Pastel de Choclo

Feeling both chilly and devilish on the beach in La Serena

Feelings of normalcy are sliding back into place as I return to class, to work, to my what-shall-I-call-other-than home in Chicago. I don't know how I managed to develop homesickness for a place I only lived for a month, but here I am, making borracho beans with rice, empanadas de pino, and pastel de choclo within the span of a week, trying to create a sense of being in a place more than five thousand miles away from here. It helps that I love the people I live with and have an amazingly supportive work environment, but of course it's not the same. How could it be? I've already started planning my travels for next summer -- which will [hopefully] include London, Oaxaca, Mexico City, and several cities in Greece -- and this year's Thanksgiving meal, so I have ample material for daydreams and spreadsheets.


And so, a lesson on corn is in order instead of my musings about being home. First of all, choclo refers to a specific kind of corn. It's a variety that is much starchier than the sweet corn we can find en los Estados Unidos, so that when you cook it, it turns into a wonderfully thick pudding. Pastel de choclo is akin to shepherd's pie, with a bottom layer of pino (a term for the mixture of beef and onions cooked with salt, pepper, cumin, and sometimes paprika, along with golden raisins, slices of hard-boiled egg, and olives: it's a classic Chilean filling for empanadas), covered by chicken, which is then covered by a mixture of cooked choclo, basil, and salt. It's usually baked and served in individual clay bowls, but since I bought a clay pot when I was in Pomaire, a town an hour away from Santiago famous for their clay works, I baked mine into one casserole of sorts. 

After removing the kernels of corn from the cobs, I simmered the cobs with some salt and water to make a corn broth -- which is fabulous to drink if you have a cold by the way (trust me, I've had a gross cold for the past few days) -- that I'll turn into soup later this week. You can also steep the corn silks (after removing the black ends) in hot water to make tea that's supposed to heal all sorts of ailments, and you could dry out the husks for tamales. I didn't manage to do either of those this time around, but if you're feeling ambitious, make use of all that late summer produce has to offer before the midwest becomes a tundra once more. 

Pastel de Choclo
adapted from Viva Chile!

8 large ears of corn, silks and husks removed
8 leaves fresh basil, finely chopped
3 tablespoons butter
0.5-1 c half-and-half
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons oil
1 pound lean ground beef
Kosher salt
Black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
0.5-1 c black olives, pitted
3 c golden raisins
4 chicken thighs or 2 chicken breasts

Over a large bowl, use the largest holes of a box grater to remove the corn kernels from the cobs. You want to keep both the liquid and the pieces of corn (use the cobs to make stock, trust me, it's delicious). In a medium saucepan, heat the corn with the basil, salt to taste, and butter. Once the butter has melted, add the half-and-half a little at a time until the mixture has thickened and become custard-like.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a pan with high sides. Sweat the onions for a few minutes until translucent, then push to the side and add in another tablespoon of oil and the ground beef. Season the beef with salt, pepper, 1 teaspoon cumin, and paprika, then cook until browned. Stir the onions into the beef once it's browned, then add in the raisins and olives.

Meanwhile, in another pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil. Season the chicken with salt, pepper, and the other teaspoon of cumin, then sear skin-side down. Cook the chicken through, then either remove the meat from the bones, saving the bones for stock, or proceed to the next step.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In individual oven-proof bowls (or in one large vessel), layer the beef mixture with the egg, then the chicken, and lastly the corn mixture. Bake for 25-30 minutes if in individual bowls, or 1+ hour for one pan/pot (depending on your oven), until the top is golden brown and the edges are bubbling.

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