What is Tamale Pie? I like to think it is a way to give harried moms and dads a convenient and economical way of making tamales without tedious prep and spending hours in a hot kitchen. A little bit of history will help to understand this century-old dish.
After entry into the “war to end all wars” the government promoted “Meatless Tuesdays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” imploring Americans to voluntarily modify their eating habits in order to increase shipments of meat and wheat to our armed forces overseas. Rations were ultimately imposed making meat scarce and even if you could get it, expensive. No wonder Tamale Pie was generally considered to be a vegetarian dish.
Although not always a vegetarian dish, Tamale Pie was always economical. In my copy of the Country Cooking with Flair cookbook published by the California Milk Advisory Board in 1975, the Tamale Bake Casserole recipe (page 79) states that “Entrees like this often become family favorites. When you spoon into this economical, high protein casserole, you’ll find the cheese has melted blending all components into a flavorful and wholly delightful mixture.”
My version is very different and based on my first taste of Tamale Pie at East Ave Elementary School in Hayward, California. Although mom usually made bag lunches, she occasionally gave my brother, John, and me twenty-five cents each with which to buy a hot lunch. Talk about economical!
As we were let out of our 4th grade classroom and got in line for lunch our Principal, Mr. Perry, was talking to some of us and making us laugh. As we passed from the hallway into the lunch room my attention shifted from Mr. Perry’s banter to food. Whatever they were serving for lunch that day was neither my favorite pan-baked pizza nor the juicy meatloaf (my second favorite dish.) My imagination went wild trying to figure out what this new lunch treat could be. I couldn’t wait to taste it.
Tamale Pie has continued to be tasty, economical and as versatile as your imagination. As long as it has corn meal and a filling, it is a pie. My version is a two-layer pie with layers of herbed polenta and a scrumptious filling in between. Top it with a little cheese, bake, and serve with a smile on your face.
6 cups water
1½ cup cornmeal
1½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano (chopped fine)
15-ounce can diced fire roasted tomatoes (drained)
15-ounce can seasoned pinto beans (drained)
4 ounce can sliced olives (drained)
½ cup cilantro (chopped)
1 cup corn kernels (fresh is best but frozen is OK)
½ cup salsa
2 teaspoons cumin
2 cup shredded Mexican-blend cheese
1 tablespoon butter (melted)
2 green onions (sliced thin)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 17×12-inch half sheet pan (rimmed baking sheet) with nonstick cooking spray. Prepare a separate 9×9-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
Bring water to boil in a medium sauce pan. When the water boils, whisk in the cornmeal adding small bits at a time. Whisk constantly to prevent lumps. Continue to whisk until the cornmeal begins to thicken, about 2 minutes. Add the salt and the oregano. Stir to combine. Reduce the heat so that the cornmeal bubbles slowly. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Spread cooked cornmeal onto the half sheet pan about ¼-inch to ½-inch thick. Refrigerate for 30 minutes prior to assembly.
While the polenta is setting up, make the filling by adding the tomatoes, beans, cilantro, corn, olives, salsa, and cumin to a large bowl. Mix to combine and set aside.
Remove the cornmeal from the refrigerator. Carefully cut two sheets of cornmeal to fit the baking pan and layer one of the sheets on the bottom of the pan. Spread the bean mixture on top of the cornmeal and then top that with 1½ cups of the cheese. Layer the other sheet of cornmeal on top. Brush top with melted butter.
Bake, uncovered, for 25 minutes or until heated through. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the remaining cheese and all of the green onions. Allow cool a few minutes before serving.
Tip for harried moms and dads: Prepare the pie the day before. Once completed, you can cover and refrigerate it until ready to bake the next day.