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The Yucatan is not a tanning salon: Pastel de lujo

by Ron Williams
February 2003

I was basically asleep when our oldest son called in from Austin. I think I yelled to ask if his gig paid any real money, and then rolled over and hugged whatever damn dog was in the bed. Turns out, he was calling in his dinner requests when he and his family came back to Chattanooga for Christmas.
One of his requests was for "that stuff with the rice and corn and raisins..." I knew what he was talking about. He hated that dish when he lived at home. It’s strange what you miss when you get older, move away, and have your own family. Other than someone else paying the mortgage, and the utilities, I mean. That was not the meal that I thought he’d want! But it is one of the stranger recipes that I do. Which brings us to an awkward segue to 1975……

Kathy Breeden was Sandra’s (who was yet to be my wife) work-study comrade, and later became her roommate, at UT Knoxville in 1975. They were both born on the same day. (Now, I was born on the same day as George Strait, but that hasn’t helped me, yet!) Kathy’s mother made the best apple stack cake out of Powell, Tennessee (but that’s a later column…) One of the more memorable experiences I remember was the three of us going to see "Deep Throat" at an "Art" theatre in Knoxville…..like we were going to see a foreign film – intellectual and philosophical and that sort of crap. None of us had ever seen a porno flick, or had any real idea about what we were getting ready to view. About 30 seconds into the film, I became somewhat uncomfortable, and began to realize that existential philosophy was not going to be a major theme of this movie. A little later, I realized the theatre’s floor was a bit sticky and I didn’t remember them selling any concessions... I kept that observation to myself.

This recipe is pretty much from a cookbook that Kathy gave us. Kathy didn’t cook, and the cookbook had little to do with what we were eating (11-cent macaroni and cheese dinners from Cas Walker’s Stores.) Since I like Michael Buffalo Smith and don’t want him to get sued, here’s the reference to the cookbook. I don’t think it’s in print anymore. Ricecraft: (A Gathering of Rice Cookery, Culture and Customs) by Margaret Gin, ISBN: 39473050X, Random House (Paper), March, 1975, $3.95.

The book states that this is a "rice meat cake from the Yucatan." It’s really a variation of a tamale pie. The neatest part is the rice corn mixture that surrounds the meat filling. I’ve substituted various meat fillings with great results. It truly is a unique tasting dish with elements that you can use in other recipes. The meat filling can be easily transformed into a vegetarian filling (I’d suggest eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash; or mushrooms), or ground meat could be substituted for the diced meat (suggestions would be combinations of ground beef, pork, turkey, veal…); the real magic is the rice corn mixture that can surround all sorts of fillings.

Now, the Yucatan Peninsula is pretty Southern, at least geographically speaking. I sort of doubt the authenticity of this being a Native American recipe. The spices that flavor the meat resemble a mole (and I do add unsweetened chocolate to my version.) The Hispanic peoples that are moving into the South reflect many cultures. One of the major divisions is between Latino and "Indian". I’m unsure of the politically correct terms, but there are substantial cultural differences between folks from Northern Mexico and Central America around here, anyway. Most of the folks around here who are from Central America are of Native American ancestry.

I tend to dwell on this too much, but our Southern culture is the combination – and often the conflict – between the Anglo Scotch-Irish, the German, the African, the Native American, and the Latino peoples that settled in the South. Our language, music, and food all flow from this rich wellspring. The guitar, and how it came to be a popular instrument in the South is a great example. The guitar was primarily used to play light classical music until the Spanish American War at the turn of the 20th Century. African-American soldiers brought back the guitar from the Spanish peoples in Cuba and the Philippines. Black railroad workers were the first source of Appalachian whites learning the steel string guitar. Then, a weird craze for Hawaiian music along with the influence of bottleneck slide guitarists from the Mississippi Delta, resulted in Dobro and lap steel guitar styles, as well as the electric slide blues techniques that ended up being played by folks like Duane Allman. Sort of like how the Native American’s gift of maize ended up as Jack Daniels…… The clash of results in some unexpected things: Bourbon and Blues are two pretty fair testaments!

This is a fun recipe. Experiment with it. It’s real different, and your friends will remember it. I’ve added some notes about the ingredients and preparation.

Pastel De Lujo
1 lb. pork (I use a tenderloin or chops) cut into half-inch dice
1 lb. boneless chicken breast cut into half-inch dice1 onion, chopped
2 fresh chile peppers (Serrano or jalapeno, roasted and chopped) or a can of chopped green chiles
3 tablespoons lard or safflower oil
1 / 2 (one half) cup of pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon of capers
2 tablespoons of golden raisins
1 cup tomato puree
1 / 2 (one half) teaspoon cinnamon
1 / 4 (one quarter) teaspoon each allspice and ground cloves
1 / 2 (one half) ounce of unsweetened baking chocolate finely broken up (to melt quickly)
1 / 2 (one half) cup Madeira or Port
salt and freshly ground pepper

4 cups cooked Basmati rice (save money and buy in 10 lb sacks from an Indian grocery)
3 cups fresh white corn kernels (or frozen white shoepeg corn kernels if you can’t get fresh)
3 /3 (three quarters) cup whole milk
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt.

In a large (12 or 14 inch) cast iron skillet, brown the meats, onion, and chile peppers in the lard (or oil). Add all of the rest of the meat filling ingredients and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often. Set aside. Puree the corn and milk in a blender until smooth. In a large mixing bowl, combine the beaten eggs, cooked rice, melted butter, salt, and the corn-milk puree. Butter a large casserole. Spread half of the rice-corn mixture on the bottom. Cover that layer with all of the meat filling, and spread the remaining rice-corn mixture on top. Bake this bad boy in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes.

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