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.

Share! It's the right thing to do.
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Zucchini Bread

One summer, I made the mistake of planting three zucchini vines. My father, an experienced gardener, tried to talk me out of it. “You’ll be buried in zucchini,” he said. “One plant will give you more than you can eat.”

I was certain that he simply underestimated my love for zucchini. But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

Needless to say, that summer I collected a large variety of zucchini recipes. The wonderful thing about the vine that keeps on giving is that zucchini can take so many forms: stuffed with rice or ricotta cheese and baked under a blanket of tomato sauce, layered in a veggie lasagna, sliced into a stir fry, chopped and added to soups. Even shredded and added to cake, muffins or bread, zucchini adds beautiful color and texture (plus a dose of good nutrition) to your favorite baked goods.

This is my favorite zucchini bread recipe. It freezes well, always a plus when you’re facing the mid-summer onslaught.


Zucchini Bread


2 cups sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup oil
3 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 cups shredded zucchini
3 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 T. vanilla


Combine the first five ingredients, in order, blending after each addition. Add the zucchini and stir well. Finally, add the cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla; stir again to distribute the spices throughout the batter.

This is the basic zucchini bread batter, but if you like more texture in your zucchini bread, add half a cup of walnuts or pecans. If you want to add raisins, now would be the time. Toss them with a little flour, though, to keep them from sticking together or sinking to the bottom of the batter during baking.

Pour the batter into two greased loaf pans and bake at 350 degrees for one hour. You can also make mini-loaves, for portion control—this recipe makes 16. (Bake mini-loaves for about 20 minutes.)

Share! It's the right thing to do.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Welcome to my Kitchen

What happens when a woman realizes that she needs a way to combine her great passions in life–food, words, and family life?

A blog, of course.

Those of you who are familiar with my other blog already know that I’m a little bit nuts about my family. Just a little. I think my children are two of the finest human beings I’ve ever known. My husband is, without question, the best man on planet Earth. When it comes to family, I’m all kinds of blessed.

You may also know that, in my copious free time–when I’m not teaching at Texas Lutheran University–I’m also a writer. It would not be overstating the matter to say that words saved my life. I was a bookish kid in a not-so-bookish family, spending long afternoons in alternate realities and grateful, always, for the opportunity to move outside the narrow margins of my little home town. I teach English because I respect the power of words, and I hope to help my students do the same.

But here’s something you might not know: I love food. Not just eating food, but shopping for food and cooking food and thinking about the various food items that might constitute a single dish or a whole meal. I’m crazy for food, when you get right down to it.

This blog will serve a very practical purpose: to share a few of the recipes I make for the family I love, to give me chance to write about the food I love, and to encourage other home cooks to fall in love with their kitchens. Along the way, I hope to encourage new cooks to have faith in their ability to make a tasty meal. It isn’t hard. It isn’t magic. It’s just food.

Here’s what you can expect from me, a.k.a. The Family Foodie:

  1. Balance. I try to make healthy meals that respect what we know about good nutrition, but I’m no stranger to gooey desserts. Like many people, I’ve struggled with weight issues for most of my life. But I don’t believe in diets, and I don’t believe in any eating plan that tells you to give up on something entirely (carbs, fat, whatever.) All things in moderation, with more of the good stuff than the bad stuff–that’s my motto.
  2. Estimates. Although I will be sharing recipes on this blog, please know that I rarely measure anything when I’m cooking. This means all measurements in my recipes will be approximate–with the exception of baked goods, which rely on chemical interactions and, therefore, need to be a little more precise. But even then, an extra teaspoon of vanilla never hurt anybody.
  3. Experiments. My usual cooking process goes something like this: Google “zucchini.” Look at ten recipes that include zucchini. Find one that looks good–say, “Zucchini Parmesan.” (I don’t know if that’s a real recipe, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?) Google “Zucchini Parmesan.” Look at five versions of that recipe. Get a general idea of what to do. Try it out. If I come up with a winner, I do my best to write down how I got there. But, as my family will attest, “Zucchini Parmesan” will rarely taste the same twice.
  4. Seasons. I like to eat locally-produced food whenever possible. That means I try to eat food when it’s in season–berries in the spring and summer, apples in the fall. I live in a country where almost anything is available to me year-round, but when I think about the cost and labor required to bring a half-pint of raspberries to the table in December, I’m compelled to save the raspberries for summer. And then buy them from a local farmer.
  5. Education. What else would you expect? I’m a professor. You should not be surprised to discover that I like to know where my food comes from, how it’s produced, how it came to be a part of our diet. I’m also fascinated by the chemistry of cooking. If you are too, I recommend Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise as a good introduction.

I hope you’ll cook along with me, try my recipes and offer your feedback. When it comes to food, I’m always up for learning something new.

Share! It's the right thing to do.