Andrea Maunder, locovore, wine expert and pastry chef, is the owner and creative force behind Bacalao, a St. John's restaurant specializing in "nouvelle Newfoundland" cuisine. www.bacalaocuisine.ca

Pastel de Choclo

It is January in Newfoundland and Labrador, which means we can expect nearly anything with weather. So I think the proper thing to do is take you on a virtual trip to the Southern Hemisphere (where they are in the throes of summer) and tantalize your virtual taste buds with a dish that is, for me, the ultimate in comfort food.

Pastel de Choclo is, to put it best, the Chilean version of shepherd’s pie. Its savoury base is cumin and onion-flavoured stewed meat. It’s topped with a sweet and creamy corn pudding, into which is added chopped fresh basil. Gilding the lily is that the corn topping becomes bruléed with a little bit of crunchy caramelized sugar crust. And if you’re not already swooning, inside the pie is the delightful surprise of briny olives, juicy golden raisins and a quarter of a hard boiled egg. Best of all, chances are you have everything you need to make Pastel de Choclo in your pantry right now.

You can batch this up casserole style or make individual servings. It is traditionally made in a round, low-sided earthenware casserole dish, but will work just fine in any casserole dish you have. It freezes well, which makes it ideal for saving and reheating as lunches or quick dinners.

Pastel de Choclo (loosely translated as corn pie) dates back to 1500s Peru. Today, the dish is popular in several South American countries but perhaps none more than Chile – polling by a Chilean online magazine revealed it to be the most popular comfort food. 

For a truly comforting experience, this dish is best enjoyed with a glass of Chilean wine. A carmenère or merlot would be perfect.

Pastel de Choclo 
serves 6-8

For the topping
6 ears of fresh corn (or a 14 oz can  of niblets, drained, plus a 14 oz can creamed corn)
3/4 cup milk
2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup 18% coffee cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

For the filling
2-3 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp dried oregano flakes
1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper (more or less to taste)
1/2 tsp paprika
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs lean ground beef (or ground turkey, pork, lamb, moose etc.)
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tbsp flour
1/4 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups chicken or beef stock (or water)
1/2 cup raisins (I prefer golden)

To assemble
12-16 pitted black olives
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, quartered
4 tsp sugar

Slice the kernels from the corn cobs and place in a blender with the milk. (Scrape the knife against the cob to scrape out the milky juice and add that to the blender also; this starch flavours and thickens the topping.) Blend a couple of minutes, until corn appears creamy. Meanwhile, in a small saucepot, melt the butter. Add the blended corn and cream to the pot. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer over medium-low heat until thickened (about 10 minutes). (Add a little milk or cream if it gets too thick – should be the consistency of pudding.) Set aside to cool, then add chopped basil. (If using canned corn, blend the drained niblets with the milk. Add, along with the can of creamed corn, to the melted butter and proceed as above.)

In a large frypan, over medium-high heat, sauté onions and spices in oil until softened and translucent, 4-5 minutes; add garlic and fry a minute more. Add beef and fry, breaking up clumps, until cooked. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle in flour; stir 2 minutes. Stir in wine, scraping up browned bits on the bottom of the pan, allowing the wine to evaporate. Add stock (or water) and raisins. Reduce to medium heat. Continue to stir until mixture thickens into gravy (3-5 minutes). Taste and reseason if necessary.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Place the meat filling in casserole(s). Nestle the eggs and olives into the filling. Spoon corn mixture over the top, covering the filling completely. Sprinkle with sugar. Place dish(es) on a sheet pan to catch any spills. Bake 30 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the corn topping is golden brown. Pull a cork, make a toast to the southern hemisphere and enjoy!

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