Interestingly, the tamales I recall were prepared ones, an almost unheard of circumstance in our large family. I think it’s a testament to Mom’s love of Mexican food that she chose them as one of her very rare indulgences.
But tamales made from scratch involve a huge amount of work and time, so I can well understand Mom’s reluctance to tackle that kind of meal for her large brood. And they are not exactly a budget meal or a heart-healthy one either when they are made with pork or beef.
But they sure are delicious! So I’ve been trying for a while now to come up with an alternative that eliminates some of the labor and cost while providing a similar taste and texture experience to the original.
A vegetarian tamale pie seemed the logical way to go. And I have experimented with several different versions.
Various recipes I’ve tried call for cornbread topping, but I find they miss the boat by a wide margin when it comes to trying to capture the texture of the tamale dough casings. I also tried making the crust from the traditional corn flour recipes, but I just did not care for those results either.
After some trial and error, I came up with the recipe here.
It works pretty darned well.
Of all the different options I’ve tried, I think it comes closest to capturing the texture and flavor of traditional tamales with their corn casings.
I hope you agree and find it as tasty as we do. It's not the simplest recipe in my repertoire by any means, but well worth the effort for the occasional weekend meal, with enough for leftovers during the week.
As is, this recipe is quite cheap, even with the store-bought tortilla chips. It comes in at $10-12 and makes a very generous quantity that serves 10-12, so about a $1 a serving. When you add a nice tossed green salad to the meal, it still comes in at a very reasonable $1.50 per person for the dinner.
The total start to finish time for the meal is about 90 minutes if you use a pressure cooker. If you use a regular pot, it's more like 3 hours. However, most of that is cook time, not prep time. The actual prep time is about 20-25 minutes.
It's a 3-step process. First you make the beans with their spices. Then you make the tomato sauce, and combine it with the beans. And the last step is putting it all together in a layered casserole.
NOTE: I use a pressure cooker for this recipe, but you do not need one. You can soak the beans overnight, and then cook them in a regular pot following the recipe instructions. Alternatively, you can cook the beans in a slow cooker on high heat for 6-8 hours.
And, of course, you can use canned beans if you’d like (approximately 4 cans, with their liquid). Just be aware that this option will add a few dollars to your cost, and you will probably need to adjust the seasonings and cut the water content by about two thirds.
Makes approximately 10 servings
Prep Time – Approximately 25 minutes
Start to finish meal time – approximately 1.5 - 2 hours
Total recipe cost – approximately $10.00
Per person meal cost with tossed salad – approximately $1.50-$1.75
12-16 ounces of tortilla chips
1 pound dry pinto, kidney, or black beans (or variety of your choice)
8 cups of water
2 tablespoons paprika
¼ cup chili powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 ½ teaspoons cayenne pepper or chipotle
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 large onion
1 jalapeno pepper or 1 tablespoon chopped jalapenos (optional)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cans tomato paste (6 ounce size)
2 cups frozen corn
3 cups water
2 bouillon cubes or 2 teaspoons salt
8 ounces of brick or shredded cheese, preferably cheddar or Monterey jack
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- Measure out the 2 tablespoons paprika, ¼ cup chili powder, 1 tablespoon each of ground cumin and onion powder, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder, 2½ teaspoons of cayenne pepper or chipotle, and 2 teaspoons of black pepper, and mix them all together on a plate or in a bowl.
- Divide the seasoning mix in half. Set aside half of the mixture.
- Put the 1 pound of washed or soaked beans in a large pot or pressure cooker. Add the 8 cups of water.
- Stir half the spice mixture into the beans and water.
- Cover the pot or pressure cooker and bring to a boil or up to pressure (when the button pops up). Reduce the heat to medium – medium low to maintain the pressure or a steady simmer. If you are using a pressure cooker, you will cook the beans for about 45 minutes. If you are using a regular pot, you will boil the pre-soaked beans for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Set a timer to remind yourself.
- Meanwhile, move on to prepare the rest of the meal.
- When the timer goes off, check the beans to see if they are tender. To check them in the pressure cooker, first place it in the sink and run cold water over it until the button has popped back down and the hissing has stopped. Then remove the weight and the lid.
- If you're boiling the beans in a regular pot, then check them after about 90 minutes. They want them to be very tender. If they are not done, re-cover them and continue to cook them, checking them at 15 minute intervals.
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- While the beans are cooking peel and dice the onion. Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a pot over medium heat and cook the onions until translucent.
- (Optional) Chop the jalapeño fine. Add it to the onions and cook for about 1 minute, stirring frequently.
- Dissolve the 2 bouillon cubes in the 3 cups of water in the microwave.
- Add the bouillon broth, along with the remaining half of the spice blend, and the 2 cans of tomato paste to the onions. Stir to mix well. Cover and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Leave to a simmer until you need it.
- Add the tomato mixture to the beans and stir to mix well.
- Add the 2 cups of corn to the bean and tomato mixture.
- The mixture will be very liquidy. That's the way you want it.
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- Preheat the oven to 350.
- Coarsely crush the tortilla chips by putting them in a plastic bag and crushing them with your hands to make about 6-7 cups.
- Grate the cheese to make about 2 cups.
- Spread about 2 cups of the crushed tortilla chips over the bottom of a 9x12 casserole pan.
- Top this tortilla chip layer with a about one third of the bean mixture, using a ladle to cover it well.
- Repeat the crushed tortilla chip layer, followed by another third of the bean mixture.
- Finish off with a final layer of tortilla chips and the remaining bean mixture.
- Top with the 2 cups of grated cheese.
- Place the casserole in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes. Set a timer.
- When the timer goes off, remove the casserole and allow it to stand for 10 minutes or so before serving.
- Serve the pie with a tossed green salad for a complete, satisfying, and delicious meal.