Pastel de choclo (corn cake) is not usually a dish for vegetarians. Please do not confuse this with its North American counterpart: cornbread. Peruvian pastel de choclo has almost nothing in common with this cakey and fluffy bread, other than sharing the main ingredient: corn. But even this fact is debatable, as pastel de choclo uses fresh corn only, not corn meal, and on top of this, Peruvian giant kernel corn is very different from the sweet corn used in other parts of the world.
So, as I was saying, pastel de choclo is not something vegetarians get to enjoy very often, as it is usually filled with a similar minced beef mixture as the one used to stuff papas rellenas, caiguas rellenas, or arroz tapado. For me, that is a real shame, because I really enjoy the soft and almost creamy texture of the corn, and its slightly sweet taste, but I never get to order it when eating out, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vegetarian version of it.
So you can imagine how happy I was when a few years back I found a vegetarian pastel de choclo recipe in a book about the food of Cuzco. I don’t remember the exact recipe, but I remember it had a lot of black olives in replacement of the meat, and a lot of cheese. Amelia, our cook at the time, and I, decided to follow the recipe to the smallest detail, and we liked it a lot. However, between all those black olives and cheese, the result was a bit on the salty side.
Nowadays, I’m much more adventurous and confident when it comes to changing recipes, or even recreating a dish from my memory, without an actual recipe. Browsing through our book, The Everything Peruvian Cookbook, a couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon the Meat-Filled Corn Pudding (pastel de choclo) recipe my mom included in the book, and decided it was time to give the veggie version a second try. This time, I would mix my mom’s recipe with my memory of the recipe Amelia and I made that one time, and on top of this I wouldn’t complicate myself trying to find Peruvian giant kernel corn, but would use what I had in hand instead: corn meal.
My boldness in the kitchen usually shows that I’m not a trained chef and I’m just a crazy girl playing around in the kitchen without thinking too much about it. I recreated my mom’s pastel de choclo dough (which calls for fresh corn), using corn meal instead, and didn’t change anything else about it. The result was a dense and hard as a rock crust. I actually enjoyed the taste quite a bit, but the texture was clearly wrong. So of course, after this failed attempt, I went back to my mom for her professional chef advice (I have no clue why I didn’t ask BEFORE doing it!).
She recommended mixing the cornmeal with milk, and adding some creamed corn to the dough. I took this one step further, and decided to add whole eggs, instead of just egg yolks. The result was much better than the first. It was soft, and the taste was delicious. It wasn’t so dense, so it didn’t feel like you were eating too much corn crust in relation to the filling, as it did the first time around. The filling was a mix of mushrooms, red bell pepper, tomato, and lots of olives (like in that recipe from the Cuzco cookbook). I left out the cheese (I hardly eat any cheese nowadays), and the hard boiled egg pieces (I thought the egg in the dough was enough egginess for one day). I really liked it. Perhaps a few twitches could still be made (I will update this post when I try it again), but I think I pretty much nailed the veggie pastel de choclo with this recipe. So if you’re a vegetarian, get ready to start enjoying this staple Peruvian dish more often. I know I will.
**I strongly recommend using organic cornmeal and organic corn only. Most corn sold around the world is GMO (genetically modified), which means it’s not actual corn anymore, but some weird corn look-alike. It also means it’s probably sprayed to the point of oblivion with pesticides and other toxins. For me, if corn is not organic (which means it’s also GMO-free), then it’s not even worth eating it. You’re better off without it.
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tomato, chopped
- ½ bell pepper, chopped
- 1 package mushrooms, chopped
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 tsbp red wine vinegar
- ½ tsp aji amarillo paste, or cayenne pepper
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup pitted and chopped Botija or Alphonso olives
- ⅓ cup raisins
- 1 cup milk
- 1 ½ cup frozen corn
- 1 cup corn meal
- 6 tbsp butter
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp aniseed
- Melt the coconut oil in a pan over medium heat, and sautee the onion and garlic, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes.
- Add the tomato, bell pepper, mushrooms, tomato paste, red wine vinegar, chili paste or powder, salt and pepper, and cook for 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the black olives and raisins, stir, and turn the heat off. Put the lid on, and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Bring the milk and frozen corn to a boil in a small pan, and turn the heat off immediately.
- Add the cornmeal and beat quickly with a wire whisk until it is dissolved and a dough forms. Add the butter and keep mixing until it melts.
- Transfer the dough to a blender, and process with the eggs, salt, and pepper.
- Pour half the corn mixture in a 9 x 5 inch non stick loaf pan. Add the filling, and then pour the rest of the corn on top.
- Sprinkle with aniseed and bake for 40 minutes.
- Let it cool for at least 15 minutes before cutting.