Cast Iron Cooking: Tamale Pie With Vegetarian Chili and Brown Butter Cornbread Crust

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Hearty bean chili underneath a crisp cornbread crust. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I've been on a tamale pie kick ever since updating my mom's classic recipe a couple of months ago. Essentially a beef chili baked underneath a sweet cornbread crust, it's one of the all-in-one comfort classics that never fails to bring big smiles and full bellies in its wake.

When I last took a look at them, I updated the easy ground-beef-and-cornbread-from-a-mix version into a no-holds-barred ultimate version made with braised skirt steak and a brown butter cornbread crust. (Even a classic quick and easy version benefits from that crust!)

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Then last month, while I was eating strictly vegan, I attempted to make a fully vegan version of the tamale pie a number of times. Getting the filling right was easy. I simply adapted the quick ground beef version, adding some charred corn, poblano peppers, and a few types of beans to the basic recipe. Along with some carefully balanced spices (ancho chile, coriander, cumin, and oregano), and some other aromatics (onions, peppers, chilies, garlic), and of course those requisite green olives, I had a chili worth eating on its own by the spoonful in no time.

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It was getting the crust right that proved difficult. No matter what I tried I couldn't come up with a vegan cornbread recipe that I was truly happy with. All of them suffered textural issues due to the lack of eggs. No amount of ground flax seed, chia seed, or other egg substitutes provided the light-yet-robust texture I was after.

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It's normally not like me to throw in the towel, and I may well revisit vegan cornbread in the future, but seeing as in my civilian life I'm an egg-and-cheese-eating vegetarian, I figured a fully vegetarian version of the dish would be good enough for my needs (and hopefully many of yours).

First off, that meant adding a handful of shredded cheddar cheese to the chili base. I just love adding small amounts of cheese to stews and brothy dishes to thicken them up and give them a salty-savory flavor boost (nowhere more so than in this Creamy White Chicken Chili!)

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It also meant I could go back to using that brown butter cornbread crust I love so much. This time, I decided to jack up the flavors a bit by adding some minced red jalapeño and scallions directly to the cornbread base. That combination of spicy savory flavors with the sweet base is simply awesome.

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After piling the chili into my cast iron skillet and topping it with the cornbread batter (the easiest way is to add it in small dollops with a spoon, then spread them out until they touch each other), I popped the whole thing in the oven until it was browned and crisp with bubbly-hot chili underneath.

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I really love the way cast iron looks as a serving vessel, but even better, I love the way it keeps things piping hot all through the meal. This is important, because this is the kind of stuff you go back to for seconds or thirds.