Tamale pie spices up leftover turkey in casserole

The Whole Dish podcast: Southwest-inspired dish also uses leftover gravy

I’ve never been a casserole type of cook.

My less-than-favorable view of “hot dishes,” as they’re known in the Midwest, probably is a product of my upbringing. Coming of age in high-school home-economics classes of the 1970s, my mom should have been a casserole queen. But my dad, infamously, was not a fan. After nearly 40 years of marriage, my mom still can’t quite believe that her newlywed husband told her to feed a freshly baked tuna casserole to the cat before taking her out to dinner.

So when courtesy and concern call for bringing friends or family members a meal during times of hardship, my casserole repertoire comes up short. Why not some other genre of dish?

The concept behind casseroles in a crisis, of course, is that they’re usually a complete meal in one recipe, meaning no other food preparation is required, and preparation couldn’t be easier: from fridge to oven in one maneuver. And casseroles will feed a crowd of people coming or going for a couple of days, or can be stashed away in the freezer until needed.

That’s why I spent part of a recent weekend morning racking my brains for what to bring friends recovering from a medical procedure with three young children to care for. I didn’t have any meat thawed but needed to drop off the dish within just a couple of hours.

Chicken Divan would have been easy enough, but I didn’t have a green vegetable, just cauliflower, which would make for anemic presentation. A cauliflower gratin could have been amped up with bacon, but my husband had just eaten all of it for breakfast. Ground lamb was a bit too foreign for this family, and we didn’t have any ground beef or turkey for a meat-enriched pasta sauce.

Then it hit me: tamale pie. I had enough coarse-ground cornmeal and buttermilk for my Southern-style cornbread, layered with a green chili-sauced mixture of canned pinto beans and chicken. Fortunately, the slim package of organic chicken thigh fillets in the freezer would thaw fast enough in water for me to chop them, and I could pry a few roasted chilies from a large brick of them in the freezer.

In about half an hour of hands-on time, I managed to mix up the cornbread, enriched with grated cheddar cheese, and blend up the thawed chilies with ½ cup of milk, a few ounces of cream cheese and half an avocado, lightly seasoned with some cumin, onion and garlic powder. Make no mistake: If I’d had canned enchilada sauce, I would have used it instead.

Turkey enchiladas always were a Thanksgiving-leftover staple when I was a kid. But we haven’t had them in years, since my grandparents hosted our extended family for the holiday. But tamale pie strikes me as the sort of Americanized Mexican fare that my grandmother, who grew up in Colorado, would enjoy with leftover turkey. She raved over the turkey posole that my husband and I concocted a couple of years back.

Instead of baking with a layer of cornbread on top, this iteration of tamale pie keeps the corn, polenta actually, on the bottom. If I really wanted to tempt my grandma’s taste buds, I’d replace the red bell pepper with her beloved green.

Turkey Tamale Pie

Tribune News Service photo

2 cups chicken broth

2 cups milk

1 cup polenta or cornmeal

2 to 4 tablespoons butter

8 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese shredded, divided

1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided

1 1/4 teaspoons pepper, divided

2 cups leftover turkey, shredded

1 cup leftover gravy

1 1/2 cups red enchilada sauce

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 red bell pepper, cored and diced

1 1/2 cups canned black beans, rinsed and drained

Diced avocado, for serving

Chopped, fresh cilantro, for garnish

4 ounces queso fresco or cotija cheese, crumbled, for garnish

Salsa, for serving

Tortilla chips, for serving

Pomegranate arils, for garnish (optional)

Pour the chicken broth and milk into a high-sided, ovenproof skillet and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and slowly whisk in the polenta. Cook, stirring frequently, until polenta is soft and thick, for about 15 to 20 minutes. Keep warm and then just before serving, stir in the butter and half of the cheddar cheese. Season with ¼ teaspoon each of the salt and pepper. If polenta seems a little thick, you can add a tablespoon of butter or extra milk.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

While polenta is cooking, combine in a mixing bowl the turkey, gravy, red enchilada sauce, chili powder, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin and remaining salt and pepper. Stir in the bell pepper and black beans.

Once polenta is done cooking, smooth it out into a single layer and then pour turkey mixture over, spreading it in an even layer. Top with remaining shredded cheese.

Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until pie is bubbling and cheese is melted. Allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes, and then serve with the avocado, cilantro, salsa, queso fresco or cotija cheese, tortilla chips and pomegranate arils, if desired.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

— Recipe from Halfbakedharvest.com

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  • Blog Author

    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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