A Vegetarian Update for Old-School Tamale Pie

Not to be confused with a Latin American tamale, a tamale pie is a beloved retro casserole in the United States, the kind of recipe you’d find taught in 1950s home economics classes, but in a very good way. A layer of ground beef chili covered with cornbread, it’s an easy, convenient and thoroughly adaptable classic that doesn’t get as much attention as, say, a chicken potpie but has the same cozy appeal.

Recipe: Vegetarian Tamale Pie

Because casseroles weren’t really a thing in my childhood, I didn’t meet a tamale pie until college. There it was in the cafeteria, golden on top, saucy on the bottom, looking, from my uninitiated perspective, like something I should be wary of.

But then I tasted it. The warm cornbread was nubby, crisp at the edges and very tender. And the ground meat was seasoned with a touch of chili powder, for a kick so gentle it was more like a nudge. It wasn’t like any chili I’d had before. There were no beans, and the beef was dotted with sliced pimento-stuffed olives and yellow corn kernels. Yet, somehow, it melded into something deeply delicious and thoroughly comforting.

A layer of bean-based chili covered with cornbread makes up the base of this tamale pie.Credit…Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

When I moved off campus, I forgot all about tamale pie for a decade or two. Then, one day, I stumbled upon the recipe in “The Joy of Cooking.” I made it as soon as I could assemble the ingredients. They were mostly the same as I remembered but with the addition of beans, and sans olives (which, frankly, I didn’t miss).

When I hoisted the pan out of the oven, it was burnished, bubbling perfection, a warming meal that immediately went into our dinner rotation.

Grated Cheddar tops the cornbread batter for a cheesy top.Credit…Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

Naturally, over the years, I tweaked the recipe, enriching the cornbread with sour cream, melted butter, grated Cheddar, a drizzle of honey. And I sharpened up that chili, too, doubling the chili powder and adding cilantro, along with jalapeños and poblanos to amp up that gentle nudge of heat to a full-on kick in the pants.

The tweaking continues in this version, where I’ve nixed the meat entirely. Then I pushed things even further by charring the chiles and onions, a technique common in Mexican salsas. It does require an extra step, but using a broiler keeps it relatively quick.

This zipped-up version never would have passed home ec, but it’s sure to get an A-plus at your next shindig.

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