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Tamale pie, kicked up a notch

Classic family recipe gets an update for adult palates

By Meredith Deeds, Star Tribune
Published: March 20, 2024, 6:05am

Tamale pie is one of those retro dishes that anyone growing up in the ’60s and ’70s is sure to remember.

Although its name would lead you to believe it’s more of a Latin American dish, it’s hard to know where its origins lie. Like many tamales, it does have a corn-based element and a saucy, chile-spiked meat element, but that’s really where the resemblance stops.

However it began — recipes have been published as early as 1931 in “The Joy of Cooking” — it has become a thoroughly Americanized favorite. At least in my house, it gets everyone running to the dinner table to claim their fair share of the crispy cornbread crust that sits on top of the chililike meat and bean filling.

Like most of my childhood favorites, my mother’s version of this dish was geared more toward her young children’s tastes than her adult palate, with a “too sweet” filling made with a copious amount of ketchup mixed with a bottle of chili powder waved over the top, and a cornbread crust that started (and ended) with a little blue and white box of cornbread mix.

Needless to say, this beloved meal deserves an update, which is why this week’s recipe is Skillet Tamale Pie With Cheddar Jalapeño Cornbread Crust.

The basic elements remain the same; they’ve just been fine-tuned a bit. There’s no ketchup in the filling — instead, the traditional ground meat, beans and the addition of corn all swim in a fragrant tomato sauce, redolent of chili powder and garlic, along with a heaping handful of shredded cheddar cheese.

A sour cream cornbread crust — moist and tender on the inside, crispy on the outside — is quickly made from scratch with jalapeño-infused butter and yet one more handful of cheese.

While the filling may appear too saucy at first, trust me, it isn’t.

Part of the beauty of this dish, when it’s done well, is the balance of the chili filling to the cornbread crust, which soaks up an alarming amount of liquid during the baking process. If the filling is not wet enough going into the oven, the dish will be dry and crumbly coming out.

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I like to serve this dish with a dollop of sour cream on top, which, for me, is the perfect accompaniment. But I certainly wouldn’t be upset if some additional options showed up on the table, like chopped avocado, red onions, fresh cilantro or even a bowlful of fresh pico de gallo.

Skillet Tamale Pie With Cheddar Jalapeño Cornbread Crust

Serves 6.

A comfort food classic, this version dials up the flavor, adding Cheddar and jalapeño to the cornbread crust sitting atop the chililike filling. Sour cream is served on the side, but if you’re looking for extra credit, feel free to add chopped avocado, red onions, cilantro and/or pico de gallo. From Meredith Deeds.

For the tamale filling:

6 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 medium jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tbsp. chili powder

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lb. ground sirloin, (lean)

1 (15.5-oz.) can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 c. frozen corn kernels

1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce

1 c. chicken broth

2 c. shredded cheddar cheese, divided

For the jalapeño cornbread topping:

1 c. fine yellow cornmeal

1 c. all-purpose flour

3 tbsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

2 large eggs

3/4 c. sour cream, plus more for serving

1/4 c. buttermilk

1 medium jalapeño, cut into thin slices

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

For the tamale filling: Heat butter in a 12-inch cast iron or stainless-steel ovenproof skillet over medium heat until melted. Add chopped jalapeño and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until softened. Transfer all but 1 tablespoon of the butter mixture to a medium bowl and reserve for the cornbread topping.

Add the onion and cook until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, chili powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper to the same skillet and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Stir in the ground sirloin, beans, corn, tomato sauce and broth, and bring to a simmer, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese into the filling. Taste and re-season with salt and pepper, if necessary.

For the cornbread topping: In a large bowl, whisk the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda and remaining 1 cup of cheddar together. In the bowl with the jalapeño-butter mixture, whisk the eggs, sour cream and buttermilk together. Stir the wet mixture into the flour mixture just until combined.

Using a large spoon, place small dollops of the cornbread batter mixture on top of the beef filling, then use the back of the spoon to spread it into an even layer. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come all the way to the rim of the pan, as it will spread out a little in the oven. Arrange jalapeño slices over the top.

Bake until the cornbread is cooked through in the center, about 18 to 22 minutes. Serve warm, with sour cream on the side.