Tamale pie: If you don’t know what it is, it’s time to get wise. When I first suggested it to Brendan, after he brought home some organic ground beef and fresh corn from our local co-op, he had no clue what I was talking about. He’s now asking for it on almost a weekly basis; it’s just that good. And really, what’s not to like? Saucy, spicy ground meat with peppers and onions, topped with a cheesy cornbread crust, sprinkled with freshly chopped cilantro… if your mouth isn’t watering from the description, take a good hard look at my photo (to right). I bet I know what you’re having for dinner.
The appeals of this dish are many. Obviously, there’s the flavor, which (like most casseroles) only improves with age. It’s also very straight-forward to make, and is easily adaptable to whatever you have on hand. Ground beef, ground bison, ground turkey… it’s all gravy. Got a can of tomatoes hanging around? Use it. Over-ripe tomatoes sitting on your kitchen counter? Roast and purée them. Little pieces of cheddar, pepper jack, and manchego in your cheese drawer? Grate ’em up and toss ’em all in. I improvise every time I make tamale pie, but for those of you who like a recipe to stick with, I’ve documented last week’s process for you, to help you get started.
Disclaimer: If you’re expecting something that closely resembles tamales, think again. You can make tamale pie with a more masa-like crust (consisting of cornmeal, water, and salt), but I prefer the cornbread topping. It allows you to pack more flavor into the dish with the additions of cheese and seasoning, as well as textural contrast with the whole corn kernels.
- Ingredients for cheese cornbread (my recipe)
- 2 lbs ground meat
- 6 small tomatoes
- 12 tomatillos
- 2 red bell peppers
- 1 onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- vegetable oil
- ground chipotle powder
- ground cinnamon
- ground cumin
- dried oregano
Preheat oven to 375ºF. While the oven is heating, roast your whole corn cob (for cornbread, with husk still on) and tomatoes/tomatillos (tossed with oil, salt and pepper), about 30 minutes. If you have a gas stove, char your peppers over the open flame, until black all over, and then seal into a plastic bag to sweat. If not, roast these in the oven as well. Proceed with cornbread recipe as directed, but instead of using a cast iron skillet, sauté the onion in a large pan so that you can reuse it for cooking your meat, and save yourself an extra dish to wash. Do not bake the cornbread, simply set aside the batter until your meat is done.
Dump your tomatoes and tomatillos into a blender or food processor, along with all their juices, and purée into a smooth salsa. (Don’t fret about volume looking at the photo to right, we have a mini food processor that was handed down from B’s grandma.)
Next, mince your garlic and dice your second onion. Reheat the pan with a splash of oil and add your meat, breaking it up with a spatula. Lightly salt and pepper. As soon as some of the fat starts to render out of the meat, add the chopped onion and garlic. Begin adding your seasonings. I like a healthy dose of oregano (1-2 Tbsp), a pinch of cinnamon, about 1/2 tsp of cumin, and 1/2 tsp chipotle. If you like things extra spicy, as Brendan does, throw in a dash or two of your favorite hot sauce. Of course, this can always be added to taste by each individual after serving. Add the tomato/tomatillo purée, and leave over low-to-medium heat to simmer while you prep the bell peppers.
Grab that plastic bag with your peppers in it. The skin should easily come off under cold water, as well as the seeds. Chop the pepper into chunks and toss into the pan. (If you roasted your peppers in the oven, clean out the guts and then simply rough-chop them.) Stick a spoon in and taste the juices, then add additional salt, pepper, and spice to taste.
Now, it’s time to assemble. Spoon your meat into the bottom of a 2-quart casserole dish. Do not fill more than halfway. If you have too much, simply set the remainder aside for quesadillas later in the week. Some sauciness is good, but if not enough of it has cooked off, don’t feel the need to add it all. The meat should be moist, but not swimming. Begin spooning the cornbread batter over the top. It will be very thick, depending on how much cheese you’ve added (I suggest lots). Once you have all the batter on, you can begin to gently spread and smooth it.
Stick the final product straight in the oven, uncovered, for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown. Let sit 10-15 minutes before serving, topped with freshly chopped cilantro!
It may sound a little overwhelming for the first-time cook, but once you go through the process once, you’ll see how everything fits together. And believe me, if it were 10 times harder to make, it would still be worth it. Personally, I enjoy making everything from scratch, but if you’re more of a semi-homemade kind of cook, you can always substitute canned tomatoes or a jar of salsa for freshly roasted/puréed. You can use a ready-made Mexican seasoning blend for your meat. You could even (forgive my shudder) use a boxed cornbread mix. I’ll try not to judge. However you end up making it, make it. Your taste buds will thank us both.