We look forward to farm stand sweet corn season all year long. I overbuy and we overeat it right off the cobs for days in a row. Full up on buttered ears, I start to think of other ways to savor the golden goodness.
Grilled corn on the cob takes more time and patience than simply immersing the ears in boiling water, but the flavor pays off. When grilling a dozen or more at a time, I soak unshucked ears in buckets of salted water and then drain the ears before piling them onto hot grills. The corn steams gently in its husks, yielding tender kernels with a vaguely smoky flavor.
When grilling just a few ears, I like to artfully tie back the leaves and expose the kernels to the direct heat of the grill. A seasoning of olive oil, salt and pepper renders them irresistible.
In true melting pot American fashion, a slather of Sriracha-spiked mayonnaise and sprinkle of fresh cilantro turns the grilled corn into an international treat. I also like to remove the grilled corn from the cobs and add tomatoes, basil and the Sriracha mayo for a great summer salad.
This is also the time of year to make pastel de choclo, a South American savory casserole with a sweet corn crust. My niece introduced me to this rich and homey dish while pottery shopping together in Pomaire, Chile. We’d spent a great morning visiting Pablo Neruda’s home in Isla Negra and were powerfully hungry.
Nearly “hangry,” she says. Good thing, as this main-course casserole, reminiscent of shepherd’s pie with a sweet corn crust instead of mashed potatoes, proves mighty filling.
The corn in South America is starchier and less sweet than our Midwestern sweet corn. To compensate for the lack of starchiness, I add a bit of cornmeal and cornstarch to the batter. To make the dish sweeter – all the versions we enjoyed in Chile sported corn toppings that were quite sweet – add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the corn batter. Sprinkling a little sugar over the top helps promote a browned crust while baking.
The version served at Los Naranjos, a restaurant in Pomaire, features surprises tucked underneath the crust – whole hard-cooked eggs, large green olives with pits and even a whole roasted chicken leg. Everyone takes time to enjoy their individual casseroles along with cool fresh fruit juices.
At home, I often skip the roasted chicken and eggs and opt instead to add sliced olives to a highly-seasoned, but not spicy, beef picadillo filling. The corn crust takes a bit of time because you need quite a lot of sweet corn kernels.
Fortunately, corn is inexpensive at this time of the year. When pressed for time, I use the frozen organic super sweet cut corn from Trader Joe’s – it’s a rich yellow corn sporting great flavor. You’ll need 1½ packages to yield 4½ cups of kernels.
Both the meaty layer and the corn batter can be made in advance. Assembly is easy: Simply spread the meat in a layer in a heavy cast-iron pan or baking dish and top with the corn batter. To keep the house cool, I often bake the dish on the gas grill, not directly over the heat source set to medium heat, about 350 degrees on an oven thermometer set inside the grill.
Serve the pastel de choclo with a hearty green lettuce salad dressed with olive oil and a fruity vinegar. I like to serve watermelon juice with a splash of sparkling water and a squeeze of lime for a summer refresher.
CHILEAN SWEET CORN CASSEROLE WITH BEEF PICADILLO, PASTEL DE CHOCLO
For this recipe, use a 10-inch-diameter cast-iron pan, measured from outside rim to outside rim, that is 2 inches deep.
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium-size sweet onion, halved, chopped
1 pound ground beef, 85 percent lean
½ medium-size red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons sliced pitted manzanilla or Kalamata olives, optional
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon minced fresh oregano (or ¼ teaspoon dried)
¼ teaspoon minced fresh thyme (or a pinch dried)
SWEET CORN CRUST
8 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked and rinsed or 24 ounces frozen sweet corn kernels
1/3 cup cornmeal
¼ cup milk
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or basil
2 to 3 cups roughly shredded boneless skinless cooked chicken, optional
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, halved, optional
For the savory layer, melt butter in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion. Cook and stir 3 minutes.
Stir in beef. Cook, breaking meat up into small chunks, until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Stir in bell pepper, garlic and olives.
Stir in dissolved cornstarch until mixture boils, about 2 minutes. Stir in salt, paprika, cumin, oregano and thyme. Remove from heat and cool. Mixture can be made up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated covered.
For corn crust, add corn to a large kettle of boiling salted water. Cook 2 minutes. Drain and cool. If using corn on the cob, set each ear in a deep bowl and use a sharp knife to remove the corn kernels. You should have about 4½ cups corn kernels.
Put corn kernels, cornmeal, milk, cornstarch, sugar and salt into a food processor or work in batches in a blender. Process until mixture is a nearly smooth batter.
Heat butter in large saucepan and add corn mixture. Cook and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture boils and thickens enough to make a clean swipe across the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Cool. Mixture can be made several hours in advance; use at room temperature.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spread beef mixture over the bottom of a 10-inch well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or a deep 2 ½-quart baking dish. Top with cilantro or basil. Nestle the chicken and eggs, if using, down into the beef mixture.
Use a spatula to evenly spread the corn mixture over the meat mixture so it is completely covered. Smooth the top with the spatula and sprinkle with sugar to promote browning. Bake until the top is set and lightly browned at the edges, about 45 minutes.
Cool about 10 minutes on a wire rack. Use a metal spatula or pancake flipper to cut wedges and serve.
PER SERVING (without optional ingredients): 589 calories, 25 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 64 g carbohydrates, 26 g protein, 1242 mg sodium, 6 g fiber.