Thanks to our generous housekeeper Dolores, Bob and I always have homemade tamales at Christmas. Her cornmeal creations come stuffed with a to-die-for, spicy chicken or pork mixture. Talk about addictive! I'd ask for her recipe but anything you have to wrap in corn husks seems far too complicated.
That's why I had to try this new Tamale Pie recipe from Krystina Castella's Crazy About Pies (Sterling Publishing, April 2013, $19.95). You get an authentic-tamale-tasting, cornmeal crust filled with zesty, tomato-laced ground beef and cheddar cheese. But you can forget all that work.
Although no corn husks are involved, this meaty main event takes about two hours from start to finish. To save time, you can prepare the chili filling in advance. Or, make and bake the entire dish ahead and just reheat it come dinnertime like me.
You'll need fresh garlic cloves, yellow onion, jalapeno peppers, celery, limes and, if available, corn for the filling. (I substituted frozen corn to simplify the process.) You can probably pull most of the 14 other ingredients listed below from your pantry. I had to pick up molasses and opted for Texas-favorite, Ranch-Style pintos (rinsed and drained) instead of kidney beans. Wait, I know what you're thinking ... molasses? I did a double-take as well but that sweetness pairs perfectly with the filling's heat.
Begin by sprinkling some kosher salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper in a large skillet. Heat the pan; then add the ground meat. The recipe recommends cooking it until "almost done" but we like our beef practically charred so I browned it completely before draining the grease and moving on to the next step.
Then stir in canned tomatoes, tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, cilantro, vinegar, molasses, and more salt and pepper. Let that simmer about five minutes then add the browned ground beef and cook five more minutes before mixing in fresh lime juice (which can't help but perk up the taste), corn and beans. Once that's done, turn off the burner and set the chili to the side while preparing the crust.
This is where things can get a little tricky. To make the top and bottom layer, you heat chicken broth in a large pan. Make sure the broth is REALLY hot before you start mixing in the cornmeal, adding a little at a time and stirring well after each addition. Once you've put in all the cornmeal and have a nice, smooth mixture, move the pan off the burner and add the milk, 3/4 cup of the sour cream (save the rest to serve with the completed dish), beaten egg, half the scallions (I used green onions) and pepper. But take it from me, don't rush the process. Always in a hurry, I failed to heat the broth and cornmeal enough and ended up with a thin, soupy mixture.
Hopefully, that won't happen to you but sometimes it's fun to adlib. So, instead of putting the dough on the bottom and top as described in the recipe below, I went with a single crust.
Using just over half the mixture, I poured it in a stone baking pan, topped it with the chili filling and slid it in the oven for close to an hour. That's about twice the time suggested but I wanted to make sure the crust was set. I also held off adding the cheese until about five minutes before pulling the pie from the oven for serving.
Later, Bob and I were in for a Texas-style treat. The delightful layers of cornbread, chili and cheese gave this dish southwestern flavor so outstanding that we even skipped adding hot sauce, sour cream or any of the other condiments we (mainly me) usually crave. As a bonus, we had enough for three meals and the taste just improved after being frozen and heated up. One crust or two, this comforting creation is a definite winner that deserves to be tried.
A creamy cornmeal crust is filled with a spicy sweet chili. Increase the heat by adding as many jalapeno peppers as you like.
Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and cayenne pepper in a large skillet. Heat the pan, add the ground beef, and cook, breaking apart the beef, until almost done. Drain the grease and transfer to a medium bowl. Wipe the skillet with a paper towel to remove excess grease.
Add the olive oil, garlic, onion, jalapenos, and celery to the skillet. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, cilantro, vinegar, molasses, and remaining sale and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Add the lime juice, corn and kidney beans and remove from the heat.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a 9 x 9-inch baking dish.
To make the crust, heat the chicken broth in a large saucepan. Whisk in the cornmeal, a little at a time, until smooth. Remove from heat and add the milk, 3/4 cup sour cream, egg, half the scallions and pepper.
Spread a layer of cornmeal mixture (use a little more than half) over the bottom of the baking dish. It should come part of the way up the sides. Add the meat mixture. Top with remaining cornmeal mixture. Sprinkle cheese over top. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until bubbly and light golden on top. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes. Spoon onto plates with a dollop of the remaining sour cream and sprinkle with the remaining scallions.
Recipe* Excerpted from Crazy About Pies
Other Works: Crazy About Cupcakes, Crazy About Cookies and Crazy About Cakes
Publisher: Sterling Publishing
Penned: April 2013
What's Inside: More than 150 recipes for pie lovers, including everything from savory, one-dish meals to sweet-and-soothing desserts. In addition to everyday favorites like Apple, Pumpkin and Banana Cream, you'll find Mascarpone Cream Petits Fours Pies, Happy Birthday Nectarine Pie with Raspberry Sauce and other sure-to-please, special-occasion selections. For something savory, there're Chicken Hand Pies, Macaroni Pie, Shepard's Pie with Sweet Potato Crust and much more. Whatever the filling, it's always encased in a luscious, made-from-scratch crust which even newbies can master. Besides sharing crust-making secrets (who knew to use the bottom third of the oven for even browning?), Krystina guides you through filling, decorating, storing and transporting pies and tarts like a pro.
Time Out: 288 pages
Available: $19.95 at Amazon and most book retailers
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