This easy tamale pie is decidedly not a pie (it has that—and only that—in common with). Nor is it remotely close to authentic Mexican tamales. Largely attributed to Southwestern or Tex-Mex cooking, tamale pie is a rebellious mash-up of chili (on the bottom) and cornbread (on top).
The more literal among us may make the cornbread with masa harina or even go so far as topping the chili with canned tamales, but in the end, simple is best: Create a quick-cooking chili crowned with tender, golden-brown cornbread. If this is your first rodeo with this classic comfort food, you might be surprised how quickly the recipe becomes a weeknight family favorite.
The addition of a $2 can of beans allows you to use 50% less ground meat in the chili (we call for ground beef but ground pork or dark-meat ground turkey works too), keeping the dish economical without compromising flavor. Using chicken bouillon paste rather than boxed broth is another budget-friendly trick; it is dense and concentrated and can reconstitute to whatever strength you like. Conjuring the topping from scratch is not much more difficult than using a boxed cornbread mix, and it relies on pantry staples. We do recommend shredding your own cheese here; pre-shredded cheese has additives that prevent clumping, making its texture less than ideal for baking.
If you don’t have an oven-safe skillet, make the chili on the stovetop and then transfer to a 13×9″ baking dish and dollop on the cornbread topping before sliding it into the oven. All told, this is a cheap, cozy, cheerful dinner that’s terrific when the weather turns cold.