I finally put up the Christmas tree in our two-bedroom apartment in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. It sits in the small dining room area, which my youngest is using as a temporary office space. It’s a 7.5-ft artificial tree I got on sale last year, along with some recycled ornaments that have lasted the test of time. There’s a figure of Max, my late miniature schnauzer wearing a white and red holiday scarf – each ornament a different memory of my times spent during the holidays with family and friends.
But this year, the light bill won’t be paid in full, Max will no longer be running around sniffing and jumping on all the guests during the holiday get-together, and there will be no gifts to give under the tree to open on Christmas Day.
After putting up the tree, I made a cup of café con leche to warm up my spirits. And as I searched for something to stir the warm milk into the dark rich coffee, I saw mom’s old metal spoon amongst the silverware. I remembered Mami using the same spoon to make pasteles, a traditional Puerto Rican holiday dish. I thought this year with mom’s guidance I’d also prepare pasteles, and gift them to my friends and family.
Pasteles are to Puerto Ricans what tamales are to Mexicans. They’re made in the same fashion, but instead of cornmeal, the masa (dough) is made of grated root vegetables. The masa is then filled with meat, seasoned with crushed garlic and an array of fragrant spices mixed with fresh herbs, and stewed to perfection. They are made into a pocket using plantain leaves, folded carefully into parchment paper, and wrapped tightly with cooking string. After boiling or baking for an hour, el resultado (result) is a meal like no other. But the process is strenuous.
When I was young, dad would buy all the groceries with my mom’s food stamps. Mom picked up the stamps every month at the cashier with her special identification card, which I found the other day amongst her keepsakes. The cashier would round up her stamps, a pile of booklets of one’s, fives, and tens, and shoved them through a small space between her and the thick glass. The stamps could only be used for purchasing food.
Before each holiday season dad would head to the local supermarket – Big R on the corner of 149th street and Trinity Avenue – to get the box of guineos verde on sale for the masa and a large pernil to guisar (stew) for the meat filling which he chopped up himself with his special knife he kept freshly filed. Mom would make at least six dozen pasteles during the season. She learned the technique from Grandma Candida. In Puerto Rico, they had the luxury of having raised pigs to butcher and cook, along with banana trees in the back to pick.
Mami used to prepare the kitchen to make the pasteles. Everything had to be “perfecto” for the setup. She gathered the three of us and sat us all around the large wooden dining room table dad got on sale in an antique furniture store. She grated the masa into a 20lb black, marble, oval-shaped roasting pan where she cooked her lechón asado (roast pork shoulder) for Christmas, and where she also squeezed turkeys for our Thanksgiving meal. I oversaw the “mixing” of the masa. Mom had us wash our hands thoroughly before going in. I was about 6 years old when I first started. By 10-years-old, I sat there proud of my duty as a “masa mixer,” vegetables oozing out of the grater as Mami stood tall over the pan. She wore her paisley-patterned pañuelo (handkerchief) tied around her head. She made a special oil for the masa which is called achiote oil – made from slowly cooking annatto seeds with olive oil over a low flame until it turns a bright red color. The color was that of the beautiful rich sunsets back in Puerto Rico. Mom carefully poured the achiote oil onto the mountain of masa. I used a large shiny silver metal spoon to prevent my little hands from turning red. The masa changed colors from a dull beige into a dazzling amber. Most of the work mom did alone while we watched.
Since the late ’90s when dad moved out and then later died, mom no longer had the desire to make pasteles. She turned 82 in September and hadn’t made them in decades. I missed helping mom, but we soon found a hookup and bought pasteles for cheap from my mom’s cousin, Clarita. Clarita sold the pasteles to her friends and family for about $20 a dozen. Mom would stay for hours at Clarita’s. If mom didn’t have cash, she’d offer to help Clarita with the supplies to make them. They were not only cousins, but they were also the best of friends. At age 87, Clarita died the same year my mom was set to move into the same senior citizen building as her.
In December 2020, mom decided to apply for benefits to help during the pandemic. The process was much easier compared to the 1970s. Together, we processed her application via the Access HRA website – a free mobile app in which you can complete the application and upload all the necessary documents right from a computer or cell phone. No more food stamps or long lines at the cashier. In efforts to fight stigma against those on welfare, the name of the federal program was changed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, in 2008.
I remember when I told her the amount of her first payment, it was as if she’d hit the jackpot. Living in a single-person household she was now receiving the same or close to the same amount every month as she was receiving in the 1970s when she applied for herself and the three kids.
Income support has evolved slightly since then for people with children. These days, there are millions of families across the country who are receiving the last of their expanded child tax credits from the American Rescue Plan – which unlike SNAP benefits can be used for anything, not just groceries. One benefit of this improved program is it doesn’t come with the layers of shame mom had to face to apply for welfare. You just do your taxes, or sign up online, and they don’t ask invasive questions.
The part she hated the most about applying back then was not being able to understand the questions in the loads of paperwork she had to fill out. Sometimes, she would have to bring us with her instead of school because she couldn’t afford after-school care. When we were old enough, we helped her fill out the paperwork. She said the dreary cream-colored walls at the Welfare Center consumed all her emotions. Embarrassed and ashamed, half the time, she went and sat alone. Dad also made mom apply for affordable housing. We moved into the 20-story Moore House projects on Jackson Avenue in the Bronx just before I turned one. It was a bigger apartment, a two-bedroom, which I shared with my brother and sister. After the paperwork was processed within a few weeks, she got a $150 booklet of food stamps, $50 in cash, and enough money to pay a portion of the rent. Dad paid the rest with his job as a foot messenger.
This holiday season, many families are praying that Congress will follow through on their promise to extend new and improved benefits and pass the Build Back Better Act.
With my mom’s EBT card, a few dollars for supplies, and a few tweaks to the recipe, I was able to make two dozen pasteles this year. They were delicious. My friends have already recommended that I sell them during the holidays. But for now, they will be a delightfully wrapped tradition for my family and friends to enjoy.
What you’ll need
For Sofrito: 1 bunch of Cilantro, 1 bunch of Culantro, 12 Garlic cloves, 1 red pepper, 1 Spanish onion, about 6-7 ajicitos dulces (sweet chili peppers), 1 tbsp dried oregano leaves, 1 tbsp salt, 1 tbsp pepper, 1 tbsp garlic powder, 1 tbsp dried onion powder, 1 tbsp smoked paprika, 1 tbsp ground cumin, 1 packet of Sazón GOYA with Coriander & Annatto. Can be made ahead of time. Store in container: Freeze up to 2 months or refrigerate for 1 month. If sofrito is frozen, defrost before using.
For Masa: 5 bags of guineos Verde (green bananas) roughly about 8lbs, 1 small white yautia (taro root), 1 small calabaza (small kabocha squash), 1 platano Verde (Green plantain), 1 small russet potato.
For Pork Meat Filling: 2lb pernil (pork shoulder) have the butcher cut meat into small ½ inch cubes or if you’re skilled like dad do it yourself.
For Shredded Chicken Meat Filling: 6 pieces of skinless and boneless chicken thighs about 2.5lbs, 2 pieces of breast about 2.0lbs. Keep whole.
Vegan-Stewed Garbanzo Beans Filling: 3lbs of dried garbanzos (chickpeas) or 3 to 4 cans of chickpeas.
Note: Each filling requires an 8oz can of tomato sauce or 2tbsp tomato paste, a 7 or 10oz jar of alcaparrado or manzanilla olives. You can omit the olives and add a few at assembly.
Achiote oil: Annatto Seeds, Extra virgin olive oil. (Canola oil or vegetable oil can be used as substitutes).
Wrap for pasteles: 1 bag of Banana Leaves (Hoja De Platano) check the frozen section, 24 precut sheets of parchment paper 12 x 18’’ or 12” x 16”, cooking twine 100-300ft long.
Box Grater or large food processor needed to grate vegetables.
How to prepare sofrito:
Roughly chop all the ingredients before blending. In a blender add all roughly chopped ingredients, one at a time, blend until smooth.
How to prepare achiote oil:
Warning: Do not leave unattended. It can burn quickly. This will ruin the taste. In a small saucepan add 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil and ½ cup annatto seeds. Cook over low flame. Stir constantly. Turn off heat once oil starts to simmer or oil turns a bright red. Set aside and allow to cool. Strain oil to remove annatto seeds and discard seeds. Achiote oil can be stored in a container, preferably glass, at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
How to prepare meat or garbanzo bean filling:
Fill an 8qt pot halfway with water. Cover the pot and wait about 15 minutes. Lower heat and put in meat or garbanzos. Mix in 2 cups of sofrito and 1 can tomato sauce or 2tbsp of paste and Alcaparrado 10oz jar. Add 2 tbsp of achiote oil and mix well. Cover leaving a slight gap. Slow cook on low heat for about two hours. Same for chicken. Cooking time may be longer when using dried chickpeas. Pork meat should be fork tender. Keep filling inside of pot and allow to cool for about 30 minutes. Remove chicken from pot and shred with fork and knife, then add shredded chicken back into pot with stock. Garbanzos should be tender but not too soft. You will need some stock to add later to the masa. Meat can also be prepared in advance and refrigerated. Use within two days.
Note: Hot meat can be runny and can ruin the assembly of the pasteles.
How to prepare masa:
Cut off the top and bottom end of the green bananas and soak for about 15 minutes in warm water. (Makes them easier to peel). With the tip of a sharp knife cut a slit down the middle of the banana and use the tip of your thumb to pull back skin. Remove any excess skin with spoon or the back of knife. To avoid staining caused by bananas, rub hands with a few drops of olive oil before handling. Peel the other vegetables with a standard vegetable peeler. Over a large deep roasting pan use box grater to grate all the vegetables. Use side of grater that resembles tiny stars. While grating, keep all the peeled vegetables in the warm water and in larger pieces, avoid grating smaller pieces. The vegetables are slippery and can cause fingertips to get scraped so be careful. Add 2 tbsp of achiote oil and ¼ cup of stock, and salt to taste (strain stock before adding). Use large spoon to mix masa. Some people use plastic gloves to avoid staining and scraping. I don’t recommend it. Masa can be prepared in advance and refrigerated. Use within two days. Masa may settle, mix thoroughly before assembling. If masa becomes dry add a bit of stock to moisten. Some local supermarkets sell yuca rallada (grated cassava) in the freezer isle, which is used for pasteles de yuca or as some folks call them, empanadas de yuca.
Note: For pasteles de yuca just replace the green bananas with a 5lb bag of yuca rallada or you can choose to grate yourself, about 5 to 7lbs of peeled yuca. Can yield up to 20 pasteles. Frozen masa needs to thaw out before using.
How to assemble the pasteles:
Before beginning assembly of pasteles make sure to put on a cooking net or handkerchief. You will need a large working area to assemble the pasteles, I used my kitchen counter, but you can use a large table. Transfer cooled meat or garbanzo filling into a large bowl. You can also transfer the masa into a bowl depending on how many pasteles you plan on making or keep masa in the same roasting pan. This specific recipe makes about 24 pasteles. You can also divide the masa and meat into 2 batches.
Lay parchment paper on the table. Cut banana leaf into 4” x 6” rectangles and place in the center of the parchment paper. Oil banana leaf lightly with some achiote oil about a teaspoon. Spoon about ½ cup of masa over the center of the leaf and spread evenly. Spoon about ¼ cup of the meat-filling and some juice into the middle of masa well. Don’t skimp on the meat. Carefully fold parchment paper upwards in half and meet top covering the masa pocket. Avoid pressing down directly on masa. Make sure edges are evenly lined then push masa with the side of your hand, creating a half moon shape. Fold top of parchment paper downwards about 1 inch repeat and fold one more time. Take the folded top and place lightly over the top of the pocket. With an open hand, press sides inwards to form a rectangular shape. Take sides and fold over each other. Place wrapped pasteles to the side-folded side down. Repeat steps with remaining paper, leaves, masa, and filling.
How to tie pasteles:
Cut 12 pieces of cooking string about 40 inches long. Fold the string in half and place the string on the counter or table. Place one pastel vertically in the center of the string-folded side up, then place another pastel-folded side down. Tie into a bundle in a cross pattern. Make sure they are secure.
Cooking the pasteles:
The pasteles can be cooked right away or frozen for later. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Depending on the size of your pot you can add two to three bundles at a time. Lower heat to medium, cover and let cook for about an hour. Remove the pasteles and drain thoroughly. Untie them and serve in leaf wrappers. Frozen pasteles can be stored for several months but I doubt these will last even two weeks.
So, turn up the salsa music and conjure up the ancestral gods. It’s time to make Puerto Rican pasteles, a special holiday gift.