A close relative of Mexican tamales, pasteles entirely justify the amount of work and finesse that goes into their preparation. Visit Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic over Christmas and you will witness pastele production in all its fervor. The sweet, sticky pockets stuffed with a meat filling need just a dash of Tabasco sauce and a dollop of ketchup to see them on their way.
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Because the pastele relies on a heavy, starchy casing, sweet, tart seasoning is essential to provide balance. Rough chop bell peppers, onion, garlic, celery and carrots, along with broad leaf cilantro and aji dulce, or sweet peppers. Transfer the ingredients to a blender, adding oregano, cumin, tomato paste and a dash of cider vinegar. Pulse to create a smooth, fragrant sofrito. This fibrous green seasoning is a staple of Latin American Caribbean cuisine and will cut through the fats in the meat filling. Look for authentic ingredients in West Indian supermarkets.
Making the masa, or starchy casing, requires considerable effort for the authentic Caribbean version, where the ingredients are typically grated. Using a blender or food processor, however, takes out a lot of the toil, with no discernible compromise in quality. Peel and dice a selection of green bananas, plantains, cassava root and pumpkin. Immerse the ingredients in cold, salted water as you prep to prevent the tubers from turning dark. Take care when peeling the bananas to avoid the milky sap they exude, which will stain. Some recipes call for yams or taro for an even denser, tackier masa, but if these are not available, the casing will still be perfectly robust. Drain the chopped ingredients and transfer them to the food processor, blending them with enough milk to make a smooth but firm paste.
In Puerto Rico, the filling for pasteles features pork butt or shoulder, while ground beef is common in the Dominican Republic. The key ingredient in both is achiote, also called annatto, whose seeds are ground to make a neutral-tasting powder with a lurid yellow color. Brown the diced pork shoulder or butt in annatto-tinted oil, add the sofrito seasoning and enough chicken stock to bathe the meat, then cover and simmer for roughly an hour, until the meat is soft and easy to shred. If using ground beef, uncover toward the end to allow the liquid to evaporate or the filling will be too moist. For both fillings, add chopped olives and raisins for texture and flavor. The meat can be prepared a day in advance and refrigerated.
Wrapping Them Up
Authentic pasteles use banana leaves to wrap the masa, but aluminum foil works just as well. Lay the leaf flat on a board and brush it with oil, then spoon a heap of masa into the center and work it flat with the back of a spoon. Place a spoonful of the meat filling into the center, then fold the longer edges of the leaf in toward the center. Close off the parcel by bringing in the shorter edges over the top. The process might take a little practice, but don’t stop until you have a tightly sealed package. Tie off the pastele with kitchen twine. Place a batch in a steaming basket over boiling water, cover, and simmer for an hour. Or place the pasteles directly into the simmering water for a shorter cooking time of half an hour.