Puerto Rican Pasteles, A Christmas Tradition

Puerto Rican cuisine is a marvelous alchemy of four different cultures, the original indigenous people, the Spanish colonizers, African slaves, and, more recently, the United States of America.

Puerto Rican pasteles are a cherished holiday dish on the island. Similar to tamales, the dough for pasteles is typically made from green plantains, green bananas, taro root, or yuca. Although they are a popular dish for the holiday season, many Puerto Rican households enjoy eating them all year.

In fact, pasteles made our list of 21 Puerto Rican Dishes to Get You Eating Like a Boricua.

Chances are, you haven’t heard of pasteles before since they aren’t well-known in the United States.

So, let’s discuss everything you need to know about this delicious Puerto Rican dish.

What Are Puerto Rican Pasteles?

Puerto Rican Pasteles (Pasteles Puertorriqueños) are similar to their Mexican cousin, tamales. However, instead of using a cornmeal-based dough (or mesa), they typically use green plantains, green bananas, taro root, calabaza (a kind of squash), or yuca.

This dough, or mesa, is filled with a kind of meat stew, typically containing pork, onions, a variety of peppers, tomato sauce, cilantro, and olives.

Once filled, the dough is rolled in banana or plantain leaf. Then, they are tied off with a piece of string or a strip of the leaf.

Once prepared, they are either steamed and served immediately, or frozen until ready to use. Pasteles are usually made once a year and served from the beginning of December through Lent, which extends from late February through late March or early April.

Pasteles are usually served with other Puerto Rican holiday dishes like rice with green peas (arroz con gandules) and Puerto Rican Eggnog (Coquito).

Pasteles are believed to have originated shortly after the colonization of Puerto Rico by the Spaniards. It can also be traced back to African slaves who brought cooking techniques like frying to Puerto Rico.

In that sense, the development of pasteles is a hybrid of three cultures: the local indigenous peoples, the Spanish, and the African slaves.

How to Make Puerto Rican Pasteles

Puerto Rican Pasteles ina banan leaf
Puerto Rican Pasteles

Making Puerto Rican pasteles at home is a relatively simple task. However, preparing them is labor-intensive and time-consuming, and the entire process takes at least a couple of hours.

Depending on whether you have any help, it usually takes about an hour to prepare and wrap the pasteles, three hours to drain the mesa, and an additional hour to steam them.

Since making Puerto Rican pasteles takes so much time and effort, Puerto Rican families typically make them before the holiday season and freeze most of them, so they last until the beginning of Lent.

Additionally, the entire family from the youngest member to the oldest helps make this tasty dish. Each family member has an assigned task like making the mesa, preparing the filling, or stuffing and wrapping the final product.

Then, everyone can sit back and drink a little Puerto Rican eggnog (with or without rum) and wait to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

We developed the following recipe using examples from a variety of sources like the New York Times Cooking website and Epicurious.

Ingredients for the Sofrito (Cooking Sauce)

  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup broth (beef, chicken, or pork)
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 small banana peppers, seeded
  • 1 large bell pepper, seeded
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, stemmed and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon oregano, dried

Ingredients for the Filling

  • 2 pounds of pork shoulder (diced, or shredded)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 10-ounce (284 gram) jar of pimiento-stuffed olives

Ingredients for the Mesa (Dough)

  • 4 pounds taro root
  • 4 green plantains (unripe)
  • 4 green bananas (unripe)
  • 1 teaspoon achiote paste
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (or more if necessary to reach desired consistency)

Ingredients to Wrap Pasteles

  • 25 large banana leaves
  • 25 pieces of kitchen string (about 18 inches or 45 cm)
  • 2 tablespoons achiote oil

How to Prepare the Sofrito, Filling, and Mesa

  • To make the sofrito, place the tomato sauce, broth, and garlic in a blender and mix until blended. Next, add the bell pepper and onion and mix until it is fully pureed, scraping the sides of the blender with a paddle if needed. Then, add the cilantro and oregano and pulse it a few times until evenly distributed. You can set the sofrito aside in the refrigerator for as long as three days until needed.
  • To begin making the filling, heat the oil in a large pot for a minute or two using medium heat and add the minced garlic. Cook until the garlic is slightly browned. Next, add the diced pork and braise on high heat for about two to three minutes, stirring as needed to get all sides browned somewhat.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and add the olives and sofrito to the pork. Let this mixture come to a simmer, then cover the pot and let it continue to simmer for roughly 30 minutes and check to make sure the meat is cooked all the way through.
  • To make the mesa, grate the taro roots, plantains, and bananas using a box grater.  However, make sure you wear disposable kitchen gloves as uncooked plantains can stain your hands.
  • Place the grated roots, plantains, and bananas into a food processor and process until they are creamy in texture. Next, add the achiote paste to get a nice golden color to the mesa. Then, place the mesa over a cheesecloth or fine-mesh colander or strainer for about three hours to let the access moisture drain.
  • Add the minced garlic, salt, and oil until the mesa’s texture is similar to that of peanut butter. Now, you are ready to start assembling the pasteles.

How to Wrap Puerto Rican Pasteles

  • To wrap your pasteles, spread a banana leaf on your countertop or a cutting board, and lightly brush the center of it with achiote oil. Next, add about two tablespoons of mesa towards one side of the leaf. Place a tablespoon of the filling in the center of the mesa. Then, top it with another tablespoon of the mesa.
  • Bring the short edge of the banana leaf over the mesa and filling and roll it two or three times until you run out of the leaf. Next, fold both of the edges that are sticking out beneath the package. Then, tie a string horizontally and vertically over the package. At this point, you can steam them for an hour, or you can place them in the freezer until you are ready to steam them.
  • Serve them hot with hot sauce and grated cheese if you want.

Notes

  • You can use green, yellow, or red bell peppers for the sofrito, or a combination.
  • If you don’t like cilantro, you can feel free to leave it out of the recipe.
  • Feel free to substitute butternut squash or yuca for the taro roots in the mesa. Likewise, you can use only green bananas or plantains, or a combination of any of the ingredients if you want.
  • You can add more achiote paste if you want the mesa to be a more vibrant color.
  • Although traditional Puerto Rican pasteles use pork, you can substitute beef, chicken, or mixed vegetables if you prefer.
  • The olives in the filling are optional. Likewise, if you prefer garlic or cheese-stuffed olives, or black olives, feel free to use them.
  • If you can’t find banana leaves, you can use plantain leaves, aluminum foil, or parchment paper to wrap your pasteles.

Final Thoughts About Puerto Rican Pasteles

Coquito and Pasteles from Puerto Rico
Coquito and Pasteles from Puerto Rico

We hope you enjoyed our article about Puerto Rican pasteles. Making them at home does take a bit of an effort, but the rewards are plenty with this tasty dish.

You might consider sharing this article with friends who enjoy cooking and bookmarking it for future reference.

Visit our online store and shop for popular Puerto Rican ingredients and products.

Sources

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