Tamale Pie

Can there be such thing as healthy “comfort” food? Yes, here’s PROOF! My tamale pie, made with spiced quinoa and beans, topped with a moist and tender cornbread. Forkfuls of yum.

What were you up to in 2002? I was living in Washington D.C., awash in spreadsheets and up to my eyeballs in crazy co-workers. I decided to quit my catering job with the venerable Dean & Deluca, and jump in with both feet into the personal chef business. I heard there was great opportunity, and I was ready for the challenge.


The families that I cooked for were super busy, type-A folks. They craved healthy weeknight meals but often got home well after 7pm, and couldn’t find the time or energy to get a good-for-them family supper on the table.

Cornbread batter

As a “personal chef”, I cooked for a dozen or so families, making a bunch of meals at a time, then packaged them and stored them in the family’s fridge or freezer.

(The role of a “private chef” is a whole different gig – they generally cook for just one family, can even live on premises, and prepare all three meals.)

Tomato quinoa and bean mixture

My typical day would start first thing in the morning with a trip to the grocery, then I’d head to my client’s home with the ingredients that I picked up, plus all my own spices, oils, pots and pans, utensils and other kitchen equipment in tow.

I had a little trolley, which was convenient as I schleped my “kitchen” around with me. Toting it to a single-family home in the suburbs was easy… BUT what wasn’t so much fun was hauling my gear to a clients’ place in the city, especially those that lived in a two or three story walk-up!

Scooping cornbread topping on top

After my work was done, I’d tidy up, and my clients would hardly know I was there- of course save the delightful aromas they returned home to…

And their well stocked fridge! ?

Schmearing cornbread topping

I loved the sweet notes they’d send thanking me for their meals- and knowing that I was able to help them put a good meal on their table. And hey, I guess I made my clients pretty happy as I developed a strong following and was featured in the Washingtonian Magazine as a top personal chef across the entire D.C. metropolitan area!

Tamale Pie Plated

While doing research and meal planning, I stumbled across a Tamale Pie recipe in Gourmet Magazine (Do you remember back when Gourmet was still in publication? ? ) and after making my tweaks and adjustments, served it up countless times to my (drooling) clients. They requested it over and over, and loved it for both everyday meals and lazy Sunday afternoons.

Tamale Pie Plated

Over the 15+ years I’ve been making this, though, I’ve swapped out the meat for good-for-you protein packed quinoa, and adjusted the spice blend. With all the hearty beans and flavorful spices, I bet even the heartiest of meat lovers won’t miss the meat- but it’s an easy change if you prefer to use ground turkey or beef in place of quinoa (see below for how). 

Tamale Pie Plated

Tamale Pie is such a fun throw-back, which brings with it a sense of nostalgia- and that comfort food vibe perfect for Fall. ? Try it this week and if you would, please post a comment or share a photo to my Facebook Page so I can hear how you liked it!


How To Cook Quinoa?

The basic method is to simmer for roughly 20 minutes and strain, though it’s best to follow the instructions on the package. For tips on achieving perfectly fluffy grains, see my tips for cooking grains on my Know How page- and watch this video.

Can I Use Ground Meat Instead?

Yes. If you prefer to use ground meat here’s how:

  • Turkey – After sautéing the onions, add a half pound of ground turkey (use a full pound if you want it meatier, but then decrease the canned beans to only one can). Cook through and then continue on with the recipe.
  • Beef – Start with browning the beef in the pan. Use a half pound, unless you are decreasing the amount of beans and then you can do a full pound. After the meat is browned and cooked through, drain the excess fat, then add the onions and cook until softened. Continue with the rest of the recipe. 


Are There Other Substitutions That I Can Make?

  • Use whatever beans are your favorite. Kidney beans are a good choice, too. 
  • If you want a little heat, add one or two chopped jalapeno when you stir in the garlic and spices.
  • Chipotle chilis are a great addition for some added heat and smokey flavor. Use in place of jalapeno, not both together ?️.
  • If you like corn, you can substitute one can of beans for a drained can of corn, or fresh kernels cut off of one cob.


Can I Make This Recipe Ahead of Time / How Long Will It Keep?

  • The bean/quinoa mixture can be made ahead, cooled and refrigerated. Pick up with the recipe when you make and add the topping.
  • The original Gourmet recipe said you could make it a day ahead and refrigerate. I find that the cornbread topping gets soggy on the bottom, but if you don’t mind you can do it. 
  • HOWEVER, the dish freezes beautifully. Make the entire recipe to completion, then cool. Cover and freeze for up to a month. Thaw in the refrigerator for a few hours before baking for best results, then warm in a 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes. I recommend using a foil baking pan so you don’t have one of your baking dishes tied up in the freezer.


Watch me make this recipe

Make Ahead Healthy Mid-Week


Tamale Pie
Print Recipe
5 from 6 votes

Tamale Pie

Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time25 mins
Servings: 8


  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves chopped
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 scant tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt plus more for salting onions
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed or finely diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup quinoa cooked (about 3 cups once cooked)
  • 1 can black beans drained
  • 1 can pinto beans drained
  • Sour cream for serving optional

For the topping:

  • 1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ cup finely ground cornmeal
  • 1 cup shredded mild cheddar cheese
  • 2 scallions chopped
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 ¼ cup buttermilk or whole milk
  • 6 tablespoons butter melted
  • 2 tablespoon pure maple syrup or honey


For the filling:

  • If you haven’t cooked the quinoa yet, begin by doing that, then set aside and proceed with the recipe (you can cook the quinoa a day ahead).
  • Preheat the oven to 375. Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and a pinch of salt and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and all of the spices (oregano, allspice, chili, salt and cocoa), and cook another 1-2 minutes, adjusting the heat if the garlic looks like it is going to burn.
  • Pour in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Cook until thickened, about 10-15 minutes. If it is splattering adjust the heat, or partially cover with a lid.
  • Add the beans and cooked quinoa. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, which it will likely need. Pour into a casserole dish, I like a deep 9 x 13 dish, and set aside while you make the topping.

For the topping:

  • In a bowl combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt and stir with a whisk to combine. In a separate bowl mix the eggs, milk, butter, and maple and stir to combine well. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Fold in the grated cheese and scallions.
  • Dollop the topping over the filling evenly and using an offset spatula or butter knife, spread it out evenly over top. Place in the preheated oven and bake until the top is set, about 25-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve warm, with sour cream if desired.


  • Michelle B says:

    5 stars
    This dish was fantastic! I thought we would have leftovers but we all went back for seconds and thirds! I appreciate the substitution ideas and I used ground turkey and corn. It was flavorful and easy to put together. The bit of maple syrup in the topping was spot on! This will definitely go into a more frequent meal rotation and I’m looking forward to trying the quinoa version next.

  • suzanne says:

    5 stars
    i loved this

  • JRF says:

    5 stars
    This was amazing!

  • Lauren H says:

    5 stars
    I just made the quinoa version with my 12 year old son! It was a hit, the whole family enjoyed it. We have an egg allergy, so we used “flax eggs” in the topping and it seemed to work just fine. This would be a perfect dish for entertaining vegetarians and meat eaters, as no one in our family noticed the absence of meat. It also made enough for our family of 5 to have two meals. Looking forward to trying the other variations.

    • KeyLimeLexi says:

      That’s great Lauren! I’m so glad you all loved it and the egg substitution worked out! Thanks for the comments!

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