Quick and Easy Vegetarian Tamale Pie With Brown Butter Cornbread Crust Recipe

A jalapeño and scallion-studded cornbread batter is baked atop a skillet full of hearty vegetarian chili.

A serving of tamale pie with vegetarian chili and brown butter cornbread crust is dished up from a skillet.
Hearty bean chili underneath a crisp brown butter cornbread crust.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Why It Works

  • Using your own blended spices instead of a pre-packaged chili powder gives better depth of flavor.
  • Ingredients are added in sequence to build up layers of complex flavor.
  • Browning the butter for the cornbread crust gives it a rich, nutty aroma.

I've been on a tamale pie kick ever since updating my mom's classic recipe a couple months ago by adding a brown butter cornbread crust. 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. This 100% vegetarian version is no different.

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!)

Then 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, chiles, garlic), and of course those requisite green olives, I had a chili worth eating on its own by the spoonful in no time.

Stirring the vegetarian chili in the pot.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Wet cornbread ingredients are whisked into the dry ingredients.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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!)

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.

The chili is added to a cast iron skillet and topped with the cornbread batter.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

The finished tamale pie being served from the skillet it was baked in.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

March 2015

Recipe Facts

4.6

(8)

Active: 40 mins
Total: 60 mins
Serves: 4 to 6 servings

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Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 cup fresh corn kernels from 1 to 2 ears of corn

  • 1 medium onion, diced

  • 1 red bell pepper, diced

  • 1 poblano pepper, diced

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 4 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced

  • 1 serrano pepper, minced

  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin (preferably from whole seeds)

  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander (preferably from whole seeds)

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano

  • 3 tablespoons ancho chile powder

  • 1 cup pitted green olives, sliced

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and coarsely crushed with your hand

  • 1 (15-ouncecan black beans drained and rinsed

  • 1 (15-ounce) can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

  • 4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 1 cup)

  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced

  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves and fine stems, minced

For the Brown Butter Cornbread Crust:

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 1 cup (about 5 ounces) fine yellow cornmeal

  • 1 cup (about 5 ounces) all-purpose flour

  • 4 tablespoons sugar

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

  • 2 eggs

  • 6 ounces (about 3/4 cup) sour cream

  • 4 ounces (about 1/4 cup) cultured buttermilk

  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions

  • 1 red jalapeño pepper, finely minced

  • Sour cream, for serving

Directions

  1. Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Heat oil in a large Dutch oven, or saucepan over high heat until lightly smoking. Add corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until corn is well charred in spots, about 4 minutes. Add onion, bell pepper, and poblano pepper, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 3 minutes.

    Corn kernels, onion, and bell and poblano peppers are sautéed in a large saucepan.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

  2. Add garlic, Serrano pepper, cumin, coriander, oregano, and chile powder and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add olives, soy sauce, tomatoes, black beans, and kidney beans. Bring to a simmer and adjust heat to maintain. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thick and fragrant, about 20 minutes. Stir in grated cheese, scallions, and cilantro and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

  3. For the Brown Butter Cornbread Crust: Heat butter in a 12-inch cast iron or stainless steel skillet over medium heat until melted. Continue to cook, swirling pan gently until butter is nutty-smelling and solids are a toasty brown. Transfer to a heatproof cup or bowl and let rest until slightly cooler, about 5 minutes.

  4. Combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl. Combine eggs, sour cream, and buttermilk in a second bowl and whisk until homogenous. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in reserved browned butter. Whisk wet ingredients into dry ingredients until homogenous. Fold in scallions and jalapeño pepper.

    Red jalapeño and scallion are folded into the cornbread batter.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

  5. Transfer bean mixture to a large cast iron skillet. Using a large spoon, place small dollops of the cornbread batter mixture on top of the bean filling, then use the back of the spoon to spread it into an even layer. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until pale golden brown and a skewer inserted into the cornbread comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

  6. Let cool 15 minutes, then serve with sour cream.

    A serving of the finished tamale pie.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Special Equipment

Large cast iron skillet

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
883 Calories
44g Fat
101g Carbs
29g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 883
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 44g 56%
Saturated Fat 17g 86%
Cholesterol 130mg 43%
Sodium 1989mg 86%
Total Carbohydrate 101g 37%
Dietary Fiber 19g 66%
Total Sugars 21g
Protein 29g
Vitamin C 69mg 346%
Calcium 440mg 34%
Iron 8mg 42%
Potassium 1308mg 28%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)