*Note to British readers: You might say it is a Mexican-influenced American shepherd's pie!
My mother never made tamale pie because my father was not a casserole man. Hey, maybe I should capitalize that - Casserole Man - because it seems like there are two kinds of men ... Now that I think about it, I don't think my dad liked anything made with ground meat. So we always had roasts, steaks, chops, braises and stews. (I know, I know ... cry me a river.)
My first elementary school had pretty decent food, and one of their best dishes was tamale pie. I didn't fully appreciate the quality of that school's food until I transferred to another elementary school that had horrible food. Then my junior high food was even worse because the food wasn't even made on site; it was made at the elementary school (the one with the horrible food that only got worse when it was transported across town).
Of course, I use nearly all organic ingredients for my tamale pie; so it's not quite the "economy" dish my school put out. But it's so easy, and the kids as well as the adults will like it. When serving it to adults, get ready for a trip down memory lane! Another thing I like about my version is that it's baked right in the skillet. Of course, if you don't have an oven-safe skillet, you can put it in a baking dish.
What was the best dish in your elementary school cafeteria? And the worst?
One-Skillet Tamale Pie
(Makes 6 to 8 servings)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 jalapeño or serrano pepper, minced
1.25 pounds very lean ground beef
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1 28-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup sliced ripe olives
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Cheddar or Jack cheese
2 cups masa harina
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Garnishes: sour cream, shredded cheese, salsa, avocado, cilantro, lime slices
1 In oven-safe 12-inch slope-sided skillet (I use the All-Clad 5112 Stainless 12-Inch Fry Pan--that pan is a real workhorse, the most frequently used pan in my kitchen) or a cast-iron skillet, heat oil and cook the onion and bell pepper. I get the onion going first while I'm chopping the bell pepper. Depending on your taste and on how hot the jalapeño or serrano is, add all or part of it to the pan; you can always add more later.
2 Add the ground beef and cook, breaking it up, until very well browned. Stir in the tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper and oregano. Cook for a minute or so to toast the spices. Stir in the tomatoes (I use Muir Glen) and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until much of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and stir in beans, olives and cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning. Smooth the top and set aside.
3 Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In medium bowl, whisk together the masa harina (I use Bob's Red Mill), baking powder and salt. In small bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs and oil or butter (I use Organic Valley). Add the milk mixture to the masa harina and beat until well mixed. It will be quite thick but should be spreadable. You might need to add 1 to 4 tablespoons more milk. Spread evenly over the meat.
4 Bake at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes. The masa harina topping will not rise high like a cornbread topping does, so don't be alarmed. I think the masa harina topping tastes more "authentic," more like a tamal (The singular of tamales is tamal, even though spell-check doesn't know that!) If you're not used to baking in a skillet, remind yourself to not touch the handle with your bare hand as you remove it from the oven and as you're serving from the pan. It's a good idea to wrap a towel around the handle and leave it there.
Note: If you let it rest for a few minutes before serving, it actually can be cut into tidy wedges! And it's a simple matter to cut leftover tamale pie into wedges and reheat in microwave.