Friday, April 24, 2009

"The Des Moines Register Cookbook" - Top-Secret Tamale Pie

Date I made this recipe: April 20, 2009

The Des Moines Register Cookbook by Carol McGarvey, Marie McCartan, and C.R. Mitchell
Published by: University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 0-87745-515-5; © 1995
Recipe: Top-Secret Tamale Pie, submitted by Jennifer Phelps of Carlisle, Iowa – p. 168

I have to say that in all the years I’ve asked someone what they did over the weekend, I’ve never heard the answer I gave to a few people on Monday: “I was in Des Moines judging the final round of the American Collegiate Mock Trial Association competition.”

Yup, that’s right, I drove all the way to Iowa to judge something the majority of you have never heard of unless you’ve competed in them yourself and to my surprise, the young lady checking us in at our hotel said that she participated in this competition in middle school - go figure!

So a word about the competition because I know you are all dying to know(and if you’re not, too bad!): starting in October, over 600 college teams (emphasis on “college”—you cannot believe how young some of these people are) compete against each other in a mock trial around the United States; the 48 remaining teams left standing at the end compete for the national title.

In previous years, my law school alma mater hosted the semi-final and final rounds and that is how I got involved, but this year (the 25th anniversary), the competition moved to Des Moines, Iowa.

Des Moines is only a four hour road trip from the Twin Cities (yes, I know, that seems long to some of you, but to those of us here in Minnesota, it’s a Sunday drive) and so I decided to give it a go. My husband was out of town but I enlisted a friend, Andrea, to go on the trip with me and we had a great time.

I told Andrea that I thought she would be surprised by the caliber of some of these individuals and indeed she was. In these mock trials, two teams, each made up of student “attorneys” and “witnesses,” battle out a case as if they were in an actual courtroom. A presiding judge (often a real judge) oversees the case while two scoring judges such as me rate the performances of the individuals including everything from clothing (it should be court-appropriate) to eye contact (you should engage in it, most especially with me) to tone of voice (as my girlfriend, Laura says, you should not scare the kitty with your tone of voice)—even hairstyles can factor into the believability and persuasiveness of a contestant. I once told some very stylish young ladies that while their hairstyles were cute as all get-out, the minute some locks of hair fell in the middle of their forehead I quit listening and started obsessing about the hair. This may sound like frivolous feedback (and perhaps even mean) but the scoring judge acts as a member of the jury and if I quit listening, a real jury member probably will as well.

To be clear, although tempting, I do not do this to be evil or to seek redress for the harm done unto me in law school (that’s the job for a well-trained therapist); I genuinely like doing this and am blown away by some of the performances and face it, this is as close to a real judicial bench as I’m ever going to get. But some of these people have great careers in front of them and I like to be encouraging. One guy so blew me and my friend (and co-judge) away that it seemed as if he had been a practicing trial lawyer his whole life. When we told him that, he beamed from ear to ear and eventually went on to take top honors. I often wonder what happened to him but alas, his name is long forgotten.

So anyway, we came, we saw and we judged. I will say that a “What Not to Wear “admonition extended all the way to some of the fellow judges. I mean, Jeeze Louise, who on earth thinks it is acceptable to wear a summer suit with flip flops? I kid you not—this one woman arrived in a seersucker suit and flip flops. Granted, she was a third year law student, but we about died. And wouldn’t you know this woman turned out to be one of the scoring judges along with me. Too bad there wasn’t a scoring form for her…. (Like I should talk—the hem on one of my pants came down and I had to emergency hem it and then my shoes were looking particularly battered and so a trip to a shoe doctor is in order. And yesterday, I went out to eat with a friend and wore one black shoe with a 2.5 inch heel and one similar looking shoe in a 3 inch heel. But still….)

Now before I left town I decided to make something in honor of Iowa but honestly, I couldn’t stomach any more ham or pork, products that have put Iowa on the map, and so when I got home, I revisited my initial selection and changed it up to the tamale pie. But as per usual, kids, this seemingly innocent recipe was fraught with peril! Okay, true confession, I am apparently losing my “attention to detail” superpowers because I misread this recipe and it almost tanked on me.

Now I bet many of you would do what I did: I saw “1 pound beef chuck and 1 pound pork” and translated that into “ground beef and ground pork” and this was incorrect. Although I noted ahead of time that I was supposed to cover the meat and simmer it with water, I neglected to focus on the “dice meat” directive in the instructions. Shoot. Of course, I already purchased ground beef and pork and now had to decide whether I should freeze that meat and purchase anew or tweak the recipe. I went with “tweak the recipe.”

My husband suggested that I brown the meat and then strain it before I covered it with water and I did that and it was just fine but I think I ended up with more meat than expected and therefore more water and that may have made a difference in the final product.

And then (in retrospect), I’m not sure I should have added all the water (1 cup) to the cornmeal (1 cup) called for in the recipe. The recipe said to moisten the cornmeal but that’s all it said and when I added the water, it was pretty runny. In the end, the cornmeal didn’t set as I expected it to—the flavor was fine but I expected a layer of cornmeal to cover the top of the meat mixture and that is not what happened. After all, I don’t think it’s an accident that the recipe is named Tamale Pie, not tamale mush!

But luckily, folks the end result was just fine although a little top-heavy on the olives for my taste. And yes, despite being rather tired of pork, I did use it in this recipe but it wasn’t so bad and frankly, should always be included in a salute to Iowa. (But I’m thinking a chicken is in order any day now…).

And if you ever get a chance to participate in or judge or observe a mock trial (even high schools have them), I recommend you do so. You could very well be looking at a future Supreme Court justice in the making!

Top-Secret Tamale Pie – makes 6 to 8 servings
1 pound beef chuck (not ground)
1 pound pork (not ground)
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup water
1 can cream-style corn
1 can whole kernel corn
1 can tomato paste
1 (8-ounce) can ripe olives
1 cup Cheddar cheese, shredded

Dice meat and simmer for 30 minutes in water to cover. Add chili powder, onion, garlic, salt and pepper. Simmer 30 minutes. Moisten cornmeal in water. Add to meat. Stir in corn, tomato paste and ripe olives.

In the meantime, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Transfer the mixture to a large casserole and bake, uncovered, 1 ½ hours stirring occasionally and adding more water if needed. Cover with cheese and return to oven until cheese is melted, about 10 minutes.

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