One year ago, I spent a sunny afternoon cooking in my friend Susana’s back yard, with her mom and grandma. (OK, mostly they cooked, and I watched. And then ate.) Every year, one day late in the summer, they pick up cases of Taber corn and get together to make large quantities of pastel de choclo – Chilean corn-topped beef pies in the style of shepherd’s pie. They do it out in the backyard when it’s still sunny, giving them space to shuck dozens of cobs and cut off the kernels, which are then mulched in the food processor with sprigs of fresh basil. I don’t know why I never thought to do this – the result is this creamy-sweet pale yellow mixture, brightened with bits of basil, which I was perfectly happy to eat raw by the spoonful. If you haven’t taken a bite of a good cob of corn raw, try it! ‘Tis the season.
Pastel de choclo is made with a base of pino, hard boiled eggs and olives, topped with the corn mixture. Susana’s mom Catalina is known for her pino – essentially the same mixture that’s used to make empanadas, although for empanadas Catalina makes hers with larger cuts of beef, roughly chopped, and a formula she keeps secret by preparing it late at night after everyone is asleep – for pastel de choclo it’s made with ground beef and merkén– a spice blend with a smoked chili base, lots of garlic, and Catalina quickly boils the onions first, which she says makes them easier to digest and eliminates heartburn.
I loved how neatly Susana’s grandma, Lela, sliced around the base of each cob before pulling off the husks and silk, leaving a neat little pale green cap at the bottom.
They simmer the chicken thighs first with veggies and water, and make soup out of the resulting stock. Then they set out these lovely dark earthenware bowls they brought when they came to Canada from Chile and layer the ingredients in each – pino, chicken, eggs and olives – then topping each bowl with the fresh corn-basil mulch, spreading it right to the edges and sprinkling the top with a bit of sugar to help it brown. They’re then baked until bubbly, the corn lids tender and caramelized, trapping all the moisture from the meat layers underneath, and then served as so many dishes are – with a quick salad of fresh tomatoes, purple onion and cilantro, dressed with olive oil and salt. Tomatoes just happen to be at their best right now, too.
One of the best things about going to Susana’s is that there’s always so much family around – when they make pastel de choclo, they make enough to feed the extended family and send everyone home with more for the week – I came up with this recipe for a more regular family-sized portion by watching and taking notes, so don’t feel like you have to adhere too strictly to the quantities. And by all means, invite your people over and make enough for everyone to eat, then take some home for early fall dinners.