I grew up in suburban America, with parents from rural Indiana. We grew eating meat, potato, and gravy dishes with canned vegetables and Velveeta cheese as staples. It was the era of TV dinners, tuna-potato chip casserole, Campbell’s tomato soup, Rice-A-Roni, and Jello-mold salads. If it weren’t for my grandmother I probably never would have learned to cook from scratch.
When you speak of comfort foods, they tend to be those things you grew up eating as a child. Meals that remind you of a time when you had no responsibilities beyond getting good grades and doing the dishes. Endless summer days that stretched on forever, and long winter nights, snuggled up under warm blankets, never worrying about paying a gas bill or the mortgage. A simple time, an easy time, a time of innocence.
Comfort foods follow the premise of simple, good ingredients being combined in uncomplicated ways. Plenty of food, filling our bellies and souls. Warm and often packed with carbohydrates, which stimulate our brains to release Seratonin, the body’s natural antidepressant. Comfort food truly do comfort us, leaving us with a sense that all is well with the world.
Another hallmark of comfort foods is the one-dish concept. I have always loved it when I can put everything into one pot and out comes a finished meal. Today’s recipe is one of those. You cook the first part of it in a skillet on top of the stove, then cover it with a cornmeal batter and bake that in the oven. You get a casserole and cornbread all in one! I love the simplicity of the tamale pie – an homage to southwestern, Mexican, and other Hispanic cuisines all rolled into one.
I don’t know where it got its name, but there is little similarity between a traditional tamale and Tamale Pie. The first is made with masa, usually filled with a meat mixture, wrapped in wet cornhusks and then steamed. The pie is also made with a meat mixture, but it is topped with a cornbread mix and baked. The tamale is common to nearly all Spanish-speaking cultures, while the pie is an American creation. The recipe below is very mild, created with a child’s palate in mind. If you want heat, you are going to have to add it. Some chopped chipotles, fresh jalapenos, or dried anchos would all be great.
If you cook this in a cast iron skillet you will get a really nice crust on the cornbread topping. Cast iron skillets come from a variety of sources these days, the traditional ones are from Lodge, and prices range from inexpensive all the way up to the top of the line from Le Creuset and Staub. Enamel-covered cast iron is the easiest to maintain and do not require any special treatment. My only caution is that you treat them as if they were non-stick and only use wooden spoons or nylon utensils with them. When you purchase cast iron cookware, because of the weight, make sure you buy pieces that have a “support” handle on the side opposite of the main handle. This way you can easily use two hands to lift it. You will thank me for this tip later!
Serve this with a tossed green salad and you have a complete meal. If you want to make this a vegetarian meal, add extra beans and corn to the filling along with some cooked Spanish rice and canned mild green chiles. If you have never tried Tamale Pie, now is your chance. It may well become one of your family’s new favorites.
- Tamale Filling
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 2 tbsp chili powder
- 2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tsp)
- 1 lb lean ground beef or bulk pork sausage
- 1 (15.5-oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
- 1 can (14-1/2 oz) diced tomatoes, drained
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 tbsp minced fresh cilantro leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Cornbread Topping
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 tsp salt, divided
- 3/4 cup buttermilk
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp butter, melted and cooled
- 2 green onions, tough green tops discarded, remaining onion finely minced
- Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 450°F.
- For the tamale filling: Heat the oil in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, chili powder, and 1/2-tsp salt and cook until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Stir in the ground beef, beans, corn, and tomatoes, and bring to a simmer, breaking up the hunks of meat with a wooden spoon, about 5 minutes. Stir the cheddar and cilantro into the filling and season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat.
- For the cornbread topping: Meanwhile, whisk the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the buttermilk and egg together. Stir the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture until blended. Stir in the melted butter until just combined. Fold in the green onions.
- Dollop the cornbread batter over the filling and spread into an even layer. Place in the preheated oven and bake until the cornbread is cooked through in the center and golden brown on top, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve while hot.
Gluten-Free Cornbread Options for Skillet Tamale Pie
You can purchase Gluten Free Cornbread Mix from Bob’s Red Mill at many stores, including Whole Foods. If you prefer to make your own from scratch, here are three recipes for you to choose from:
- 1/4 cup sorghum flour
- 1/4 cup tapioca starch
- 1/4 cup potato starch
- 1/4 cup sweet rice flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 4 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp xanthan gum
- 1/4 cup vegetable shortening or lard (not butter)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Combine the flours by sifting them into a large bowl. Add the remaining dry ingredients and stir.
- Cut the shortening into the flours, the way you would when making a pie dough. You should end up with walnut-size pieces in a sandy flour. (Tita says that shortening or lard is essential here. Butter just won't be the same.)
- Combine the eggs and milk in a small bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid. Stir with a rubber spatula until everything is combined.
- Stir in the cornmeal, whisking fast, until it is just combined. Do not over-stir.
- Pour into a greased 9 by 9 by 2-inch pan. Slide it into the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the sides of the cornbread are slightly shrinking from the pan and a toothpick comes out clean.
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 1/2 cup soy flour
- 1/2 cup brown rice flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup milk
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Place butter in a 9-inch square baking pan or in a small cast iron skillet. Put the pan in the preheating oven until butter is melted. Remove from oven and tilt the pan back and forth to coat. Set aside.
- Mix cornmeal, soy flour, brown rice flour, salt, brown sugar and baking soda together. Add egg, milk and melted butter. Combine with a few strokes, not overbeating. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.
- 1 cup white rice flour
- 3/4 cup stone-ground cornmeal
- 2 to 3 tbsp sugar
- 2-1/2 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp xanthan gum, optional
- 1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp melted butter, divided
- 2 beaten jumbo-sized eggs
- 1 cup milk
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt) together in a med. bowl and set aside.
- Melt the 1 tbsp of butter in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or 8 to 9-inch round baking pan in the oven. This takes about three minutes. Swirl the butter around the pan coating the bottom and sides.
- In a small bowl, combine the eggs, milk, and 1/4 cup butter. Add this mixture all at once to the flour mixture and stir until just moistened. Pour batter into the hot skillet or baking pan.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm.