Tamales are so much work.  There’s the pork braising, the lard whipping, the husk soaking, the bundle tying, the hour-long steaming.  Delicious, to be sure, but not something I’d attempt at home more than once every decade or so.

A tamale pie, however, combines the best parts of the tamale — the soft, fluffy masa dough and the saucy, spicy filling — in a big, weeknight-friendly casserole.

My version is lard-free and heavy on the vegetables.  Masa harina is available in most larger grocery stores, but if you can’t find it you can top the pie with cornbread batter instead.  A cornbread-topped pie takes about 35 minutes to cook and is done when lightly browned on top and a toothpick inserted in the center of the casserole comes out clean.

Tamale pie

Yield:  13 x 9-inch casserole, serving 6-8

For filling:

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 Spanish onion, finely chopped

12 oz. mushrooms, sliced

2 zucchini, cut into 1/2″ dice

3 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 tbsp. paprika

1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

15 oz. can fire-roasted, diced tomatoes (with or without green chiles)

3 c. shredded, cooked chicken, turkey, or pork

15 oz. can kidney or pinto beans, rinsed and drained

2 c. chicken stock

2 tbsp. cornstarch

For topping:

2 c. masa harina (corn flour)

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 c. cold butter (I use Earth Balance), cut into pieces

1 c. corn kernels (thawed, if frozen)

2 c. chicken stock

Make filling:

Warm a large, straight-sided skillet or dutch oven over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onion.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes.  Raise heat to medium-high and add mushrooms, zucchini, and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper.  Stir in paprika, oregano, and cumin, and cook until mushrooms have released their liquid and most of that liquid has evaporated, at least 5 minutes more.  Stir in cider vinegar, tomatoes, chicken, beans, and all but 1/4 c. of the stock.

Make a slurry by whisking cornstarch with reserved 1/4 c. stock until dissolved.  When filling in skillet comes to a boil, whisk in cornstarch.  Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 2 minutes.  Taste and season with additional salt and pepper as needed.  Set aside.

Make topping:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In the work bowl of a food processor, combine masa, baking powder, and salt.  Pulse to evenly combine.  Add butter and pulse until well incorporated.  The mixture will resemble wet sand.  (If you don’t have a food processor, use a pastry blender or your fingers to cut the butter into the masa.)  Add the corn and the stock and process until evenly moistened.  The mixture should be soft, light, and spreadable.

Lightly oil a 13 x 9-inch baking dish.  Pour in filling, then spread masa topping over the top.  I find the best way to do this is to drop small spoonfuls all over the surface of the filling, then use a rubber spatula to gently smooth the surface.  Don’t worry if the filling isn’t entirely covered, but do try to spread the masa layer to an even thickness.

Cover casserole with foil and bake for 40 minutes.  Uncover and continue baking 10-15 minutes more or until filling is bubbling around the edges and masa topping is set in the center and lightly golden in color. (If you’re not sure, pick up a bit of topping from the center of the pie — if it’s still raw underneath, return to the oven for 10 minutes more.)

Let sit 10-15 minutes before serving.  Tamale pie keeps well in the fridge for about 4 days, though the tamale topping won’t be as fluffy when reheated.  Reheat individual servings, covered with a damp paper towel, in the microwave.

Make it meatless:

Use vegetable stock instead of chicken.  Omit the shredded meat and add an additional 3 cups chopped vegetables, beans, and/or tofu.  Try, alone or in combination:

∙ Eggplant, peeled, diced, and added to the pan along with the zucchini and mushrooms.

∙ Butternut squash, peeled, seeded, diced small, and added to the pan with the zucchini and mushrooms.  Before adding the cornstarch slurry, test a piece of squash for doneness.  If it’s not tender, simmer filling a few minutes longer before you thicken it.

∙ Fresh or frozen corn kernels, added to the pan just before the cornstarch slurry.

∙ Whatever cooked beans (or lentils) you have on hand.  A 15 oz. can contains about 1 ½ cups of beans.

∙ Firm tofu, drained, pressed, diced, and added to the pan along with the beans.