Tamale Pie

by Stacey Jaros


When I was very young, my mom, dad and I would have dinner together at the dining room table a couple nights a week. Most nights my mom and I would have dinner together just the two of us because my dad was working in retail and wouldn't get home until after my bedtime. On those nights dinner would be often be simple.

One of my favorite meal memories that I have no recollection of my dad ever eating is frozen tamales, canned refried beans, and canned asparagus. The asparagus was served chilled, soggy, and plain. Don't judge. I love fresh, roasted, asparagus but sometimes the canned stuff is just what I'm craving.

At first the meal sounds "instant" but it actually did require a bit of planning. The asparagus needed to be placed in the fridge to chill. The beans were easy enough, they're just heated on the stove top. The frozen tamales took about 45 minutes to steam on the stove top. Sure the beans and tamales COULD be warmed in the microwave but it really is best to do them on the stove. So the meal isn't instant but less than an hour is pretty quick.

The variety of frozen tamales we always had were XLNT.

  Neither Jeff nor I likes olives so I decided to leave them out.

Neither Jeff nor I likes olives so I decided to leave them out.

When I thought about the tamale pie recipe from The Red Box I thought a tamale alone is a pretty perfect dish. Why would I want to mess it up with all those other ingredients? Unfortunately the only frozen tamales I've tried locally aren't very appetizing. Whereas when I lived in Southern California I always kept a few tamales in the freezer, since I've lived in Northern California it's only something I prepare from time to time and it's never as delicious as I wish it would be. Maybe using the frozen tamale as the base for a meal would help amp up the flavors.

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The first thing I did in preparation was steam the tamales. The instructions with the recipe don't specify whether the tamales ought to be cooked. In fact, it doesn't mention whether they should be frozen or fresh. I thought it would be very hard to cut frozen tamales. Since the other meat going in the dish would be hot, I thought the tamales ought to be a similar temperature. I'm pretty sure this was the right decision. I suppose if you had fresh tamales which were merely refrigerated it would be fine to add them to the dish cold. If you were using frozen tamales I think heating them is the way to go.

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While the tamales were steaming I browned the meat and onions. I drained the meat and then placed the meat and onions in the baking dishes.

When the tamales were steamed I probably should have waited for them to cool but I wanted to get the casserole in the oven. I thought they would slice easily if I kept them in their wrapper but that ended up being a poor choice.

 Keeping the wrapper on ended up smushing the tamale and breaking up the masa.

Keeping the wrapper on ended up smushing the tamale and breaking up the masa.

 This particular brand of frozen tamales has very chunky meat, making them even harder to slice.

This particular brand of frozen tamales has very chunky meat, making them even harder to slice.

The recipe instructions call for slices of tamale to be placed over the beef and onions. I figured it wouldn't matter much if I spooned it all over the dishes. The tamales held together much better with just the ends sliced off and the remaining wrapper removed.

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Even though it was a little easier to slice them this way it still didn't end up with discs like I thought the recipe was suggesting. Hmm, maybe they were meant to be sliced frozen. I could have gotten pretty neat rounds from a frozen tamale with a really sharp knife. Too late at that point.

The recipe easily serves 8 so I initially thought of halving the recipe and having two meals from it. Instead I made the entire recipe and split it into two halves. One half I immediately froze. The other half made dinner one night and leftovers another night. The half that was frozen made another meal and leftovers a week or so later.

 Whether neatly sliced, or mushed from my failed first slicing attempt, the tamales ended up looking about the same in both of my cooking dishes.

Whether neatly sliced, or mushed from my failed first slicing attempt, the tamales ended up looking about the same in both of my cooking dishes.

 Over the tamales went some of the tomato sauce and corn kernels.

Over the tamales went some of the tomato sauce and corn kernels.

 I wish I could have made the tomato sauce cover a bit more of the other ingredients.

I wish I could have made the tomato sauce cover a bit more of the other ingredients.

I added the remaining tomato sauce. I wanted to cover as much of the surface with sauce as possible. I suppose you could warm the sauce before putting it the dish to help speed along the cooking process. It would probably only save you 5 minutes or so in the oven and would dirty another dish. It doesn't seem worth it but if you're in a hurry give it a shot.

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I put the portion I was serving that night in the oven. The other dish I covered and put it in the freezer. By the time I cleaned up my prep-mess, dinner was hot and bubbly.

It was quite delicious. I really liked the corn with the other ingredients. I think there is an opportunity to add some seasoning to the ground beef and onions. I'm sure if I was using my favorite XLNT tamales I would want that special flavor to stand out.

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I doubt I would ever make this dish with XLNT, or homemade, tamales. I will probably make this again with the store-bought frozen tamales I have available to me locally.

My favorite discovery when working on this recipe was learning that a limited number of local area stores of a certain chain carry my favorite frozen XLNT tamales. You can bet I'll be checking my local outlet.

Tamale Pie

1 lb hamburger
1 onion
1 can olives, sliced
2 big beef tamales
2 small cans tomato sauce
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
Grated cheddar cheese

In pan brown hamburger & onion.
Beef tamales sliced.
Cover with tomato sauce, corn, and olives.
Top with cheese.
Cover and bake 30 minutes 350° oven.