As soon as the weather turns cooler, Austinites start their annual hunt for tamales.
Many of us eat tamales year-round, but Texans eat (and make) more of them during the holiday season. Few of us have time to make tamales from scratch on a weeknight, though. This tamal pie, however, is a hearty potpie that is less time-consuming to make than traditional tamales.
Start with store-bought polenta to save time, and if you don't like the picadillo-inspired mix of olives and raisins, you could omit them entirely or create your own mixture with vegetables, ground beef (or ground lamb or a vegetarian alternative) and the seasonings of your preference.
RELATED: Meet the one and only Crescent Dragonwagon
Remember Gene’s Po Boys'? Here's how to make their famous red beans
Love corn? How to make black bean-filled arepas
Crescent Dragonwagon, my mom's favorite cookbook author who shared this recipe in her "Bean by Bean" cookbook from 2012, says that she used to cook the cornmeal on the stove, but after dealing with enough scalding hot bubbles of polenta spitting from the pot, she switched to store-bought polenta that comes in tubes, which is already cooled and easy to slice into pieces to form the crust on the pie. If you want to make your own polenta, cook the cornmeal according to the directions on the package and then spread in an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking dish. Refrigerate to cool and harden the polenta, and then cut into strips.
This tamal pie is delicious straight out of the oven, but I enjoy eating the leftovers with a fried egg for a savory breakfast.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1 poblano pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1 to 2 jalapeños, stemmed, seeds removed for mildness or left in for heat, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup vegetable stock, warmed
2 cups store-bought or homemade salsa
8 to 10 ounces cooked ground beef or vegetarian crumbles
1 to 2 cups cooked black beans, canned or home-cooked
1/2 cup sliced canned black olives
1/2 cup sliced green olives with pimientos
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil cooking spray
2 (18-ounce) tubes cooked plain polenta
2 cups grated Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheese (optional)
Place the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it's hot, add the onion and saute until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the carrot, green pepper, poblano pepper and jalapeños and continue sauteing for another 5 minutes. Lower the heat to medium low, add the garlic and ground cumin, and cook, stirring often, until the garlic is very lightly browned, about 1 minute more.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir the flour into the sauteed vegetables. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture starts to brown, 2 minutes. Whisk in the warm stock and the salsa and bring to a simmer. Let cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the ground beef or vegetarian alternative, beans, both kinds of olives, raisins and oregano. Season to taste with salt (remember, the olives are salty) and quite a bit of freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is thick and richly aromatic, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. (The filling can be made up to this point, cooled to room temperature, covered, and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat it before you continue.)
To assemble the tamal pie, start by spraying a 9-inch-by-13-inch or similar baking dish. Unwrap the tubes of polenta and slice them lengthwise in long strips that are about 1/3-inch thick (not in the small crosswise rounds as you'd logically expect). The strips cut from the edge of the tube will be narrow; those from the middle, nice and wide. Line the baking dish with the polenta, fitting the strips onto the bottom and sides, using all the strips.
Then spoon the hot filling into the polenta-lined baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Transfer the dish to the oven and bake for 25 minutes, then remove the cover. If using cheese, sprinkle the cheese on top. Continue baking, without a cover, for 15 minutes more. Remove from the oven, let stand for a few minutes and then serve hot. Serves 8.
— Adapted from a recipe from "Bean By Bean: A Cookbook: More than 175 Recipes for Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, Even Sweet Beans!" by Crescent Dragonwagon (Workman, $17.95)