Pasteles and platanos

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by Jackie Alfonso | March 30, 2009 • The word pasteles means pastry, but if you are from Puerto Rico, it also means pasteles de platano, a festival treat of grand conception and execution. A New Year party at the home of Hernandez was my first experience. Hernandez was a janitor in the building where my husband worked. He supported his wife and five children. The kids were beautiful, energetic, and called me “La Flaca,” the skinny lady. Hernandez was laid off from his job just after Christmas, so of course he invited everyone he knew to a New Year party.

The ritual was liturgical: on entering, our coats were taken, and Hernandez escorted us to the steamy kitchen. The table was set with two places on embroidered mats. We were asked if we preferred sweet or hot, two pasteles were set before us, and the ladies returned to their kettles. Wrapped in squares of banana leaf was a filling of great complexity. When we were through, we got up, clean plates were set down, and the next pair were asked if they preferred sweet or hot.

Flavor, texture and aroma were completely unfamiliar, and I wasn’t sure if I liked these things or not. The ladies had made 200, the neighbors brought cases of beer, and everyone had an envelope for Hernandez; by the end of the evening, he had $2,000, enough to see them through.

About three years later, as winter holidays approached, there was a taste that wafted through my dreams, that tickled my throat, and I could not identify it. One day as I was selecting some platano maduro, we realized it was pasteles I was craving. We couldn’t find a recipe, but my husband could remember making them with his grandmother, so we leaped in. Our results weren’t half bad. I am giving the ingredients list, not the whole process, it is fairly complex. Maybe we can have a pastel-making party sometime soon!

1 large onion, one green pepper minced
some garlic – not too much, minced
minced ham, tomato paste, Oregano, Culantro, Salt & pepper
(this is the sofrito, supra)
8-10 unblemished Platano Maduro
Yuca, Yautia, ñame, mandioca
Pork, beef, chicken, minced or ground
pimento olives, shredded almonds, Garbanzo beans, raisins, small, tasty hot peppers
Achiote entero, warmed in 2 c. lard or shortening and strained
Do not use a food processor, but the old iron meat grinder, to grind the roots and vegetables. If you don’t have banana leaves, use butcher paper or parchment paper [but not aluminum foil] cut into about 9” squares, white cotton cord for tying.
Steam for one hour – they reheat well, freeze well, so make lots while you’re at it – and give yourself a code, so that the hot variety can be distinguished from the sweet. May they haunt you dreams as they do mine!

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