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In the chips

Frito Slab Pie turns single-serve treat into a meal for many

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Photographs by The Washington Post/DEB LINDSEY

Tex Mex Frito Slab Pie combines a cornbread crust, chili and corn chips for a crowd-friendly take on the classic dish.

Scissor open a snack-size bag of corn chips, spoon in chili, cheese and sour cream and you have a walking taco, aka Frito Pie. The birthplace of this personal meal in a bag is unclear -- possibly Mexico, Texas or even a Santa Fe five-and-dime lunch counter. Regardless, Frito Pie has become part of America's culinary vernacular. Quite simply, this is a joyous food delivery system.

I've eaten my share of Frito Pies, and while I struggle to achieve the right ratio of chips to chili, I'll never turn one down. Still, nothing else had satisfied like that delightful combination of crunch, spicy heat and sweet corn -- until I began to dream of a baking sheet filled with those tastes.

My Tex Mex Frito Slab Pie starts with a delicate crust of cornbread and layers on chipotle-laced chili, plenty of sharp cheese and crushed Fritos corn chips. This is a family-friendly meal fit for a potluck, a neighborhood gathering or a football get-together. It's economical and easy to serve as well. It takes less than an hour to gather the ingredients (many of which may be on your pantry shelves already), heat the oven, stir up the cornbread mix, make the chili topping, assemble the parts and bake.

While it's not a complex recipe, it does involve some keys to success. Use a sturdy baking sheet, the type with 1-inch sides. I tried making this pie in a disposable aluminum foil pan. Disaster. This is a heavy pie. On another occasion, I doubled up on the foil pans, but then the cornbread didn't crisp up.

Chili is the most flavor-packed component in this dish, so it needs to be well-seasoned -- to the very edge of over-seasoned, in fact. The cornbread crust mellows the pie's overall taste, as does the cheesy layer, so that's why you need an assertive chili. So go spicier but just slightly more salty, remembering that this pie is topped with a carpet of crushed chips.

Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix substitutes for homemade cornbread without a bit of shame. It takes two 8.5-ounce boxes' worth to cover the baking sheet, but when pouring the batter into the pan, leave a little back in the mixing bowl or risk an overflowing and abundant cornbread crust. For the purists among you, there's a no-sugar, from-scratch recipe, too.

Set out this pie with suitable toppings such as salsa, pickled jalapeno, cubes of avocado, diced red onion, lime wedges, sour cream and a favorite hot sauce. Serve a crisp, crunchy salad on the side.

This is also an easygoing recipe, substitution-wise. All beef or ground turkey can be substituted for the beef and pork combination. Pinto beans can be used for a vegetarian option. Toss a handful of pickled jalapenos in with the grated cheese. Try nacho-flavored chips instead of plain corn chips. Add frozen corn kernels to the crust batter. A layer of roasted poblanos can be snuggled between the chili and the cheese.

You'll need a rimmed baking sheet or jellyroll pan that measures 13-by-18-inches with 1-inch sides. The recipe can be halved. In that case, you'll need a 9-by-13-inch baking sheet with 1-inch sides.

This recipe can be baked earlier in the day, refrigerated and then reheated to serve. Starting with a room-temperature pie, cover with aluminum foil and warm in a 350-degree oven 12 to 15 minutes. The chili can be refrigerated for up to 3 days in advance, or frozen for up to a month. Defrost before using.

Have fun with my take on Frito Pie, whether you're walking or sitting down.

Tex-Mex Frito Slab Pie

For the chili:

1/2 cup chopped smoky bacon or pancetta

2 medium onions, diced

1 pound lean ground pork

1 pound lean ground beef, preferably ground chuck

1 cup water

4 tablespoons tomato paste

1 1/2 tablespoons sauce from canned chiles in adobo

1 tablespoon ancho chile powder

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup chopped green onions (white and light-green parts)

1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves, chopped

For the crust:

Softened unsalted butter, for the pan

2 (8.5-ounce) boxes Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix OR 1 batch Plainly Delicious Cornbread batter (recipe follows)

2 eggs (see note)

2/3 cup milk (see note)

1/2 pound Monterey Jack or sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated

1 (9.5-ounce) bag Fritos, crushed

Garnishes:

Lime wedges

Chopped cilantro

Diced red onion

Diced avocado

Sour cream or Mexican crema

Jalapeno slices, fresh or pickled

Hot sauce

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

For the chili: Cook the chopped bacon in a large, straight-sided skillet over medium heat until it is just crisp. Add the onions and cook until translucent, then add the ground pork and beef, breaking it up with two forks. Cook until no pink remains in the meat, about 6 minutes, then pour off and discard most of the accumulated fat.

Add the water, tomato paste, adobo sauce, ancho chile powder, salt, paprika, cumin and cinnamon. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook 10 minutes. Stir in the green onions and cilantro; remove pan from heat. Let the mixture cool while making the cornbread batter.

For the crust: Brush the rimmed baking sheet with butter, especially in the corners and up the sides.

Prepare the corn muffin mixes with the eggs and milk according to the package directions, stirring with a fork until just combined in a mixing bowl. Lumps are OK.

Pour the batter into the baking sheet or jellyroll pan, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly into the corners. Scatter the chili filling evenly across the cornmeal batter, cover with the grated cheese and then top with the crushed Fritos. Don't worry; it's all going to come together.

Bake on center rack 22 to 24 minutes, until the cornbread is pulling away from the corners and the Fritos are golden brown. If it looks like the crust will bubble over the edges, place a large sheet of aluminum foil or another baking sheet on the rack underneath.

Serve hot, warm or at room temperature with desired garnishes.

Makes 24 servings.

Note: Omit eggs and milk if using Plainly Delicious Cornbread batter.

This simple cornbread is quick to mix up and comes fast to the table. Use stone-ground cornmeal, which provides the heartiest corn flavor.

Plainly Delicious Cornbread

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups stone-ground cornmeal

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons kosher salt

10 or 11 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

2 cups buttermilk

4 eggs, beaten

To use as crust for a Frito Slab Pie: Whisk the flour and cornmeal with the baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk together 10 tablespoons of the melted butter, the buttermilk and eggs in a separate bowl. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, using a table fork to incorporate just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Lumps are OK. Proceed following Tex-Mex Frito Slab Pie directions.

To bake as regular cornbread: Place a 9- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet on the middle oven rack; heat to 400 degrees.

Meanwhile, whisk the flour and cornmeal with the baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk together 10 tablespoons of the melted butter, the buttermilk and eggs in a separate bowl. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, using a table fork to incorporate just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Lumps are OK.

Once the pan is quite hot, use the remaining 1 tablespoon of melted butter to brush the inside of the pan, including up the sides. Pour the batter into the hot pan, slide it in the oven and bake 22 to 25 minutes, until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the center of the cornbread comes out clean.

Let sit 5 minutes before serving.

Plainly Delicious Cornbread is delicious on its own or as a base for Tex Mex Frito Slab Pie.

Food on 09/13/2017

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