Judith Hausman
January 25, 2012
tamale pie

Photo by Judith Hausman

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Summer corn and tomatoes make a warming winter dish.

Time to screw open those canning jars and excavate the freezer to make use of the delicious trove you took such care to put by in late summer. Now, when you really need it, you can release the heat you built up in your kitchen when you blanched, peeled, chopped and processed in-season, garden goodies.

I had forgotten how good this simple and now-retro tamale pie recipe is until I recently made it again. It combines several summer treasures, warmed up with Tex-Mex chili flavors, including your frozen corn, greens, hot and bell peppers, as well as your tomatoes. It’s a fast family pleaser, and I’ve upped the vegetables in it to make it healthier as well.

If you don’t have your own pantry or freezer stash, there’s no shame in using a store-bought can of tomatoes, frozen supermarket corn and bagged or frozen spinach or other greens; the recipe will work perfectly well. You can make it vegetarian (actually, vegan — no egg, no cheese) either by omitting the ground meat or by substituting 14 to 16 ounces of cooked beans (kidney, pinto, cannellini).

Tamales in a Skillet (aka Tamale Pie)


  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 ¾ cup hot water (and/or tomato juice drained from canned tomatoes)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons oil
  • ½ to 1 pound ground beef or turkey (depending on how meaty you like it to be) OR 14 to 16 ounces cooked beans OR some of both
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ½ to 1 small, hot chili (such as jalapeno), minced
  • 1 large green or red pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped, frozen greens OR 12 oz. fresh spinach, chard or kale, cleaned and torn up
  • 2 cups corn kernels (frozen is fine – no need to defrost)
  • 1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes or a large jar of home-canned tomatoes, drained and chopped (juice reserved)
  • I tablespoon medium-hot chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped (optional)


Heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix the cornmeal, salt and water with a fork to the consistency of pancake batter. Add more water if necessary. If you reserved the juice from home canned tomatoes, you can heat that and use it for any part of the water needed. Set aside while you prepare the filling.

Heat oil in a large, 10-to-12-inch ovenproof skillet. Add ground meat and brown. When almost fully browned, add the onions, garlic and both peppers. If you are not using meat, just soften these vegetables in the oil. Add in the beans if you are using them, the tomatoes, corn and chopped frozen or fresh greens. Simmer briefly to heat through and evaporate some juice, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add chili powder and season to taste with more salt and some black pepper.

While this simmers, mix baking powder into the cornmeal mix until smooth. Spoon it on top of the tomato-meat mix, carefully spreading it over the top. Then sprinkle the cornmeal with a little more chili powder. Put the skillet into the hot oven. Cook 25 to 35 minutes until the cornmeal is firm and browning a little. Garnish with chopped, fresh herbs. Serves 4 generously.

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