Birdy’s had a fever for four days; we’ve had bad news about work and money; Michael and I have been arguing in that gross hissing way where whenever the kids turn around you stop and smile those big fake smiles that make it look like you have twice your normal number of teeth. I actually love winter—it’s like one big long glittering-blue prelude to spring—but there’s something about these days that makes it feel like it’s always dinnertime and I always just want to lie on the couch with a beer and order a pizza. “Hmm,” I say, with my head in the freezer. “What have we got?” What we’ve got is ground beef frozen in one-pound packages. “This meat is from cows that actually lived happy lives,” I explained to the kids at our local farm’s meat sale a couple months ago. Ben raised his eyebrows. “Is that supposed to make it better? Because really, from the cow’s perspective, it kind of sounds worse, like, oh this cow was so joyful and glad before we sawed it into pieces for you to eat.” Point well taken. Still. We have a freezer full of meat is what I’m saying.
I like to wait until dinnertime to decide that we want to have meat for dinner, and then I like to expend a great deal of energy figuring out how to defrost it instantly. Why put it on the counter in the morning and have it be ready when you want to cook it? Why make life easy when you can Google “thaw meat quickly” and skim everyone’s absurd and Salmonellic strategies? Of course, the point here is that you’re taking advice from the very same people who were too disorganized in the first place to thaw the meat via any of the more traveled-on roads. “Oh just put the frozen block of it in the pan,” someone wrote. “And kind of scrape at it as it starts to cook.” And this, my friends, is what I did. Honestly? It was a little labor intensive, but it worked just fine.
Oh right—I still haven’t even mentioned the tamale pie. This is one of those straight-forward, inexpensive, one-pan meals that everybody loves. I can’t tell if it’s the word “pie” (“Kids, we’re having lint pie for dinner!” “Awesome!”) or if it’s the cornbread or if it’s the actual kernels of corn which, as you know, I take to be the proverbial spoonful of sugar as far as the medicine of dinnertime goes. “Can I have a little more please?” Ben always asks, with his mouth full, “And a little more? If there are leftovers, can I please take it for lunch tomorrow?” (“No, because I will have eaten it for breakfast,” doesn’t sound very maternal.) Tamale pie is just a good, basic dinner—nothing fancy, but well enough seasoned that even the grown-ups will be surprised by its deliciousness. Note: Tamale pie is not to be confused with Frito pie, which I ate once from a truck in Taos, New Mexico: a small bag of Fritos with a scoop of green-chile chili dumped in. You’ve never eaten a more perfect meal in your life. Even writing this now I drooled a little.
I swear, come summer, it will be salads and fresh vegetables around here, grilled this and raw that, all of it floating away on a rainbow of color and crispness. But right now this seems to be the “frozen corn and meat” column. It will also, as per your requests, become the “chicken breast and school lunch” column. But first, a little frozen corn and meat:
preparation time: 30 minutes; total time: 50 minutes
Use what you have: ground turkey, if that’s what you like, or crumbled tofu, whatever canned beans you have in the pantry, skipping the corn if you haven’t got any. And you could also season it differently, but try it this way first: it makes a mildly spicy meal that is pleasantly smoky and tangy but not overly complicated. You could of course use cumin or chili powder instead, and then it might taste more familiar to everybody. But try it this way first, with either the chipotle puree or the smoked paprika, both of which I wrote about in the dinner-bean column here. It is so, so good.
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided (Divided by what? You’ll see.)
1 smallish onion, chopped
1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef (or turkey)
½ teaspoon chipotle puree or smoked paprika (or more to taste)
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 tablespoon plus1 teaspoon sugar, divided (Again. I know.)
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 8-ounce can Hunts tomato sauce or a cup of another canned tomato product of your choosing
1 15-ounce can beans (I used pinto here, but black are good too, as are kidney)
2 cups frozen corn, thawed in a sieve under a hot tap
1/3 cup flour (I use spelt)
2/3 cups cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
Heat the oven to 400. In a 10- or 12-inch heavy oven-proof pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-low heat and sauté the onions until they are translucent and browning around the edges—maybe 7 or 8 minutes (if your pan can’t go in the oven, simply transfer the cooked filling to a pie plate before spooning on the cornbread batter and baking). Add the garlic and sauté for another minute, then crumble in the ground meat, raise the heat to medium, and cook, stirring and breaking it up until it’s nice and browned and crumbly and does not look all raw-meaty. Stir in the chipotle puree, ¾ teaspoon of the salt, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, the vinegar, the tomato sauce, the beans, and the corn, and simmer all of it together for a few minutes until everybody in the pan gets well acquainted.
Now whisk together the flour, cornmeal, remaining ½ teaspoon of salt and remaining tablespoon of sugar in one bowl, and whisk together the egg, buttermilk, and remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in another (I actually do this latter whisking right in the cup where I measured the buttermilk). Pour the liquids into the dries and combine with a few decisive strokes of a rubber spatula before stirring in half the cheese and pouring the mixture over the filling in the pan. It will figure itself out—you don’t need to fuss with it too much by way of smoothing etc. Top with the remaining cheese and bake 20 minutes—though you might want to check it at 15. When the cornbread is nicely browned and cooked-looking, it’s done.