leftover chili (as I’m sure we all have a pot of leftover chili in the fridge at some point), and your technique for getting the topping right sounds spot on.

  4. Jen says:

    I’m trying this tonight! I used ground turkey instead of ground beef. It’s cooking now and smells fantastic! Can’t wait to try it! Thanks for sharing!

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