Tamale Pie

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Here’s the deal: If you like grits, chances are you’ll like this traditional tamale pie, made the old-fashioned way with cornmeal that’s boiled first and then baked to the consistency of firm grits. If you don’t like grits, you’ll be better off looking for a more-recent spin on tamale pie that uses cornbread for the crust.

That said, the corny crust in common versions of tamale pie is only vaguely similar to the flavor of masa flour dough used in real tamales. And traditional tamale pie filling doesn’t even try at Mexican mimicry. But that’s okay because tamale pie was born in America in the ’30s, a time when canned food was a modern convenience and casseroles were king. It’s been a comfort classic ever since Our version boosts flavor by including fresh-roasted tomatoes/garlic/& green chiles plus some cumin and chili powder. (I like to roast the vegetables either the night before, or the morning of the day I plan to serve this. If you’re time-crunched, you can use canned tomatoes and canned green chilies. ) We’ve left the sliced black olives in there along with a smattering of mild cheddar cheese, although you can omit both to suit tastes. And it’s okay to substitute ground turkey or chicken for the ground round of beef. For a vegetarian version, omit the meat and increase the amount of chiles, onions and tomatoes by half.

Makes 8 servings

Cornmeal Crust Ingredients

  • 5 cups water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups medium-grind Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal
  • 2 chopped roasted chiles (from below)

Roast Tomatoes & Garlic and Roast Green chile Ingredients

  • 1 lb small tomatoes, sliced in half through their “equator” i.e. horizontally
  • 1/4 cup oil (I like rice bran or grapeseed)
  • 6 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb fresh poblano or green bell peppers

Tamale Filling Ingredients

    • 1 large onion, peeled and chopped (about 2 cups of onion)
    • 1 Tbsp rice bran oil or grapeseed oil
    • 1 1/2 lbs ground round of beef (or substitute ground turkey or chicken)
    • 1 cup sliced black olives
    • Fresh-cracked salt and pepper to taste
    • 1/2 to 1 cup grated colby or mild cheddar cheese (omit if you like)
    • Greek yogurt or sour cream, to garnish
    • Cilantro leaves, to garnish


  1. Roast tomatoes, garlic and chiles: Set oven racks close together in the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. On two, half-sheet pans, spread parchment paper. On one of the pans, place all of the tomatoes, skin-side up. Sprinkle garlic slices over all. Grind fresh pepper and salt over all. Sprinkle oil over all. Place on the bottom of the two centered oven racks. On the second half-sheet pan, place all of the peppers, uncored and unpeeled. Place peppers on the top rack. Roast vegetables for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, turning the peppers every fifteen minutes to ensure they roast on all sides.
  2. Remove vegetables from oven. When cool enough to handle, pull off all of the peels from the tomatoes and from the peppers and discard. Scrape the tomatoes, garlic and oil into one dish and chop.  Using a cutting board, remove the core and seeds from each pepper. Reserve  two of the roast pepper for the cornmeal topping. Chop. Set aside in their own bowl. Chop the remainder of the peppers for the tamale pie filling. Add to the chopped tomatoes. Set aside.
  3. Make cornmeal crust: In a medium-large pot, heat water with 2 tsp salt to boiling. Slowly stir in cornmeal and whisk until thickened and beginning to be harder to stir–about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in a little butter, if desired. Stir in the two chopped, roasted chiles you reserved. Cover pot.
  4. In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, saute onion in grapeseed or rice bran oil.  Once soft, add the ground beef and saute until well cooked. Pour off and discard most of the fat. Stir in ground cumin and chili powder. Add reserved roasted tomato, garlic and chile peppers.  Stir in sliced olives.  Remove from heat. Turn oven heat up to 350.
  5. Well-butter a shallow, 2-quart baking dish. Using a non-stick spatula (or your hands) pat a 1/2 inch layer of the cornmeal mush into the bottom of the baking dish. Cover this with the meat/vegetable filling. Layer the remaining cornmeal mush over the top of the filling, spreading to the edges. Sprinkle the crust with the reserved grated cheese. Bake at 350 for 40 to 50 minutes. (Crust and cheese should be beginning to brown in spots; filling should be bubbling at the edges.)
  6. After removing from the oven, if you allow the casserole to “set up” for a few minutes, the cornmeal will be firmer when you serve it. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves and dollops of Greek yogurt or sour cream.

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