When I lived in California, trips to Baja Mexico weren't uncommon occurrences. In middle school I enjoyed shockingly inexpensive, fresh plates of lobster in tiny coastal towns, a meal we could never have afforded back in the states. In college, it was a bouquet of mango slices, scented with lime and sprinkled with chili salt. When I was 14, I stayed for a week at an orphanage in Tecate. While my friends painted walls and poured concrete in the sun, I found myself in a tiny sweltering kitchen, helping two women make tamales. Over 20 years have passed now and the details are obscured with time, blurry at best. I wish I had taken notes, jotting down every ingredient and technique, memorizing every move these women made as they went about the kitchen with fluidity and complete confidence. Not having a record of it is one of my great food regrets.
Related: if anyone wants to give me a lesson in authentic tamale-making, hit me up. I'm not even kidding.
My readers know that I certainly don't need it to be Cinco de Mayo to have an excuse to make and appreciate Mexican flavors in my kitchen. The California girl in me is unable to separate Mexican ingredients and techniques from my food story. They are an important part of who I am and who I've become, woven into the fabric of my food in ways even I don't fully realize.
But I refuse to disgrace the memory of those tamales in Tecate by even attempting to make some now. What I can offer you is a less-intimidating and inauthentic tamale pie. Yes, I said inauthentic. But did I also say delicious? I started with a layer of my cheddar green chile cornbread in the bottom of a cast-iron skillet, then poked it with holes as if I was making a poke cake. Then, I made my homemade red enchilada sauce (you could also use canned), stirred in some shredded rotisserie chicken and pinto beans, and spooned that generously on top of the cornbread. I finished it all with cheese and sent it back to the oven until it was melted and bubbly. I topped it with sour cream and avocados. While this is not a plate of authentic tamales, it definitely hit the spot and brought back some great memories, too.
For the cornbread base:
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 cup canned corn, drained
2 ounces chopped green chiles, drained
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cornmeal (I used masa harina, but either will work)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12 inch cast iron skillet.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the butter, sugar, eggs and buttermilk until smooth. Add the corn, green chiles and cheese, stirring until combined. Mix in the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt until fully incorporated. Spread the batter into the cast-iron skillet. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until set in the center and golden. Using the end of a wooden spoon, poke holes all over the top of the cornbread. Set aside. Increase oven temperature to 400.
For the filling:
2 teaspoons neutral-flavored oil
1 medium yellow or white onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeño, seeds removed and minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons cumin
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce
2 cups water
2 cups rotisserie chicken, shredded
1 (15 ounce) can pinto beans, drained
1 cup cheddar or jack cheese, grated
Heat the oil in a skillet or pot over medium heat. Saute the onions, jalapeño, and garlic until tender, about 3-4 minutes. Add the chili powder, cumin, sugar and salt and stir in the pan for another minute so that the spices can get slightly toasted and fragrant. Add the tomato sauce and water. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt as needed. Stir in the shredded chicken and the pinto beans.
green onions, sliced
To assemble pie:
Using a ladle, scoop the chicken and bean filling mixture evenly over the cornbread. Sprinkle with cheese. Return the skillet to the oven and bake until bubbly and melted, about 15-20 minutes. Serve promptly with cilantro, green onions, sour cream, and avocado on top.