Delicious Tamale Pie

July 2, 2010 § 7 Comments


This is a wonderful recipe I got from the nutrition curriculum that our friend Jane Siemon teaches at the Youth Initiative High School here in Viroqua. I have embellished this recipe a little bit, most notably by adding red wine because whenever beef and tomatoes come together, wine is indispensable to make everything “pop” in just the right way. Although I arrived at this simple realization on my own years ago, my friend Jen later told me that you need some sugar and alcohol to fully bring out of the flavor of tomatoes, and wine delivers both. Of course, I don’t think wine would have made a good ingredient in a high school recipe, but I am not in high school anymore.


We start by sauteing a big chopped onion, a chopped red bell pepper, a couple of chopped jalapenos, seeds removed (or left on, if you prefer a hotter version), and some ground beef together in oil. I use the Driftless Organic Sunflower oil, which has long replaced both olive and vegetable oil in my kitchen, but any oil will work, really. Just don’t use butter. This is one of the few occasions when I recommend against it.

A generous sprinkling of Montreal Steak Seasoning added at this time is a great enhancement. Don’t underestimate this humble supermarket staple – it enriches my meat dishes enormously.


When the meat has browned and the onions are translucent, stir in some minced garlic, tomato paste, a whole bag of thawed frozen corn, and a small can of olives (any olives are fine, as long as they are either chopped or sliced).


Next, we need some liquid. The original recipe called for water, but I added crushed tomatoes instead. My friend Elizabeth uses salsa. I like to use my own canned tomatoes. I also stick beautiful labels that say “Muir Glen” on mine. OK, I am out of tomatoes for the year, so these cans here are tiding me over (or tying me over? I’m not sure) until the next crop.

And now we’re gonna use my magic hand-held blender to turn these tomatoes into a smooth puree without taking them out of the can.


See? I told ya. Magic.


Pour the tomatoes into the pot, along with some red wine. Don’t doubt the wine’s power to transform! I add it to my chili and Bolognese sauce as well. If the mixture still looks too thick after this addition, add more wine or water or both. In fact, I am pretty sure I added a little bit of both after I took this picture. It needs to be relatively liquidy so the vegetables have the chance to cook while the mixture thickens during simmering.


Be it chili or a tamale pie, I like to spice everything up with a lot of cumin and a little cayenne. Cumin is not optional here.

Now simmer everything, uncovered, until it’s nice and and thick.


Meanwhile, grate a small mountain of cheddar or provolone (the latter, being softer and saltier, is a slightly better choice for this, although, to be frank, the difference is really marginal). When it comes to cheddar, provolone, or mozzarella, I use exclusively Organic Valley cheese. If you are not big on organics, at least consider this particular brand of cheese – it’s a different food item altogether.

Once the chili-like meat mixture is nice and thick, turn off the heat and stir in the cheese.


Next, we’re gonna make the cornmeal topping. Many recipes I looked at feature a layer of actual cornbread on top, baking powder and all. This was not something I wanted to experience in this context, and I was glad that Jane’s recipe called for only cornmeal, salt, and water, cooked together until thick, and enriched with a tablespoon of butter. After some experimentation, I left butter out because I found that it took the whole thing a little overboard. You didn’t think I was capable of this, did you?

When it comes to cornmeal, I like a combination of coarse, “polenta”- style cornmeal and the regular fine cornmeal, where I use about 2-3 T of the coarse stuff to a cup of the fine stuff. But that part is up to you, really – personally, I enjoy a bit of grainy quality imparted by the coarse stuff.


Whatever combination you choose, use one measure of cornmeal to two measures of water. The original recipe called for a cup of cornmeal, a teaspoon of salt, and two cups of water. However, I found that it wasn’t quite enough for the entire surface so I doubled everything.


Here, I used 2 C of cornmeal to 4 C of water and 2 t of salt.


Now cook everything over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Do take the stirring seriously – this here is especially susceptible to lumping. But, if you do get lumps, no problem! The magic wand-blender will take care of it in no time.


Now spread the cornmeal mixture right on top of the chili-like stuff, which, by the way, is harder than it looks because it’s not exactly the most spreadable substance in the world, and the surface over which it is being spread is far from sturdy. But you can do it!

Notice that I spread mine right in the dutch oven where the filling was cooked. However, do know that the amount of cleaning required to return the dutch oven to pristine condition after this is way beyond average. If you like, transfer the filling into a ceramic casserole dish before spreading the topping over it. I did that in the past, and I found the clean-up to be easier. Just wanted to give you a fair warning.

Now stick it in the oven, uncovered, for 40 min at 375 degrees F. The corn topping, or at least sections of it, will become submerged during cooking, but that’s good! It might or might not resurface in the end, but it really doesn’t matter whether it does or doesn’t. Which brings me to my next point…


It sure ain’t pretty to look at when it comes out of the oven! Not pretty at all. In this case, the crust did not re-surface.


But that doesn’t matter because rich, meaty goodness is awaiting underneath! Serve it with a spoonful of sour cream and, if you want, a sprinkling of cilantro, although, not being a fan of cilantro, I went for parsley in this case, but only because I wanted to add a bit of contrast to the photo. To be absolutely honest with you, parsley doesn’t marry well with this dish.

By the way… if you know the connection between tamales and tamale pies, do tell! So far I can see none.

Jane Siemon’s Tamale Pie

For the filling:

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large RED bell pepper, chopped
  • 2-3 jalapenos, seeds removed, chopped
  • vegetable or olive oil, for sauteing
  • Montreal steak seasoning
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • a large, heaping T or two of tomato paste
  • 1.5 C red wine (cheapo is fine)
  • a bit of water, if the mixture is too thick
  • a bag of frozen sweet corn, thawed
  • a small can of sliced olives, drained, or an equivalent
  • a large can (or a quart jar) of whole tomatoes, pureed together with their liquid
  • 1 T ground cumin
  • a pinch of cayenne or red pepper flakes
  • 1.5 to 2 C of grated cheddar or provolone

Brown meat, onions, and peppers together in oil until the meat has began to brown and the onions are translucent. Sprinkle with Montreal Steak Seasoning, if using. Add garlic, tomato paste, wine, corn, olives, and tomatoes. If the mixture still looks thick, add more water or wine or a combination of both. Simmer until the mixture is thick. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese (keep in mind that the cheese will add extra salt, so go light on salt in the first place).

For the topping:

  • 2 C minus 2-3 T yellow cornmeal
  • 2-3 T “polenta”-style coarse cornmeal
  • 2 t salt
  • 4 C cold water

Place everything together in a saucepan set over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until thick. Reduce the heat to low if you feel like the mixture is boiling too hard. Spread on top of the meat mixture in the dutch oven, or, if you wish, transfer the filling to a casserole dish before topping and baking. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees F for 40 min. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of cilantro, if desired. I like serving this with a green salad on the side.

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§ 7 Responses to Delicious Tamale Pie

  • I could just eat a big bowl of that cooked cornmeal. Yum!

  • delaterre says:

    I love this recipe. Jane taught it to me in high school and I make it as often as possible. Polenta is so awesome!

  • Sofya says:

    Yes, Tegan, I got it from you! You might not even remember that, but it took me some 6 years to get to it.

  • Foodie says:

    Tamale pie & tamales…..I don’t think the tamale pie was invented until the casserole became widely popular in the 1950’s. Tamales themselves vary a good bit within Mexico and Central America. In the US they seem to vary with the origin of the immigrant community, so Tex-Mex tamales differ from the tamales made in MI or IA. I’m pretty sure the tamale pie is an Anglo invention, in part because real Tex-Mex tamales take 2 special ingredients (masa and fresh hogs’ heads) and prepping the meat can take 3-4 days; it’s a special occasion dish, like Christmas & New Year’s.

    Anecdotally, my mother’s mother in Texas had a Mexican-American maid in the 1950’s who sometimes cooked “Mexican food” for her, that was *ahem* Not Authentic, and some of those recipes got saved by the family. I suspect a lot of recipes in places like Better Homes & Gardens in the 1970’s and 80’s perpetuated this type of “Mexican food”. Of course, it can be quite good.

  • Sofya says:

    My BFF is a high-end foodie and even she brought tamales with her on a plane from the Southwest for a party (after coming back from visiting her parents). Not that there’s a shortage of hog’s heads, mind you.

  • Tes says:

    I love this recipe. It sounds simple and delicious! I will try this over the weekend 🙂

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