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A Combs Family Favorite: Tamale Pie, or 1960s Southwest Style

September 3, 2008

Tamale Pie

These days there is no shortage of places to find new recipes. On the interwebs alone you’ve got food blogs, recipe forums, and an endless array of culinary websites like epicurious and Eating Well. Food magazines seem to multiply every time I go to the newstand, and new cookbooks are published almost daily, not just from the big name publishing houses but by individuals using print-on-demand services like to sell their own culinary expertise. All of this recipe abundance makes me think about my tattered blue folder stuffed with scraps of paper and print outs and index cards. It makes me think of the way people acquired recipes in the decades before cheap printing and the internet: from other people.

I suppose you could say that finding a recipe on a blog is still getting it from another person, and it’s true that the food blogging community is tight-knit. I feel like I know the writers whose blogs I read regularly, just by reading their words and seeing pictures of their kitchens and exchanging the occasional email or comment. There is a big element of the personal in food blogs, and of friendliness, but it’s still not quite the same as tasting someone’s spinach cheese bites at a party and telling them you simply have to have the recipe, or yet again pulling out the stained index card on which your Grandma wrote her Russian Tea Cake recipe.

This week, I wanted to go back to those recipes stuffed into my overfull blue recipe folder, recipes connected to people that I know, or to stories from my past. And up first is one of my favorites, both because I adore the person who introduced it to me, and because it’s Tex-Mex comfort food at its best: a cheesy, spicy, hot casserole with meat, vegetables, and cornmeal. In fact, my mom made something pretty similar to this when I was a kid, so it has that added comfort element of childhood nostalgia.

Tamale Pie

Most casseroles aren’t that attractive, and this one is no different. But don’t let that mish-mashed conglomeration of stuff fool you, this is one tasty 1960s-era Southwestern dinner. The recipe comes from the lovely Miss Crystal Combs, once the most regular recipient of my dinners. Tamale Pie is a Combs family recipe, and several years ago Crystal decided she had to share it with me. She emailed her Grandma and got the recipe, and I still have the stained printout in my recipe folder, appended with a story about Grandma Combs cooking this with Crystal’s younger cousins one summer.

Of course, Crystal would plotz before she’d cover the whole thing with cilantro, and I suppose that is the one and only saving grace of the fact that I no longer cook dinner for Crystal every night: I love cilantro and put it in everything.

I only made a few very small changes to this recipe, and those were largely due to what I had in the house. I would also recommend, though Grandma Combs didn’t specify, using medium- or fine-ground cornmeal, rather than the coarse cornmeal I used. There is just a little too much crunch left in my version.

Combs Family Tamale Pie

  • 1 T. canola or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 a red onion, minced
  • 1 lb. ground turkey (or ground beef)
  • 2 tsp. salt (Grandma says it sounds like a lot but it’s really the perfect amount) and a bit of pepper
  • a small handful of pickled jalapenos, sliced (my addition)
  • 1 T. cumin
  • 1/2 T. cayenne pepper
  • 3 ears of corn, boiled, kernels removed, or 1 14-ounce can of corn
  • 1 16-ounce can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 c. sour cream
  • 1 c. cornmeal
  • a small handful of chopped green Manzanilla olives, with pimentos (the Combs recipe uses black olives but I don’t like them and don’t have them)
  • 1 1/2 c. cheddar cheese, grated
  • chopped cilantro, if you so desire

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is nice and hot, add the chopped onion, and saute for about a minute, until they just soften. Add the ground turkey or beef, and break up with a wooden spoon. Cook the meat and onion together until the meat is no longer pink and is starting to brown a bit. Add the salt and pepper, spices, and pickled jalapenos, and continue to cook until the meat is nicely browned.

Preheat the oven to 350F. In a large bowl, mix together the corn, diced tomatoes, sour cream, cornmeal, olives, the meat mixture, and about a cup of the cheese. No, it doesn’t look at all good, but it will be, I promise. Spread the mixture into a 9 x 13 inch baking dish, and bake at 350F for about 20 to 30 minutes. Once a fork inserted comes out clean, spread the rest of the cheese on the top, and put the dish under the broiler for a few minutes.

Once the whole shebang comes out of the oven/broiler, sprinkle with cilantro, and let it cool for about five minutes before serving.

I would love to hear about some of your family favorites, those food-stained and well-used index cards you have in your recipe box or its equivalent.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2008 10:17 am

    Wow, it looks delicious! I SHOULD try it! Really can’t wait to taste it!

    Thanks for care to share the recipe!

    Blackened Fish Recipe

  2. September 8, 2008 5:36 pm

    It’s true that casseroles like this often look better in the baking dish than in the bowl, but who cares — this sounds like a nice tex-mex comfort dish, perfect with a cold beer.

  3. September 11, 2008 10:43 am

    This sounds delicious! Hhowever, I am with Crystal–I would forgo the cilantro as well! :-)

  4. October 1, 2008 9:13 pm

    I have never made a tamale pie, because we are not big casserole fans (except lasagna!), but yours looks so good, I have promised my husband that I will make one when the weather gets cooler!

    Thanks! Stacey


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