Comforting, Cheap and Kid-Friendly: Half-the-Meat Tamale Pie

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tamale pie
Food and taste are cyclical in a person's life. A dish that is a hands-down favorite in your childhood may not seem so desirable as an adult. Take scrambled eggs. These were my favorite childhood breakfast, but once I was a teenager I detested their wobbly texture and thought their odor was slightly sulfuric. Then, when I was pregnant, I couldn't seem to eat enough scrambled eggs.

So what does this have to do with tamale pie? Everything. You see tamale pie is one of those dishes many of us loved in our youth, but then either forgot about or hated once we were in our 20s. The whole casserole thing belonged to a time of culinary naiveté from the 70s and 80s, and so we tucked the thought of tamale pie away with deviled eggs and Jell-O.

But now that I'm a mom trying to find new meals for my kids to eat, I have finally come full circle. What seemed unsophisticated a few years ago now seems like a completely legitimate dinner for a family with two kids. There is nothing urbane or refined about a weekday meal crammed in between homework and Girl Scouts and a quick casserole that is full of nutritious ingredients your kids will eat without complaint is the only appeal you need. From Creamy Chicken and Rice Casserole to Cheesy Enchilada Casserole, my weekday meals are relying more and more on one-dish recipes that fall into the category of comfort food and are easy on a kid's tongue. Bring on the casseroles and pass the sour cream!

Here's my Half-the-Meat Tamale Pie recipe. Unlike other similar casseroles, this one uses only a half-pound of meat (either beef or turkey is fine) plus two cups of whole beans. This makes it not only more heart healthy, but also incredibly inexpensive. The entire dinner for four to six people costs about $10 to make and includes fresh vegetables like Anaheim peppers and whole kernels of corn. It's also a dish my children love, and I have to say that although I wouldn't have made this dish in my 20s, I am rather fond of it now.

Recipe: Half-the-Meat Tamale Pie

Summary: A Southwestern casserole made using meat, beans and chilies with a cornmeal crust

By Denise Santoro Lincoln

Pan of Tamale Pie

Prep time: 25 min
Cook time: 40 min
Total time: 1 hour 5 min
Yield: 1 tamale pie (4-6 servings)


  • 1 Tbsp corn or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 pound ground meat (beef or turkey)
  • 1 15 oz can or 2 cups black beans
  • 1 whole onion minced
  • 2 Anaheim peppers minced (If you want to really go retro, use a can of sliced Mexican chilies instead)
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth (plus more if needed)
  • 1 Tbsp chile powder
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp dried Mexican oregano (regular Oregano is fine)
  • 1 cup slice black olives (You got it. The ones from the can. Now stop sneering.)
  • 1 ear of corn (removed from the hull) or 1 cup frozen corn
  • Cornmeal Crust

  • 1/2 cup masa harina or finely ground corn meal (if you don’t have this on hand, just use 1 cup medium ground cornmeal)
  • 1/2 cup medium ground corn meal
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 cup cheddar or Monterey jack cheese grated
  • Salt to taste


  1. Heat oil in a large pan on medium-high heat and then add in the onions. Sauté for 3-5 minutes or until softened.
  2. Add in the meat, chili powder, oregano and ground cumin and then continue to cook until meat is browned.
  3. Toss in the Anaheim peppers and sauté for another minute and then combine the tomato paste into the vegetables and meat. Cook for another minute before adding in the broth and then stir to fully incorporate.
  4. Add in the beans, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  5. For the crust, you should now boil the water and broth in a medium pot with about 1/2 tsp salt. When mixture comes to a boil, whisk in the masaharina/finely ground cornmeal and medium ground cornmeal. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring almost constantly (this is sort of like making a quick polenta). Add salt to taste.
  6. Add the olives and corn to the meat and bean mixture and then place it in a 9x13 baking pan (or just use the pan you cooked it in if it's oven proof. Once again I use my handy dandy large cast iron pan).
  7. Add 1/2 cup cheese into the hot cornmeal topping and then pour it evenly over the meat and beans and then top with the final 1/2 cup of grated cheese. Bake for 30-40 minutes (if you have a convection oven you will be closer to 30 minutes; if a regular oven closer to 40).
  8. When crust is golden brown remove casserole from the oven. Serve with sour cream.

Culinary Tradition: USA Southwestern