Pasteles (Puerto Rican Tamales)
This was one of the dishes I was required to eat before I got on that jet plane to come home. The disappointment was that they were no where to be found in Isabela, the little Northwestern coastal town we were staying in. It turns out they are a traditional Christmas dish so maybe everyone was burned out on them in February. Who knows?
I decided to try to make them instead and it was an all evening affair on our last night. Its best done with company as there are many steps and you’ll want to have chat and drink and make it festive. The coolest thing is that, after looking for the banana leaves in all the local stores, it struck me that they grow everywhere. Just when I was contemplating climbing into a local’s yard to harvest one, I opened my eyes and realized they were growing in the yard of the house we rented!
Walking into the yard with a knife and hacking down a huge leaf was VERY satisfying.
The pasteles are a lot of work, as you can see from the recipe, but they are delicious and very unique. Although they are prepared like a tamale, the yucca and the fillings make this dish taste unlike anything I’ve ever tried. In my book, they are worth the effort.
I large yellow onion, diced
1 pounds boneless lean pork meat (picnic shoulder or cali)
1 pound diced unsmoked ham
6 ounces of sofrito
¼ tsp salt
¼ cup diced culantro (or cilantro)
2 ounces of extra virgin olive oil
28 small green olives (stuffed with pimientos), cut in half from top to bottom
2 Tbsp capers
1 cup garbanzos (chick peas)
1/4 cup raisins (optional)
3 ½ – 4 pounds of yucca, peeled and shredded (sometimes spelled yucca, and also known as cassava)
2 tsp salt
½ tsp onion powder
½ tsp garlic powder
1 1/4 cup canola oil
5 tablespoons annato seeds(or 2 tablespoons of the powder)
WRAPPING: Parchment paper (at least 20 sheets – 12″ x 17″); Butcher’s string; banana leaves (fresh or frozen)
1. Make the achiote oil: In a saucepan, gently simmer achiote seeds in oil until oil turns dark red. Remove from heat. Let cool. Strain seeds from oil and discard seeds. Cool the oil. You will use this oil in the “Masa”, in the filling, and for wrapping the pasteles.
2. Make the masa: Peel waxy skin off yucca with a vegetable peeler or a knife. The inside should look snow white, and be firm to hard. Cut into pieces about the size of a stick of butter. Cut each piece lengthwise to reveal a woody stalk in center, roughly the width of a toothpick. Cut it out by making a ‘V’ cut, and discard. Use a food processor with the grating blade. Feed pieces a few at a time to shred. Remove grated yucca from processor, switch from grating blade to regular cutting blade, return yucca to the machine and pulse for about 2 – 3 minutes to create a moist, finely grated mixture that is the consistency of grated parmesan cheese- just a little wetter.
3. Working in batches, shape the masa into a baseball size ball and squeeze firmly over the sink or a bowl to release the liquid. Do this with all the masa. Mix in the about 1/2-3/4 cup of the annato oil until its completely incorporated. Mix in about a tablespoon of salt as the masa really absorbs it.
4. Make the Filling: Cut meat into ½ inch cubes, trying to use only the non-fatty meat for this dish In a saucepan, use 2 ounces of the achiote oil that you prepared, and simmer the 2 ounces of sofrito in it on low heat for 3 -5 minutes. Add remaining filling ingredients to the skillet, bring to a simmer, lower flame. Simmer for approximately 1 – 1½ hours on low heat, covered. Do not let water evaporate- if sauce gets too thick, add a couple ounces of water. The meat should be cooked, but it should not fall apart when done, so check every 15 minutes once an hour has passed. When meat is done, remove from heat and let cool. You should have some gravy left with the meat, but it shouldn’t be too watery. If it looks dry, add 2 ounces water.
5. Wrap pasteles: Use twenty bundles of banana leaves. They should be long and wide. (You may use the parchment paper instead, or use the plantain leaf within a sheet of parchment paper.) If you can get the banana leaf, do use it! It adds a world of a difference in taste to your pasteles.
With a knife, remove the central ridge of the banana leaves to give greater flexibility to the leaves. Divide leaves into pieces, about 12 inches square. Wash and clean leaves with a damp cloth and toast slightly over an open flame (stove burner on low). This makes the leaf more pliable. Place 3 Tbsp of the masa on the leaf (or paper) and spread about 2 tablespoons of the filling in the middle and top with another 2 tablespoons of the masa to cover.
Fold leaf (or paper, or leaf on top of paper) one long half over towards other. It won’t actually get to the other end, but you have created a top and bottom layer of plantain leaf and enclosed the contents in it. Now fold both of those back towards the end that you first started from (making the crease at the far edge of the masa inside), while keeping in mind that you are sort of duplicating the shape of the rectangle of oil that you first made. Fold it once more, if you need to use up some paper. Then fold the right and left ends of the leaf toward the center.
Tie the pasteles together in pairs (or alone), with a string, placing the folded edges facing each other. They should be tied from both sides, to prevent them from opening.
6. Boil the pasteles: In large pot, bring to a boil 5 qts of water with 1 Tbsp salt. Add 12 pasteles and boil, covered, for one hour. Halfway, turn over pasteles. After the hour, remove pasteles from the water at once, and place in a strainer.