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November 14, 2019
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Traditional casserole of the Americas

In South America, you would recognize this dish, Pastel de Choclo, as a popular family casserole. To me, it resembles the classic 1950’s American Tamale Pie that appeared at least monthly on the Ringler family dinner table when we lived in Bakersfield. Both are made with ground meat and onions mixed with other ingredients that are covered and baked with a corn topping. The brilliance is that you can create a flavorful meal by using some varied ingredients that might already be sitting around the kitchen, mix it up, plop it in the oven with nothing more to do than wait until it’s done.

For a home-based casserole, the flavors from this mix of ingredients are sophisticated. The chicken and hard-boiled eggs combine well with the ground meat, and the raisins and black olives are nice surprises. It would also be an easy dish to personalize using your own creativity. 

Choclo is an ancient variety of corn that is found in South and Central America. It is also called Peruvian corn and has been cultivated for at least 1,500 years according to Alexander Grobman in his paper on “Races of Maize in Peru: Their Origins, Evolution and Classification.”

Although not conclusive, since there is no evidence of wild native corn in South America, it is assumed that choclo evolved from corn that came at some point, from what is now called Mexico. The kernels are larger and tougher than our sweet corn, but has an appeal to people who grow up with it. It is similar to hominy or pozole corn. I used frozen sweet corn that I keep on hand in the freezer.

Traditional pastel de choclo is baked in a low sided ceramic casserole with a pudding-like topping sprinkled with sugar that caramelizes to a golden crust in the oven. I added a little cornmeal to my topping reminiscent of tamale pie that gave the crust more substance. The basic recipe is from Marian Blazes at the Spruce Eats website.

Pastel de Choclo

3 to 4 medium onions, chopped 

3 tablespoons vegetable oil 

1 1/2 pounds ground pork, lamb or beef

2 teaspoons cumin 

2 teaspoons salt, divided 

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper 

3 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen

1/2 cup cornmeal, optional  

1 cup whole milk, divided 

1/4 cup butter 

1 tablespoon sugar 

2 tablespoons basil, finely chopped

1/2 cup raisins 

1/3 cup chopped black olives 

3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped 

1 cup roasted chicken, shredded

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Sauté the onions in the vegetable oil over medium heat until soft and translucent for about five minutes. Add ground meat, cumin, one teaspoon salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the meat is crumbled and browned. Cook ground pork longer than beef or lamb. Remove from heat and set aside.

Place cornmeal and corn kernels in a food processor or blender with 1/4 cup milk. Process for one to two minutes, until the corn is blended and appears creamy.

Melt 1/4 cup of butter in a large saucepan. Add one teaspoon salt, sugar, and the blended corn mixture. Add the remaining 3/4 cup milk and simmer, constantly stirring, until the mixture thickens in about five to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the chopped fresh basil.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Oil a shallow 3- to 4-quart casserole dish. Drain the liquid from the browned meat mixture if needed, then add to the bottom of the casserole dish. Sprinkle the raisins, olives, and hardboiled eggs over the meat, then layer the chicken on top. Spread the corn mixture over the top of the casserole so that it covers the ingredients. Sprinkle the powdered sugar on top if desired. Bake the casserole in the oven for 30 to 45 minutes, until the filling is bubbling hot, the corn mixture is golden brown and powdered sugar has caramelized. Serve warm.

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Sarah Ringler is a retired schoolteacher. She worked as a cook for 8 years before being a teacher, and also taught a cooking class at Pajaro Middle School for several years. She comes from a long line of serious cooks and passed the tradition on to her children, grandchildren, students and, hopefully, her readers.

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