While in the supermarket I found myself in front of a display of dried corn husks. I stood there, lost in memories of all the tamales I had eaten: the sweet, cinnamon-flavored ones from a little place on lower State Street in Santa Barbara before the freeway went through, the one’s that my friend Lodi’s mother made every year for Christmas. But I quailed at the thought of the time and energy required to make tamales. Then I thought of the tamale pie our neighbor, Aileen, used to make in the 60’s.

The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink informs us that tamale pie showed up in the early 1900’s and became enshrined in the 1905 Los Angeles Times Cook Book No. 2. According to the Oxford the high point of tamale pie was in 1956 when the Loyalty Cook Book: Native Daughters of the Golden West by Willow Borba was published with nineteen recipes for tamale pie.

The following recipe uses corn meal rather than masa. Feel free to use masa in place of the cornmeal using the same measurements. Some recipes use cornbread layered over the top of the bean and vegetable ingredients but I have never tried that, although I have put a number of toppings over corn bread.

This recipe calls for pinto beans but black beans or runner beans can also be used, especially the Ayocote Morado, the big runner beans from www.ranchogordo.com.

Refrigerating the dish after it has been cooked and reheating it the next day in a 325 degree oven for 60 minutes gives a firmer texture to the dish and allows all of the flavors to blend together. It is easier to cut into discrete servings. If you can’t make this ahead of time and want to serve it right away, it will be just as tasty but will spread out onto the dish.


  • 5 cups of water
  • 1 cup of polenta (coarse corn meal)
  • 1 cup of dried pinto beans, about 3 cups soaked and cooked
  • 2 cups of bean broth (or vegetable broth)
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 3 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1-1/2 cups diced sweet pepper
  • 1 cup diced tomato
  • 1 cup of diced squash
  • 1 cup of chopped Kalamata olives
  • 1 Tbsp. dried oregano
  • 1 teas. ground cumin
  • 1 Tbsp. chili powder plus 1 teas.
  • 1 teas. smoked paprika
  • 1 teas. dried, crumbled sage leaves
  • 1 Tbsp. salt


Add 5 cups of water to a sauce pan and bring just to a boil. Also set up a double boiler and bring that to a boil as well, reducing the heat to keep the water very hot.

Once the water in the sauce pan reaches temperature, slowly stir the polenta into the water in the sauce pan, whisking constantly until the corn meal starts to thicken. Switch to a wooden spoon and keep stirring the polenta as it thickens, about 15 minutes.

After the polenta has thickened add one tablespoon of salt, 1 teas. ground sage and 1 teas. chili powder. Transfer the polenta to the top of the double boiler and keep the water in the lower pot at a simmer. Cover the top pot and let the polenta cook while you make the filling.

Sauté the onion, celery, carrots, and peppers in a dry pan. Add a few tablespoonsful of broth when the vegetables start to stick to the pan. Stir the vegetables and get up all the brown, sticky bits.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, put the beans, squash, tomato, olives, garlic, oregano, cumin, chili powder, paprika and salt along with the bean broth or vegetable broth. Add the vegetables from the sauté pan and cook gently for 45 to 60 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a baking dish, approximately 7 by 10 inches, to assemble the pie. I’ve also used the bottom of a good-sized tagine. Anything that holds roughly the same volume as a rectangular baker will work. Spoon about half to two-thirds of the polenta into the bottom of the dish, evenly distributed. Let the dish sit for 5-10 minutes before adding the beans and vegetables. Then, using a slotted spoon, put the beans and vegetables over the polenta, adding enough broth from the mixture to keep the vegetables juicy. Use enough vegetables and beans so that the proportion of vegetables and beans to both layers of polenta is approximately equal. (You may have some left over – save it to have over some rice or with a tortilla for a quick lunch.) Spoon the rest of the polenta over the top. It doesn’t have to completely cover the beans and vegetables. Sprinkle some pumpkin seeds over the top. Put the dish in the heated oven and cook for 45 minutes to one hour checking to see how brown the top gets.

To Serve
You can serve this right away and it is best to serve in a shallow bowl. If you refrigerate it overnight and then reheat it before serving, you can cut the pie into discrete portions and serve it on a plate.


I like to top it with salsa and avocado with a little sour cream. It really is good.

2 thoughts on “TAMALE PIE”

  1. Mandy, Thanks so much for catching that. It is one cup of polenta to 5 cups of water. I added that to the list of ingredients. Thanks again. Happy New Year, Dorothy

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