Every few months, my family gets together with a Latin group of friends and their families for a potluck.
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 1930s 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 potatoes; Greek spanakopitas with an extra-savory cheese-spinach mix covered in 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 and 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 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 the 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 possibilities, 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, an 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.