Holidays in our home meant company, and the preparation of a table weighed with food. Hours of preparation yielded a large mound of pasteles and a huge pot of arroz con gandules, in addition to a turkey and a roast pork shoulder, a stand-in for puerco asado, roast suckling pig. For most of the food, we needed to buy achiote, a seed with a reddish brown surface that when fried in oil or lard turned it a lovely shade of saffron-like orange. To make pasteles, my mother and I began a few days ahead, purchasing guineos verdes y platanos, green bananas and green plantains. As we lived in New York, my mother would make a slight cut with her thumbnail on the skin of the banana to test it's greenness. Once it began to ripen, it's useless, and that meant finding another bodega. Green plantains sometime came double, and often, these fused plantains counted as one, making it possible to save a few cents on a purchase. Making pasteles meant making a miniature assembly line to turn out these Puerto Rican tamales.
Learning to peel them was a process of discovering the tension point between knife and the fibrous skin. This enabled small hands a starting point to peel back large sections of skin with fingers or a knife. Next, was to be sure all the skin was off, and then put the peeled green fruit in a pot filled with salt water. Mancha de guineo was the stain that the green banana and plantain left on one's fingers once the juice oxidized, hard to get off. Each green banana or plaintain had to be grated into a large bowl, making a sticky masa. With a small amount of broth poured in, and mixed, it was set aside next to the other elements. Even before one got to the peeling, the stew that comprised the center of the pasteles needed to be ready.
Stew meant cutting chunks of chicken and pork into bite-sized cubes, adding a mixture of spices to them, and then sauteeing it in sofrito before adding caldo, or chicken broth. For sofrito, we needed onion, green pepper, ajices dulce (sweet scotch bonnet peppers), entire heads of peeled garlic, the latter smashed with salt and ground down into a paste in a mortar. In bodegas, we hunted leaves for like recao, with its long serrated leaves, cilantro and the ajices dulces (sweet scotch bonnet peppers) in bodegas, since grocery stores did not always cater to Caribbean customers. This meant a trip back to the Bronx, or to several locations in the lower East Side to find the ingredients. The goal was to find a a good bodega, a small crammed storefront, usually on the street level of a tenement building. Somewhere in the store was a small cardboard box filled with some herbs and tubers, and my mother searched for the freshest ingredients. The man at the counter put the bundles of aromatic leaves and fruits into little paper bags, so they wouldn't be crushed by the roots and tubers we purchased-- malanga, yuca, plantanos or braces of guineos verdes. Since traditional banana leaves weren't available at that time in New York, like everyone else, we substituted large sheets of white cooking paper. This and a roll of white cotton twine were needed to create each of the pasteles. At home we ground the spices together, seasoned and sauteed the meat that went into a broth. The mix included bits of potato, small spanish stuffed olives, prodigious doses of garlic blended with oregano, black pepper and vinegar, the heart of my mother's mix of especias or spices.
Once the assembly of stew and masa were ready, they were set next to a bowl of achiote infused oil, and a stack of white parchment paper. With a large spoon, you ladled about 3 tablespoons of oil onto the paper, smoothing it out into a large circle. Next, the masa was ladled in, and spread within the oil, and on top of that, another ladle full of stew was nestled carefully inside. Take the opposite end of the paper, and fold one edge of it over, sweeping the edge of your hand up towards where the masa now surrounds the contents to concentrate the packet's center. I learned how to fold the edges of the paper to make a watertight seal, and then tied each one into a thick flat rectangular packet about 1" thick, 6" long and 3.5" inches wide. Next, the pasteles had to be boiled in salted water for about an hour before it was done, cord cut, unpacked and served before it cooled. As with most Thanksgiving preparations across the US, to figure out how many were needed, you counted how many people were coming, and then doubled it, just in case.
Everyone who made pasteles had little variations on how they turned out-- a little bigger or smaller or thinner, or just a different proportion of ingredients or seasoning. My mom is a purist, perferring her own recipe to those of others. Then there are the variations from other countries, the addition of raisins, for example, to make the meat savory, or to make them of fish, or even dessert pasteles. These were heretical forms of pasteles for my mom, and I realized the regionalism and local grounded nature of her cooking. Gandules, plantains and rice, all so favored in Puerto Rican cooking, have their origin in the cooking skills of women brought from West Africa to the Caribbean, while the tradition of yuca, boiled & served with mojo de ajo, pan de casava & roasting meat are part of staples eaten and prepared by Taino women and indigenous women across Central and South America, before the Portuguese brought it to Nigeria in the sixteenth century. Spaniards brought olives, garlic, bacalao and cilantro to the island. Una mescla de historias, a mix of histories, channelled through food, my mother's pasteles.
Ellen I have been educated and now am putting this on my bucket list.
I would love to travel to different parts of the country and the world at holiday times to taste the different foods and traditions.
Your assembly line must produce some awesome food. So differnet from anything I'm use to so I MUST try it out, especially your Mom's version, the purest!
Tom, you can probably order frozen ones on line from services that cater to homesick Latinos in different parts of the country. Pasteles are like tamales, with a base of plantain and green banana instead of corn, same idea. There's also a wrapped banana leaf stuffed with rice bits of meat & veggies that's a Thai dish. Pasteles are so labor intensive when made by hand, and now there are large motored food processors that can make the masa even faster. Am glad you enjoyed it!
Ellen, your description of making the pasteles from your homeland reminded me of cooking with my grandmother. She was of Scottish ancestry and, standing on a stool beside her, she instructed me in the intricacies of the cuisine of her homeland - scones, stovies, haggis, pikelets and shortbread. It's the memories of reviving our original cultural dishes that binds together women from around the world. Thank you for your intimate glimpse from your cultural background.
Thanks for sharing your cultural type of thanksgiving. It's so interesting to see how other cultures other than traditional United States thanksgivings are celebrated.
I'm just hungry right now. That's all, just hungry from reading this post....and I just had breakfast! Thank you for the details in how the meals were prepared. Nice stuff.
And I thought my mother's Southeast Texas Thanksgiving feast was labor intensive--wow! Thanks for posting all of these details--it gives such a vivid picture of your culture--awesome!