Elaine Revelle: Putting strawberries to ultimate use

wooden spoon

It’s wonderful to welcome cool nights and say goodbye to sweltering ones.

Even the weather has been unusual this year: too many warm to hot nights and an alarming number of times when there was no appreciable cooling off.

I love our Valley’s typical fall weather. Days are still warm, but nights remind us winter is coming. Thank goodness for the Santa Ynez River channel that funnels cooler coastal air into our lives and homes.

And, with the cooler climate nothing is homier than a hot pot of something stewing on the stove.

With Halloween behind us it’s time to turn our thoughts to the upcoming holidays and, as we all know, they, too, will be “different” this year.

However, that’s no reason to turn our backs on some traditional home cooking and, for anyone who hasn’t tried this week’s recipe, here’s a repeat of one of my all time favorites. Years, nay decades, ago former Valley-ite and fellow Book Loft employee Carol Drum introduced me to her delicious chicken tamale pie.

Trust me, it’s the perfect dish for a fall/winter meal.

Somewhat time-consuming, but worth every minute.


1 stewing hen or fat fryer

1 stalk celery

1 onion, quartered

2 cloves garlic, cut in half

2 to 3 tablespoons (cubes) chicken bouillon, if needed

* * *

4 tablespoons chicken fat

4 tablespoons flour

3 to 4 tablespoons chili powder

2 to 3 tablespoons ground cumin

3 eight-ounce size cans tomato sauce

3 cups rich chicken broth

* * *

1-1/2 cups cornmeal

5-1/2 cups rich chicken broth

2 small cans pitted black olives, well drained

1/2 pound (or more) grated Monterey Jack cheese

This should be started the day before serving. Cook chicken (if you use a fryer, make sure it’s fat) with onion, celery and garlic in water to cover. Bring to a boil, turn heat down and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Cool slightly and strain into a large bowl or another pan to separate meat and veggies from broth. You should end up with about 8-1/2 cups of rich chicken broth. If not, add canned broth or water and bouillon. Place broth in freezer or refrigerator; fat will rise to surface and solidify, making it easy to skim and set aside.

Meanwhile, remove chicken from bones and cut up into bite-sized pieces. (Discard vegetables.) Set chicken aside. In a large kettle, add chicken fat, flour, chili powder and cumin and cook over a medium heat until fat has melted and blended smoothly with flour and spices.

Mix tomato sauce with 3-1/2 cups chicken broth. Gradually add broth mixture to fat and spices, stirring constantly to make a smooth sauce. Increase heat to bring to a boil and, still stirring, cook until slightly thickened (about 5 minutes). Taste at this point and add salt if necessary.

Make polenta by bringing remaining chicken broth to a full rolling boil and adding dampened** cornmeal slowly. Stir constantly to avoid lumps and cook until thickened. To assemble, use a 9-by-12-inch baking dish and spread half of polenta over bottom. Top with chicken, sauce and olives. Drop remaining polenta onto chicken by spoonful and cover with grated cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until cheese has melted and sauce is bubbling.

*If you can’t find a fat chicken, ask your friendly butcher to save the fat removed when whole chickens are cut up.

**To “dampen” cornmeal, measure necessary amount into a bowl and sprinkle top with a little water. Stir well and “rest” for about 2 to 3 minutes. This usually is enough to prevent lumping.

NOTE: This makes a lot and may, depending on the size of your chicken, actually fill a small casserole in addition to the larger pan. Also, since it freezes well for up to two months, you may want to divide it in half and make two, which is what I usually do.

Longtime Valley resident Elaine Revelle can be reached at thewoodenspoon@juno.com