An Experience In Life: Tamale Pie With Chili-Cornmeal Crust

We all have those days, the ones when what should go perfectly smoothly turns into a disaster. 
I co-host a podcast on Midnight Poutine. It’s kind of the highlight of my week. Probably better even than co-hosting the Friday Morning Show After on CKUT Radio (I have some audio excerpts at my other blog, Interculturiosity, that you can listen to if you don’t want to pick through the archives in the link). Basically the day of the podcast plotted against me. I used to live in an apartment on the same  street where the podcast gets recorded. It was my street! How do you get lost going to your old street? I even noticed that the houses on the walk up the street to the supposed house were different. “Oh, that person must have completely re-landscaped their front lawn!….I don’t recognize that bench,” but I thought nothing of the changes because it’s Outremont and people have money enough for such renovations. I even figured I’d walked passed the street that’s supposed to intersect my old street halfway up it…twice! So obviously I’m an idiot and it’s completely my fault. How can I blame the universe for such stupidity? Basically, I wasted 2 hours of my life trying to get to this recording session of the podcast, plus all the work I’d done finding music, writing up commentary and listening to the other songs to have an informed opinion of them for the show. Wasted. An experience in life…like my blueberries.
When I first moved to Montreal I went to Jean-Talon market. If you’re interested in food and cooking, and you live in Montreal, that’s what you do – go to Jean-Talon. The chaos, the havoc, the smells, the tastes (not as friendly as St. Lawrence in sampling, mind you)…it’s a city block of joy for me. Basically, if someone took me to Jean-Talon, not knowing me very well, because it was THEIR favourite place, I would probably marry them on the spot. That or live common law, happily, and refuse a commitment ring in favour of a pound of oysters…but that’s just me.

Anyway, one of the first times I went to the market I took my granny cart – one of those old lady carts that I’d seen in Chinatown in Toronto before I moved. Ever so practical, those old Chinese Grandmothers. Mine was even uncomfortably low to the ground, intended for short women, making it difficult for me (though not a tall woman) to drag behind me. I walked the 30 minutes through Outremont, the Mile End, Little Italy, and the beginnings of the cultural mélange that happens on rue Jean-Talon all the way to the market. Being the end of the summer, I loaded up on fresh produce until my cart was full. For me, the beginning of September means buying as many fruit as you can to freeze for the lean months to come. So that’s what I did. I topped off my laden cart with $20 worth of Quebec blueberries – the wild ones that actually taste like something, not the big, fat New Jersey ones that are all brawn and no brain – flesh and no flavour. 

I was not going to walk my full cart back to Outremont. My back was crying out for a better method, so I took the metro. The subway in Montreal is notoriously awful, but seemingly only to people who have experienced other, more successful and efficient, subway systems. Torontonians, to put it in perspective, even the Toronto system is better than Montreal. At Jean-Talon metro there is no elevator. Some of the multiple entrances don’t even have escalators, which means you’re lugging your heavy stuff wherever you go. God forbid you try to leave the province with a suitcase. Impossible unless you’re a Russian weight-lifter. If you’re a small woman, you can carry a shoulder bag and no more, without assistance. 
Fortunately the Montreal population is extremely kind. I made it down my first escalator and first flight of stairs without incident. Then I got to the big flight – approximately 60 stairs. I had a method, you see. I take the lower part of the cart in my left hand and jam the bar handle into my hip. Holding the stair railing with my right I shuffle step down the stairs. It worked fine, but when a nice gentleman offers to help, you don’t say no. I lifted from the horizontal bar handle and he lifted from the back…and there went my blueberries.
They tumbled all the way down the 60-odd steps. The man was apologetic, but much like the podcast incident, it was really all my fault. It was at this moment that a woman who had seen the whole thing turned to me with a sympathetic expression and said,
“C’est une expérience de la vie.”
…I was so angry with myself. All those blueberries, expensive blueberries, lost by one thoughtless action, but yes, it was an experience in life. I was in a new city, riding the metro, experiencing Montreal life with a grocery cart full of local produce. To top it off I had interacted with two kind Francophone individuals (the man who was really my “expérience” accomplice and a woman who was my kindhearted judge. 
When I got home that day all I could do was to try my best to enjoy the food that had not spilled, and when I got home from the podcast recording that was not a podcast recording the other day all I could do was enjoy my leftovers of Tamale Pie with Chili-Cornmeal Crust. I got there. See? It wasn’t the end of the world, just one more experience in life.
1 tsp oil
1 lb ground lamb from Agneau Des Venne farm (plateau and mile end farmers’ markets)
3 small lamb sausages from Agneau Des Venne farm (plateau and mile end farmers’ markets. That leaves 4 leftover to make jambalaya…coming soon)
2 onions, diced
1/2 head bok choy, sliced and diced
1 cup green beans, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, optional. I skipped it but only because I didn’t have one
1 tbsp chili powder (this makes up for the loss of heat, but not of flavour from the jalapeno)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp oregano (fresh is best, but dried is fine)
1 tsp salt (make sure your sausages, stock and refried beans aren’t overwhelmingly salty or you’ll have to reduce this)
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 cup ketchup (I only had about 1/2 cup, and it made a big difference! I use a no-sugar-added variety, but Heinz will give you a much higher sugar content. Be careful!)
2 cups (1 can) refried beans
1 cup lamb stock (or beef or chicken. Not vegetable. That’s just weird since it’s a heavy meat dish. Even chicken is best only used in dire straits)
1 1/2 cup corn kernels
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour (all purpose is best for consistency, but I ran out of my gluten-free flour blend, so I used whole wheat. It was just fine, but just not as smooth as it would have been)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 cup milk (or almond breeze, or soy milk)
1/4 cup melted butter (or margarine or Earth Balance)
1 egg, beaten with a fork or whisked
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese (optional. I did not use this…but I think it would have helped. With the cornmeal the topping tasted just a little bitter and I think the cheese would have covered that up, especially since there’s no sugar. It also makes it a whole lot richer, so if you’re watching fat content, be aware!
1 can chopped mild green chilies (Okay, Montreal, now I know that the city has some great Mexican grocery stores, but there seem to be none in my area. I went to the Atwater market and nowhere could I find a proper can of chopped green chilies. My fallback place, Les Douceurs du Marché, providers of all things gourmet and obscure, especially in packaged, imported and canned goods, almost failed me. They had one option for canned chilies and they were no where near mild. I would not call jalapenos “mild”. I ended up using an entire jar of sliced (not chopped, but that’s pedantic) in this topping. Needless to say it more than made up for the lack of jalapeno in the base. Heat would have been coming out my ears had I added the optional fresh jalapeno. I really, really liked the chili-studded topping though. It turned into a real Mexican treat and not just a meat pie from just about anywhere. 
I never thought I’d make this recipe in the first place, but I went to the Plateau farmers’ market one day and the guy at the Agneau des Venne stand (lamb and sheep from the Venne farm in the upper Laurentians in Quebec) looked at me in the way that means “You’re not a customer.” It’s that look where there are free samples and they definitely think you’re just there for the samples. Well, I was a little offended, even though the man was very nice, but he deals with this all farmers’ market long. So I started asking questions and sampling (and I rarely eat any kind of sausage but I tried 4 lamb ones) and decided it was high time I made some jambalaya. The picture above is obviously not jambalaya, but I remembered also looking through my slow-cooker cookbook and seeing a recipe for a tamale pie that I was pretty sure involved some ground beef as well. So I bought some ground lamb and some merguez sausages (not exactly traditional for a tamale, but very, very delicious with a hot sweetness). Sure proved that man wrong, didn’t I…
The recipe is actually a whole lot like a shepherd’s pie but with some added chili heat in the crust itself. I changed some of the ingredients (I didn’t have carrots, but I had green beans. I didn’t have celery but I had the white part of bok choy) but it all worked out really well.

Tamales aren’t just Mexican, so I should really shouldn’t be saying this is specifically a Mexican-style dish. Apparently they go back to the Mayans and the Incas, so about 5000BC. Also, the whole point of tamales is they get stuffed in plantain leaves or corn husks and there is definitely no stuffing here. That’s kind of like saying a shepherd’s pie is a sandwich, or even a sandwich pie. That’s just weird. 
Anyway, I love doughs, so sticking a spicy, moist dough on top of a stew of spicy, richly-flavoured meat is what I think of as a great idea, whatever the name. 
I changed the recipe process a little too:
Sauté the ground lamb and sausages (removed from casings) in the heated oil until there’s no more pink. 
Remove the meat with a slotted spoon to a pig plate layered with some paper towel to absorb the fat. Don’t press down with the paper towel (you want some juices to remain) but you don’t want the excess. Yes you’re draining flavour too, but there’s more than enough flavour leftover. Don’t worry. This makes the difference between 20 grams of fat in the meal and 30…approximately. Place the meat in the slow-cooker (or a deep-dish, large baking dish or casserole, for a non-slow-cooker version)
Drain the fat from the skillet (not into the sink…into a glass jar that you can keep in the fridge until full and then throw out. Or you could re-use the fat soon since it is so delicious, but it won’t last forever unless you freeze it and then I’m not even sure because of the spices and things in the sausages. Help?
You don’t need to wipe the pan, but just by pouring off the fat, there’ll be enough left to sauté the onions, green beans, and bok choy over medium heat. After 5 minutes add the jalapeno (optional) and the base spices. 
 Cook 1 minute then add the ketchup and refried beans. 
Mix and then add the lamb stock (or beef or chicken) and the corn. Bring to a boil and then transfer it to the slow-cooker. Stir into the meat.
Now a little bit of baking, but don’t worry baking novices, this is a very safe intro. 
In a big bowl combine the dry ingredients (cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper) with a whisk or a big wooden spoon or a spatula…or just a big spoon of whatever sort. The whisk is best because it adds air to the topping, making it lighter and fluffier in the end. Make a well in the middle. In a small bowl melt the butter to have it ready to go. In another small bowl beat the egg with a whisk or a fork. Only now pour the butter, whisked egg and milk into the well in the flours. If the butter is too hot and you add it to the egg or milk in that state, it may cook the egg or curdle the milk a little. Not the end of the world, but not the lightest, fluffiest cornmeal dough ever. 
Whisk all the ingredients together (or stir) and then add the cheese (optional) and chopped chilies. 
This time I just stir because the dough gets stuck in the whisk when it’s too thick. It’s good to use it in the last step when the dough is being combined, even if it does get stuck, but now it’s not such a big deal. 
Spread the dough evenly on top of the base in the slow-cooker and cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8. I chose low for 5 and then high for 1 and that also worked out fine. Normally I wouldn’t be so bold, but the meat is basically already cooked and you’re just supposed to cook until the top is risen and crusty. My slow-cooker cooks a bit unevenly so one side of the crust was fairly brown and definitely ready and the other was a tiny bit soft, so I ate from the crisp side and will make sure the rest gets thoroughly microwaved or baked in reheating leftovers another day.
You can also mix the meat and vegetables in a large casserole dish, pour the topping evenly over the filling, and bake at about 375 Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes, is my guess. That is very much just a guess, so make sure you watch it and take it out when the topping has risen and is crusty and slightly browned. The meat should be bubbling underneath.
Mmm…pie. Spicy pie. It’s not a tamale, but it’s has a whole lot more meat, and a whole lot more comfort, than a skimpy cornmeal-wrapped chicken or beef thing.


  1. (Ken) says

    That's quite the unusual chili you've got there.

    Reading your introductory paragraph, I interpreted that you actually spent some time living on the streets, and I thought maybe the podcast coincided with the recent street kid festival or something. My mistake, it appears!

    I like our subway system itself, though the abundance of stairs and often confusing or absent signage… not so much.

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