Picture this: You’re walking through the warm, salty air in Puerto Rico towards a Christmas gathering this winter. You arrive and are greeted by besos and the smell of cinnamon, succulent roast pork and a platter of freshly prepared holiday food. It’s likely you would discover pasteles at some point during this Christmas meal.
Alongside roast pork, rice and pigeon peas, pasteles are a Puerto Rican Christmas staple. If you’ve encountered pasteles before, you might know that variations of them exist around the Caribbean, South America, Africa and even Hawaii. These banana leaf-wrapped bites are a downright delicious recipe to add to your Christmas dinner or your next get-together.
What are Pasteles?
If you search up “South American pasteles” you’ll likely find images of savory, flaky pies. This is because in Spanish, pastel means “pie,” but in Puerto Rico and a few other countries, a pastel refers to a meat-filled patty. The patty can be made up of different ingredients depending on where you are in the world or the way your specific recipe has been passed down through the generations.
Pasteles de masa de guineo are primarily made of green banana paste while pasteles de masa de yuca are made of yuca paste. Least common is pasteles de masa de arroz, which are made with steamed rice.
How Pasteles Are Different From Tamales
If you’ve enjoyed Mexican food before, you might have already tried tamales. When looking for an extremely simplified definition of pasteles, some say they are like tamales but with different ingredients. This is not entirely false because when cooked, pasteles and tamales look pretty similar. The dishes diverge in their preparation, ingredients and cultural homes, making them unique to their origins.
First, tamales are steamed in corn husks, while pasteles are boiled in banana leaves. Next, tamales are filled with finely-ground nixtamalized corn flour. Pasteles are filled with a root vegetable or banana base. Finally, common tamale ingredients include chicken, beef, cheese, and peppers, while pasteles can be filled with ingredients like pork, olives, kabocha pumpkin, raisins, capers, chicken, and chickpeas.
Despite their differences, if you know how to make tamales, you’ll have a head start with pasteles.
Enjoying Puerto Rican Pasteles
Pasteles are more than just a holiday food staple in Puerto Rico. They’re a cultural experience. Because of all that goes into their preparation, pasteles are not usually something that is made alone. Most pasteles are made with the entire family helping at various stages.
Surrounded by the savory and comforting scent of stewed pork and sazón, making pasteles should always be an enjoyable experience. The get-togethers that happen around the holiday season to make pasteles are known as pasteladas. At these gatherings, family and friends come together to complete each step of making pasteles. Feel free to channel your inner pastelada host or hostess and bring along some loved ones to help you along the way.
Pasteles: A Traditional Puerto Rican Christmas Dish
If you’re looking to make pasteles because you want to add an international twist to your Christmas dinner this year, you’re on the right track. Since pasteles are usually made in large batches and can feed big groups of people, they make a wonderful addition to the Christmas season.
Plus, you’ll usually have more hands around, which means more helpers for making your pasteles. If you’re looking for a full out Puerto Rican Christmas, you can try adding other dishes like arroz con gandules, roasted pernil, tembleque, and coquito.
Learn How to Make Pasteles like the Pros
Now you’re really getting to the good stuff: diving into a traditional pasteles recipe. You already know that pasteles are usually best made with family or friends so keep that in mind as you go through all of the steps. You’ll also learn what is in pasteles and some quick swaps for more traditional ingredients so that you can make pasteles without spending your whole day doing so.
Collect Your Tools and Pasteles Ingredients
A good recipe is a well-prepped recipe, so gathering and organizing all of your ingredients beforehand is key. First up, you’ll need the ingredients for your masa, or dough. If you’re making masa de guineo, you’ll need green bananas. If you’re making masa de yuca, you want to get your hands on some yuca.
After that the exact ingredients can vary, but for traditional Puerto Rican pasteles, you can also add kabocha (acorn squash), boniato (white sweet potato), the root vegetable malanga, salt, and some sort of broth.
Next, you’ll need ingredients for your savory and spiced filling. Pork filling is the most common, but you can also use beef, chicken, or seafood like fish and crustaceans. Meat cuts with the bone still attached like pork butt, pork shoulder, chicken thighs, and beef shoulder will provide the most flavor. For vegetarians, you can use chickpeas, firm tofu, or vegan meat replacements.
No matter what you choose, you’ll want to add flavor to your filling using sofrito, tomato paste, white wine vinegar, onion, adobo, sazón, salt, and pepper. Some also choose to add olives, capers, raisins or red peppers, which is completely optional.
You’ll also need banana leaves, parchment paper, achiote oil, and butchers twine. If you can’t find banana leaves, just parchment paper will do. Regarding tools, you’ll want to have a few mixing bowls, a cutting board, a sharp knife, a pot and a pan on hand. When making your masa, you’re going to need to turn those starchy root vegetables into a paste.
Traditionally, a grater is used, but today a food processor will work best. You might also be able to find pre-grated masa in the freezer section of Latino grocery stores. You can also get frozen banana leaves here, which will save you a lot of cutting and cleaning time.
Prep Your Protein
Get your stew pot and your chopping board ready because it’s finally time to get to work. If you’re working with meat or seafood, you’ll want to cut it up into manageable chunks. No matter what protein you’re using, marinating overnight will help add even more flavor. Create a marinade to taste using adobe, sazón, 6-7 garlic cloves, and ½ grated onion.
Once you’ve coated your protein completely in your marinade, you can let it sit in the fridge from four to twenty four hours. Next up, it’s time to heat up some oil in your pot and get cooking. Add your sofrito, marinated protein, and tomato paste. Here you can also add in additional ingredients like olives, capers, and raisins.
Finally, let your mixture simmer for ten to twenty five minutes depending on your protein type. Pork will take the longest and vegan meats will be ready the quickest. It’ll be ready when it’s cooked through and tender.
Make Your Masa
While your protein is simmering, you can start making your masa. First you’ll need to peel and grate all of your vegetables. If your food processor has a grating blade, this will be your best option. If not, a box grater will work perfectly.
Next, switch out your grating blade for a blending blade. This will transform your grated vegetables into a paste. Then, you can add in some achiote oil and broth to taste. If your mixture is too runny, you’ll need more vegetable paste and if it’s not smooth and spreadable, add more broth. And with that your masa will be ready!
Prepare Your Patties
You’re getting really close to the good stuff because now you’re going to wrap up your pasteles. First up, you need to prep your banana leaf by cleaning it, cutting it to eight or nine inches and slightly warming it up so it’s more malleable. Also, cut off any black and brown parts of your leaves because these parts will negatively affect the taste of your pasteles.
If you are just going to wrap your pasteles in parchment paper, you can grab that. You’ll just want to avoid wax paper and foil because they’ll also leave an unpleasant taste on your pasteles. Now, place your banana leaf on a piece of parchment that is about twelve square inches.
Next up, go ahead and lay out one of your banana leaves, spread a little bit of achiote oil on it and then scoop a nice oval-shaped amount of your masa in the center of your banana leaf. It should be a nice flat layer. Finally, add in your filling, which you can add in a thin line.
Finalizing Your Feast
Wrapping up your pasteles is one of the trickiest parts of this recipe, but practice truly does make perfect. Start by folding your parchment paper and banana leaf in half by bringing the side furthest from you toward you. Fold the edges of the parchment table together by making two one inch folds. Next, twist your pastel so the seam is in the middle of your pastel rather than close to you. Now fold the two sides down under the pastel. And you did it!
Finally, you’ll use butchers twine to tie it up so it doesn’t fall apart as you boil. Now, all you have to do is boil your pasteles in salted, boiling water for thirty to thirty five minutes and they’ll be ready to enjoy.
More Pasteles to Try
If you thoroughly enjoyed making—or eating—your pasteles, you might enjoy trying another form of pastel from a different country.
Latin American Pasteles
The Venezuela hallaca is another banana leaf wrapped delicacy that is very similar to a pastel. It is also enjoyed during the holiday season, but is made with a corn base rather than a root vegetable or green banana base. In Peru they enjoy chapanas, which are sweet versions of pasteles that are made out of cassava.
In the Caribbean, you can also sink your teeth into some delicious pasteles. In Trinidad, they refer to them as pastelles with two L’s. Trinidadian pastelles are cornmeal based. In Jamaica, they make blue draws, which are similar to pasteles but made with cornmeal and sweet potato.
Pasteles Party Time!
The best thing about pasteles is their ability to bring people together. Ring up your friends and family and see if anyone would like to join you for a pastelada. They can help you get the pasteles made and then enjoy the pasteles to their heart’s content. If this is your first time making pasteles, enjoy the process and learn as you go. Nobody starts off perfectly, but you’ll be off to pastel perfection in no time.
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