This paleo tamale pie combines a beef chili base made with peppers, tomatoes, and squash with a fluffy, grain-free “cornbread” topping.
Have you heard of tamale pie? It’s a casserole that’s loosely based on the ingredients for tamales, except they’re layered in a dish or skillet instead of wrapped in corn husks. Think a really delicious beef chili with a layer of cornbread baked right on top. I didn’t grow up eating tamale pie, but apparently a lot of people did–a Bon Appétit article caught my eye recently with the headline: “Cornbread Tamale Pie Is the Greatest Recipe of All Time.” The author made a great case for why this dish is one of the best foods ever, and I was left with a distinct hankering to create a paleo tamale pie of my own.
For the filling, I packed in as much delicious produce as humanly possible: diced scallions, garlic, tomatoes, bell peppers, butternut squash, and cilantro. No, butternut squash is not a traditional ingredient in tamale pie, but I had half of one in the fridge just begging to be thrown in. I ended up loving the subtle sweetness the squash added. Conventional tamale pies often have corn kernels in the filling, so the butternut makes up for that by lending sweet pops of flavor without the addition of grains.
When you make this, you may find yourself tempted, like I was, to just eat the chili base on its own and to forget about the faux cornbread topping. I actually spooned myself out a little bowl of filling to eat while the tamale pie baked, and I suggest you do the same: I don’t want you to miss out on the fluffy topping, but the chili is great in its own right, so why not sneak in a little mid-cookup snack?
This super easy, one-bowl topping is a variation of the skillet “cornbread” from my cookbook Paleo Planet. The almond flour helps replicate the texture of cornmeal, tapioca flour makes the topping fluffy, and a little honey adds just a tad of sweetness and helps the topping form an irresistibly golden brown crust.
The scent of this tamale pie as it bakes is one of the best smells to come out of my kitchen in a long time, and the taste of the finished pie is just as good. While I especially love this right after it’s made because of the contrast of the topping’s crispy crust and fluffy interior, leftovers are also great heated up over the next few days. Because this paleo tamale pie is packed with meat, a variety of veggies, and a good dose of healthy fats, I enjoy it as a one-pan meal and don’t feel the need to serve a side. However, if you want to round out the plate, a simple green salad and/or a dollop of guacamole would fit right in.
If you grew up eating tamale pie, what ingredients went into yours? And if you didn’t, have I convinced you to give my paleo version of this Southwestern comfort food classic a chance?
- Avocado oil or ghee
- 1 pound ground beef (85-90% lean is best)
- 1 bunch of scallions, separated into dark green and white + light green parts and sliced
- 4-5 cloves garlic, minced
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon bittersweet smoked paprika
- Pinch of cayenne pepper, or more to taste
- 2-3 bell peppers, deseeded and finely chopped
- ½ medium butternut squash, deseeded, peeled, and finely chopped
- 4 medium tomatoes, cored, deseeded, and finely chopped
- ¼ cup water
- Handful of chopped fresh cilantro
- To make the filling, heat about a teaspoon of oil in a large deep-dish cast iron skillet or Dutch oven (I used this one) over medium-high heat. Add the beef and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up the pieces of meat with a spatula, until fully cooked and no longer pink. Reduce the heat slightly and add the white and light green parts of the scallions along with the garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for about five minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Mix the chili powder, cumin, coriander, paprika, and cayenne in a small bowl. Sprinkle the spices over the meat and stir. Add the peppers, squash, tomatoes, and water and stir again. Reduce the heat so that the chili simmers and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro and about half of the dark green scallions, reserving the remainder for serving. Use a spatula to flatten out the top of the mixture so it’s nice and even.
- While the chili is simmering, make the “cornbread” topping. Whisk the almond and tapioca flours, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt in a large bowl. Add the eggs, cream, and honey and whisk again until thoroughly combined. Use a spatula to place dollops of batter across the top of the chili filling. With the spatula or your fingers, spread the batter out so it covers the entire surface (a little exposed filling around the edges is fine). Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the topping is crusty and deep golden.
- Let cool for at least 10 minutes, then top with scallions, slice into wedges, and serve hot.
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