By SHANNON WATKINS
My old college roommate is one of the sweetest, kindest people I know. She was always feminine without resorting to artifice, with huge blue eyes, a lilting giggle and a tender love for animals. She made good grades, was genuinely nice to everybody, and you couldn’t walk across our dorm room without tripping over some young swain quietly mooning after her. None of us would have been surprised if birds hadn’t landed on her shoulders bearing hair ribbons and songs of greeting. Despite her modesty and hard-earned accomplishments, we all liked her anyway.
Recently, to the surprise of no one who knows her, she declared a swap to vegetarianism after reading and following the Dalai Lama’s peaceable, critter-friendly teachings. I have not hosted her at my home—mostly because I tend to live like a hobo with a library—but have often wondered what I should make her if she did. Then I realized I have a number of friends whom I see intermittently who are also vegetarian or vegan, and while I have no problem eating within their parameters when I’m in their kitchens, I’m not so sure how well-prepared I’d be to feed them anything that doesn’t have bacon in it.
(Let us all pause for a moment and consider the saintly dedication of anyone who, for reasons moral or religious, denies themselves meat, especially from pigs, especially bacon. I am grateful to such people, partly because they set a fine example of compassion, and partly because that leaves more bacon for me.)
But in the name of my friends, especially my dear and wonderful former roommate, I felt the importance of having a recipe on tap for folks who eschew flesh. As always, one of my favorite cookbooks came to my rescue.
“Cover & Bake,” the same Cook’s Illustrated magazine cookbook that produced the chili mac recipe I offered a few months ago, has a veggie and bean tamale pie. The only animal-based food in it is the cheese you sprinkle on top, and you can go vegan by eliminating that.
I made it a few times a while back, and it was hearty and delicious, and you really don’t mind the absence of meat in it. I can very well see this being the centerpiece of a fall vegetarian potluck or informal dinner, although a table full of carnivores would probably enjoy it with some sausages on the side. I can also imagine mixing it up by adding some butternut squash to the roasting pan or stirring in some olive rings with the beans and corn. Either way, it’s good and fairly cheap to make.
Vegetarian Tamale Pie
2 28-oz. cans diced tomatoes, drained and 2 cups juice reserved
1 medium onion, chopped coarse
4 medium garlic cloves, chopped coarse
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, minced (check the Latin foods aisle)
1 tsp. cumin
1 Tbsp. chili powder
4 tsps. lime juice
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can kidney or pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 medium zucchini halved lengthwise and chopped into chunky crescents
2 tsps. minced fresh oregano
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
8 oz. shredded Monterey Jack cheese (optional)
Preheat oven to 475F and put an oven rack in the middle position. Toss tomatoes, garlic, onions, salt and oil in a bowl and spread out on rimmed cookie sheet. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes or until veggies are brown around the edges, stirring occasionally. Pour into a blender with chiles, spices, and lime juice and puree for 8 to 10 seconds, so mixture is still chunky. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Reduce oven to 375F. Stir corn, beans, oregano and cilantro together and spread evenly over bottom of greased 9 x 13” dish. Pour tomato mixture over and stir to combine.
4 cups water
1 ½ cups coarse cornmeal
¾ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
Bring the water to a boil over high heat in a heavy saucepan. Add salt and whisk in cornmeal slowly to prevent lumps from forming, unless your usual upper-body workout involves stirring fresh concrete. Reduce heat to medium high and stir until cornmeal softens and you have something like thick grits. I really can’t overstress the fact that you need to keep stirring it nonstop until it’s done or you’ll have corn-flavored lava that will take your skin off when it bubbles up before hardening into savory mortar. Remove from heat and stir in pepper.
Sprinkle dish with cheese, if using, and pour over cornmeal, making sure you create an even seal with it. Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes, then remove foil and bake another 30 or so until the crust is brown and the filling bubbles and you can actually sort of imagine life without burgers.
You will have a lovely dish, legitimately tempting and yummy. It’s quite possible that birds will flock to perch on your shoulder. If you’re as virtuous as I am, you’ll be hoping they’ve seen more Disney than Hitchcock.