Thursday, July 1, 2010

Embrace Your Inner Texan: Easy Tamale Pie

What’s that you say? You don’t live in Texas? You’ve never been to Texas? Neither had I,until we moved here nine years ago. We came here only because I’d found a job in the area. We came planning to stay only as long as it took for my husband or me to find a job somewhere else. We did not plan to make this place our home.

But, you know. Things happen. In this case, what happened was that we fell in love with San Antonio.

And I fell in love with a whole new world of food: carne guisada, purple hulled peas, tres leches cake, cheese grits, any slab of meat you might think to throw in the barbecue . . . the truth of the matter is that I first embraced my inner Texan while standing in the kitchen, contemplating yet another dinner. The way my family eats these days is directly influenced by where we live, and one of our favorite easy meals is Tamale Pie.

The name of this recipe is a little misleading, because Tamale Pie doesn’t serve in wedges. Instead, you’ll scoop up big spoonfuls of cornbread and filling, then slide them (or invert them) onto a plate or into a bowl. Whether the cornbread ends up as a top crust or a bottom crust is your call.  There are many variations on this recipe, too, as you’ll discover if you Google the name. Traditionally, Tamale Pie is made with ground beef; I’ve made it with ground turkey as well, and my kids don’t seem to notice the difference. Some recipes call for a topping made of thickened, boiled corn meal, similar to a traditional tamale coating; we prefer a topping that’s closer to cornbread. I’ve made the topping from scratch, using my favorite cornbread recipe, but this easy version uses a box of Jiffy cornbread mix. It’s slightly sweet, a nice contrast to the spicy filling.

This is an infinitely malleable recipe. I’ve made it without the green pepper; with diced tomatoes sans the green chilies (in which case I increase the chili powder and garlic, for a bit more kick); and with crushed tomatoes (again, add extra chili powder and garlic), which makes the filling more saucy and less chunky. If you go with the crushed tomatoes, give the filling extra time in the skillet before putting it in the oven–and leave the lid off, so some of the liquid can evaporate.

Naturally, this dish goes well with your favorite Tex-Mex accoutrement, like guacamole and sour cream, but it’s a winner all by itself. My favorite thing about Tamale Pie is that it’s a one-dish dinner: meat, grains and veggies (plus a bit of dairy) all in one tasty locale.


Easy Tamale Pie


1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small green pepper, diced
1 lb. lean ground beef (or ground turkey)
1 can diced tomatoes and green chilies
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. chili powder
1 can black beans, drained
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided use
1 cup corn kernels (thawed, if frozen)
1 box Jiffy cornbread mix


Coat a large oven-proof skillet with cooking spray. Over medium heat, cook onions and garlic until you can smell them (2 or 3 minutes). Add the green pepper and saute for a few more minutes.

Add the ground beef or turkey and cook until no pink is visible. Add the can of tomatoes and chilies, the oregano, and the chili powder. Stir everything together, then add the beans and corn to the skillet. Once again, stir everything together. Lower heat to a simmer and put a lid on the skillet. Let everybody mingle while you make the cornbread topping.

Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. Prepare the Jiffy cornbread as directed on the box, but add an extra splash of milk (maybe a tablespoon). The cornbread batter will be a little soupy, which is what you want. Let it sit in the mixing bowl for two or three minutes, so it has a chance to thicken and rise just a bit.

Remove the lid from your skillet and set it aside. Stir half of the shredded cheese into the mixture in the pan; pour the cornbread batter over the top. (It will seep into the filling a little. Again, this is what you want--the cornmeal soaks up some of the liquid as it bakes.) Don't worry if the cornbread doesn't completely cover the top; mine usually looks like a cornbread island surrounded by a moat of meat and vegetables. If your cornbread island isn't symmetrical or centered, don't worry about it.

Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the cornbread batter and put the skillet in the over for 20 minutes, or until the cornbread topping is set in the middle and the edges are lightly browned.

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