Marinated soy curls, creamy polenta, and a tomato-vegetable base with fried capers give this recipe its depth of flavor and creamy texture. Tamal de Olla is a Panamanian specialty similar to tamales, but cooked in a pan (olla means “pan”) and omitting the banana leaves. My friend Nina, a chef and previously a restaurant owner, whom I met in New York several years ago, tells me that when she was little, she and her family would drive for several hours to visit their extended family in the countryside, far from Panamá City. The traditional recipe for Tamal de Olla includes shredded chicken, which often came from the local farms or family members’ backyard chicken coops. “I didn’t make the connection at the time,” says Nina, “but now that I’m vegan, I’m glad I’m able to enjoy a chicken-less version of this dish.”
Panamanian Tamal de Olla [Vegan]
For the Soy Curls:
- 5.25 ounces (150 g) large soy curls/textured vegetable protein (not the small granules, but those sometimes labeled “chicken style,” those from the Butler brand are ideal)
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 cups (1 L) boiling water
For the Creamy Corn:
- 3 cups (720 mL) water
- 1 cups (210 g) cornmeal or cornflour (also called corn maize, it is yellow in color and is not the same as cornstarch)
- 1 to 2 cups (240 to 480 mL) vegetable broth cup (57 g) vegan butter
- Sea salt to taste
For the Tamal Base:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons achiote seeds
- 1 red chile pepper, finely sliced
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup (120 mL) red wine
- 2 tablespoons gluten-free tamari or soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 large tomatoes, chopped
- 1 14-ounce (400 mL) can tomato puree (passata)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons pitted green olives, sliced
- 3 to 4 tablespoons raisins
For the Fried Capers:
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons capers
Make the Soy Curls:
- Place the soy curls, oregano, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over the soy curls and spices and mix well. Cover with a lid or plate and let soak for at least 15 to 20 minutes.
- Drain the soy curls and set aside.
Make the Creamy Corn:
- In a large pot, bring the water to a boil.
- Slowly add the cornmeal (to avoid clumping), and cook for 3 to 5 minutes over medium-high heat.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, occasionally stirring and adding vegetable broth as needed, making sure the texture is creamy and thick, and not runny.
- When the creamy corn is fully cooked, mix in the vegan butter and set aside.
Make the Tamal Base:
- When you start the water boiling for the creamy corn, combine the olive oil and achiote in a large nonstick pan. Cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, then remove the achiote (it’s meant to add flavor and color to the oil).
- Add the drained soy curls, red chile pepper, onion, bell pepper, garlic, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Sauté over medium heat for 10 minutes, then slowly add the red wine, tamari, red wine vinegar, and oregano. Cook for another 5 minutes.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and tomato puree, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 25 minutes. Remove about cup (180 mL) of the tomato base (but none of the soy curls) and blend it into the creamy corn layer using an immersion blender. The corn layer’s consistency should be thick and creamy, a bit like that of firm mashed potatoes.
Fry the Capers:
- Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over high heat. Once hot, add the capers and fry for 2 to 3 minutes until crispy, then remove from the heat.
- Assemble and bake the tamal: Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Add the green olives, raisins, and fried capers to the soy curl mixture. Let simmer for another 5 minutes.
- Finally, transfer the tamal base to a deep ovenproof dish (about 8 x 10 inches/20 x 25 cm) and top with the creamy corn layer. Bake for 15 minutes.