Thursday, June 23, 2011

Aunt Clara's Pastelón de Harina de Maiz (Cornmeal Goodness)

It's been over a week without a post, but don't fret! I've been cooking up a storm. Fresh tomato sauces, green salad with tuna in a lime-honey vinaigrette, thai curried sardines, rice cooked with vegetables...and it has all been delectable, healthy, light, and gluten-free. Perfect summer foods, and in my charming new apartment, with my muse, the fiance.

After the triumph of the first pastelón, I looked in my pantry and fridge and decided I would tackle the Cornmeal Pastelón. Why stop while I was on a roll, right? I'm glad I tried it, because it turned out to be one of those meals that melts in your mouth while you eat it slowly with your eyes closed - without realizing it. Heaven is what that is.

However, it took forever to make. I mean it, this was not an easy meal, nor was it my healthiest invention, but it sure as hell tasted good. This meal is so Dominican - there's something about the mixture of sweet (the layers of sweet polenta) and savory (the ground beef mixture in the middle) that screams the Dominican Republic. The recipe is going to look odd right up until you take your first bite. Take my word for it, and try making this recipe! You won't regret it.

A few tips: I made my own polenta from the cornmeal, which was the longest part of the process. If you can find some quick-cooking polenta, you are home-free.  This would be an excellent meal for a potluck or a party - wherever you need to feed a lot of people. And, it's guaranteed to impress.


Pastelón de Harina de Maiz (Cornmeal Goodness)

2 cups cornmeal
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup grated cheddar or mozzarella cheese (I used mozzarella)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup raisins

Fresh Tomato Sauce
6 cups fresh or canned tomatoes, peeled and diced
3+ tablespoons of sugar (add to make it as sweet as you like it)
1 1/2 cup of water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed and minced
1 small onion, diced

Ground Beef Filling
1-2 pounds ground beef
1 red onion, diced into small pieces
1 green pepper, diced into small pieces
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons olive oil

**Before starting to cook, soak the cornmeal and raisins in 6-8 cups of water for an hour.**

1. Make the Tomato Sauce:

If you are peeling your tomatoes from scratch, there's a shortcut that Aunt Clara has on her website, and it is brilliant! Wash your tomatoes, and then slice an X with a knife on the bottom and top parts of the tomatoes. Drop them in boiling water, and watch as within a few minutes, the skin begins to peel back. Remove, rinse in cold water, and place them in the fridge until you are ready to dice them - so you don't get burned!

After everything is washed and diced, heat the oil in a pan. Sautée the tomatoes and onion with a 1/2 teaspoon of oregano. Once the onions are tender, add the garlic for around 30 seconds so it doesn't burn. Add water and sugar, and simmer over low heat until you have a thick, chunky sauce.  Add salt to taste!

Set this sauce aside for now.

2. Make the Ground Beef Filling:

Heat the oil in a shallow pan. Sautée the onions and pepper until they are tender, and then add the garlic for around 30 seconds so it doesn't burn. Add the ground beef on medium heat and stir so it cooks evenly and slowly. Add a ton of oregano! Go on, dump it in there! Don't be scared! Oregano is such a good herb to use with ground beef - especially if it is not great quality or not super fresh - because it masks that meat-y taste and gives it a fresh flavor. When the meat starts to release liquid, add 2 cups of the tomato sauce you just made. Also, add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, and stir, stir, stir! Once the tomato paste melts, simmer over low heat until most of the liquid is evaporated but the meat is still juicy.

When you get to this point, taste it. What is it missing? Add more tomato paste if you need to, as well as more oregano, with a little bit of water. Let it soak up the liquid again, and taste. Add salt to taste. You shouldn't need too much, but it will bring out all the flavors, so don't skip this step (or any step, for that matter!). Remove from the heat and set aside.

3. Make the Cornmeal:

In a big pot, mix the cornmeal, raisins, sugar, salt, and olive oil.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. This is the hard part. Please, just keep stirring. When it starts boiling, lower the heat and keep stirring until it the cornmeal mixture starts to lift itself from the pot. This is going to take at least 30 minutes, and probably more. I lost track of time while I was doing it, my bad. When your cornmeal begins to lift from the pot, it will have the texture of polenta and it becomes doughy. Add salt to taste, if necessary. It should look like this picture:

4. Assemble:

Grease a baking pan with spray and heat your oven to 300 degrees.  Spread 1/2 of the cornmeal mixture on the bottom of the pan.  Make the middle layer by covering the cornmeal with 1/2 of the grated cheese and then add all of ground beef filling.  Finally, spread the remaining cornmeal on top, and cover with the other half of the cheese. Bake until it turns golden brown!

Let it sit for around 5 minutes, and then serve.

a buen tiempo!

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