Y’all ever been in the South on a Sunday? Anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line? Because Sunday in the South means church, church clothes, (NO tank tops, flip-flops or shorts!), and relaxing with family over dish after well prepared dish of southern classics. When I was in school in Macon I was stunned by the array of vegetable dishes offered in friends homes not to mention the platters of fried chicken, smothered chicken, baked ham, roasted turkey or tenderloin of beef. Remember, Mama couldn’t and didn’t cook so in our house, growing up, Sundays meant a gorgeous table laid with glistening silver and china, beautifully arranged flowers and burnt food. Yep. Mama would serve food that was completely black and burned on one side. She’d just plate that zucchini, chicken, dolphin, anything charcoal side down and keep on keepin’ on. As a result, my time spent in girlfriends houses was filled with awe and wonder. Not because they had beautifully appointed homes. Heck, no. I had that! It was that I was continually astonished at the culinary epiphanies that hit me round every corner. Strawberry jam, BUTTER, fried chicken, iced tea…grilled cheese sandwiches. And Sundays in a Southern home meant side boards groaning under the weight of every vegetable imaginable, at least six or seven, and that didn’t include the biscuits and desserts. Most Sunday dinners included squash casserole and I soon learned there are good ones and there are bad ones, however, that is completely subjective. Some featured thick rounds of squash glistening with butter, the seeds leering back at me as if to remind me of Mama’s blackened attempts of zucchini and summer squash. Ugh. Her squash was the definition of gross. I must tell you, though, there is another method of preparing squash casserole which requires you to process the cooked squash mixture and the outcome is pure magic. Smooth but still with texture this summer squash casserole doesn’t even taste like a vegetable. Yes, the squash is sweet but the addition of onions and pepper-jack cheese gives it a savory, piquant twist you will positively love. It’s the only way I’ll eat summer squash. My hope is the next time you put out a big, Southern-style spread replete with English peas, black-eyed peas with snaps, collard greens with pot likker, candied sweet potatoes, tomato aspic, stewed okra and tomatoes, sweet and sour red cabbage and fresh shelled lady peas you’ll consider serving this glorious summer squash casserole.
1 cup plain Greek yoghurt, or any plain, thick yoghurt
8 ounces pepper-jack cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup Panko bread crumbs
1 teaspoon olive oil
Pre-heat oven to 350°.
In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the chopped onion. Cook until clear but not browned.
Add the chopped squash and gently stir to coat with the oil and onions. Adjust the heat if needed so as to cook the squash but not to brown. Stir occasionally for the squash to cook evenly and for the juices to evaporate or cook off. You don’t want any liquid as that will cause the casserole to be watery. Cooking the squash may take as long as 15 minutes. That’s fine. Get rid of the water.
Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool 10-15 minutes.
While the squash is cooling mix the Panko with the teaspoon of olive oil and toss well that all the crumbs are covered. Set aside.
Transfer the squash to a food processor or blender and pulse until there are no lumps or large pieces of squash. Return squash to pan.
To the squash add the yoghurt and cheese and mix thoroughly by hand. Taste for salt and pepper.
Add the eggs and wine and stir well.
Pour the mixture into a greased 9 X 13 pan. Scatter Panko crumbs evenly over top.
Bake for 35-45 minutes or until golden brown on top.
Here’s a little quickie to help you take a stand against temptation this weekend. Wait. Are you really going to pretend you’re not going to be tempted? C’mon. We’re all going to brunch. We’ll all have a couple of mimosas at home then maybe move on to bloodies once we arrive at the restaurant. Oftentimes it’s downhill from there. Plates appear dripping with crunchy, smokey bacon shyly peaking out from under the heavy drip of a lemony hollandaise and a small mountain of crispy, oniony hash browned potatoes…who can resist? And then there’s that guy. You know the one. He orders the thick-cut, maple, cinnamon, praline, cream cheese stuffed french toast. With extra butter and syrup on the side. Ugh. Kill me now! It’s got to taste beyond heavenly. But guess what? I didn’t work all week at feeling good and looking good to blow it all BEFORE I get to brunch. I exercise five days a week. And I try hard to have my cocktails only on the weekend. Yes, I watch what I eat but I indulge myself regularly with healthful treats. So no. I won’t be blowing it at brunch either. Preparation is half the battle and I, for one, will.be.prepared. Oh, yes. I think treating yourself well during the week makes a huge difference in health, weight loss and mind-set and that includes breakfast Saturday mornings. If brunch is on Sunday then errands are on Saturday, meaning fuel up for another long day. My family LOVES roasted spaghetti squash so I typically have it on hand. What better way to make “hash browns” than with leftover, roasted spaghetti squash? Great texture and mild taste make it the perfect side. Simple as A-B-C and topped with a fresh, organic egg, Saturday’s looking better already. A little tomato or leftover vegetables on the side and you may find yourself looking forward to “errand day”. And by having this luxurious breakfast I find I have more resolve at Sunday brunch. The frittata of the day with an extra side of salad sounds really good to me…why, yes, please, I’d love another bloody!
Okay, I have to make an admission here. The reason the photo above doesn’t really show the squash hash browns is because I ate it all before I realized I hadn’t taken any final shots. I’m crazy about this stuff. Spaghetti squash is the healthful, fabulous, take-on-any-flavor food of the year. Already roasted and added to a hot pan with a little oil? Well, you’re just about to have a bit of heaven on earth! One pan. Quick and easy. Fried, poached, scrambled or hard-boiled, eggs pair beautifully with it. If you don’t do eggs heat up those leftover vegetables from the night before, in the same pan with the squash, add another touch of oil and you’ll have a meal from an elegant restaurant. These breakfast hacks will help keep your waistline intact and leaving you feeling good. GOOD. How many times have you felt light AND full after eating a plateful of potatoes?
In Puerto Rico if pork is king, and by the way it is, then the prince would have to be the exquisite plantain…in all its forms. Plantains can be boiled, baked or fried. They can be mashed, shredded or creamed. Green or ripe, the starchy member of the banana family is a favorite through out the Latin Caribbean and is used in a myriad of dishes including stuffed into many a Puerto Rican Thanksgiving turkey! Although its roots hail from Africa, the plantain immigrated and laid down permanent roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Colombia, Peru through to the Amazon region. To say plantains are wildly popular in these places is an understatement. Mofongo is made from fried green plantains which are then mashed in a mortar and pestle with fresh garlic, salt and olive oil. It can be served alone or with crispy pork cracklins mashed in. Often a well is fashioned in the middle of the mofongo mass and spicy shrimp or lobster or savory chicken or pork chunks are stuffed in. A small bowl of homemade chicken broth is served on the side to wet the dish. It’s crazy good! We NEVER had mofongo at my grandparent’s house in Puerto Rico. Every once in a blue moon my grandmother would prepare tostones for us, which are like flat, round plantain fries; crunchy and salty on the outside, earthy and almost creamy in the middle. But mofongo? Uh uh. Not in our house. Even so, when I lived in Puerto Rico as a young girl in her 20’s, I discovered the glory and wonder of the mashed plantain at the beach with friends. Mofongo is made all over the island but is especially good at the beach.
A good number of beaches boast kiosks which sell all manner of local island fare and are known for their mouth-watering dishes, mofongo being one of them. I remember my first bowl was stuffed with local crab. One bite and I was head over heels in love. You’ll often here laughter when crabs are discussed on the island. Local crabs are sometimes fed by hand and almost raised as family pets. The incredible sweetness of the meat will convince you as to the love of local seafood. Often at these kiosks when seafood is ordered, the person who is preparing your meal in front of you will mention in passing, “You’ll love these little fried fish! They come from the waters a couple of miles down the road. You can’t get them anywhere else on the island.” Rum and rum drinks are sold with a smile to anyone old enough to order. The beat of salsa and reggaeton spills down the beach. Gorgeous girls stroll up and down the beach and, as in so many post-colonial territories, they walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm, as sisters would. The water is almost always clear as an aquamarine… you’ll want to stay all day… with two fingers of local rum and a bowl of mofongo. Buen Provecho!
When you go to the store make certain you purchase plantains and not green sweet bananas. You cannot peel and eat green plantains raw. Notice in the photo above plantains have three or four, sometimes five ridges or sides running up and down the plantains. A small paring knife is all you need to score each ridge from top to bottom to make peeling easy. Use your finger or the paring knife to ease under the peel, separating the skin from the plantain. Work from section to section. Cut the plantains in 1″-1 1/2″ pieces and drop into a bowl with water that has been salted, 2-3 tablespoons of salt will do. After 15 minutes, drain, dry and set aside.
While the vegetable oil is heating up in your frying pan, crush the garlic and salt together in a mortar and pestle to make a smooth paste. Set aside.
Pour vegetable in a large frying pan over medium heat. When hot carefully place as many plantain pieces in pan as will fit, cut sides up and down and fry for 7 minutes. You don’t want to brown them just cook them so adjust the temperature accordingly. After the first 7 minutes turn the plantains over and fry for another 7 minutes. Drain on paper towels and fry the remaining pieces the same way; 7 minutes on each side. While the last plantains are frying take 3-4 of the cooked, drained pieces and drop into the garlic-salt mixture in the mortar. Using the pestle, crush the cooked plantains to make a fairly smooth mash. Add 1-2 tablespoons of good olive oil and salt to taste to each batch of mashed plantains. Leave the mash in the mortar as you add more and more chunks of plantains. Work quickly while the fried plantains are warm so they absorb the flavors of the salt, garlic and olive oil. Continue until all plantain pieces have been fried and mashed. Serve immediately or as soon as you can.
After a night of clubbing, dancing and partying, nothing is more welcome than a plate of straightforward carbs. Throw some high quality fat in the mix and we’ll be good to go. Rosti, or Swiss potato cake is it. I used to keep a large boiled potato in the refrigerator and prepare it all the time. It seem like hundreds of years ago when I lived in Atlanta, that I would eventually make my way home at the end of some crazy night… well, you get the picture. I got in late, okay? I had a few different apartments during that time, each one lovely and charming with its own mind bending fusion of quirky, funky and downright bizarre neighbors. One place was on Frederica Street, affectionately called “Fred” by my cronies and me, perched at the top of a hill. This is back when Atlanta still had character, color and stories were being made. It was some kinda fast livin’. Anyway, across the street from my apartment lived the scariest looking guy you ever did see in what little kids would have called a haunted house if a child had ever walked down the street and seen the house. Falling apart from top to bottom, it looked as though it should have been condemned. Old tires, cement blocks and general crap was thrown anywhere and everywhere. A few of the windows had been covered with tin foil. It was dark and menacing, the cheap curtains hung on the remaining windows were always drawn and the flickering blue of a television set was the only light at night casting eerie shadows on his already freaky looking property. Creepy. Every now and again my neighbor friends, Lee and Desiree, and I would see a big, hefty man emerge, always wearing a black wife beater, dirty jeans stained with oil and black boots that had seen their better days. Even in the dead of winter this was his uniform. He sported an enormous handlebar mustache that spanned from ear to ear and wore his long, greasy hair slicked back, his gold hoop earring gleaming wickedly. And he was ancient. Had to have been at least 50! Well, as it happened, my neighbors and I had spent the good part of an afternoon well into cocktails when we spied this ol’ monster of a man poking around in his front yard. Filled with 101-proof liquid courage the three of us excitedly decided to cross the street, introduce ourselves and, maybe, make a new friend. We took the jug o’ brown with us. Over we went and when he saw us approaching he scowled, his face filled with distrust and irritation. By then it was too late to turn back, so with plastered smiles on our faces we stuck out our hands, made our introductions and let the jug be seen. Honey, when that man caught sight of that bottle his face lit up like a damn Christmas tree. “Felix.”, he said sweetly, “Felix Kowalski.” I happily replied, “Well, Fee, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you!” From that day forward he was known to us as “Fee” and although he never crossed the street and visited us, not once, we came and went, in and out of his house just as happy as you please. He had become our friend. I always made way too much food and regularly took him plates that he seemed to just suck down. Although Fee was from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, I remember…Mott Street, that giant was a softie. The man had adopted every cat in the area, fed them and welcomed them into his home. On authority but off the record from others in the hood, he would sell anyone in need a joint…for $1.00. But listen to this. And this is what I loved about him. Big, burly Fee was fully and unreservedly addicted to the “Smurfs” cartoon show. The Smurfs! Remember those little blue characters? Yeah, well, he was like a little boy when that program came on. He was up at all hours watching that show. So when I came home from a night of partying, I’d start this dish and while the potatoes were browning in the pan I’d take a hot shower and, time I got out, flip them to brown on the other side. Regardless of the time, Fee always answered his door with a smile on his face, eager to dig into some warm, homemade food. This was one of his favorites. Mine, too.
Rosti is really like a round hash brown cake and can be prepared with solely potatoes or with a few herbs and meat. The dish is served all over Switzerland and, as you can well imagine, every recipe is different. Some grate their potatoes raw, others boil their potatoes, jackets on, then grate them. I lean towards the latter method, it’s always worked for me. By boiling the whole potatoes you’re more likely to end up with a golden, crispy crust and a creamy, buttery inside, which is exactly what you want. If you’re hesitant to try this, half the recipe and start with a small, non-stick skillet, way easier to flip. It’s a great winter side for chicken and meats or even as an entrée with a salad.
After a weekend of pizza, steaks, casseroles heavy with cheese and dinners out, Meatless Monday sure does creep up fast. The entire family, that would be the three of us!, worked at the Greek festival all weekend so when the week started, needless to say, the cupboards were bare. And after grabbing a bite here and there of pita and hummus, flaming Greek cheese and sausage, baklava, feta fries and tender bits of lamb, a clean but healthful dinner was desperately needed. When I say “clean” I mean little or no dairy, no heavy sauces and no frying. Clean eating doesn’t sentence one to a lifetime of salads. On the contrary, the Greek diet is mostly plant-based but the beauty is the brilliant twist the Greeks give their vegetables. A stick of cinnamon thrown in here, a squeeze of fresh lemon there, elevate the humble dishes to celebrity status. Smoky, roasted eggplant can be fused with walnuts, garlic and lemon juice yielding a creamy dip that will knock your socks off. What I love about this dish of stewed, roasted vegetable is you don’t need to really follow the recipe. There is a long, and I mean loooong, list of ingredients that work together magnificently and still offer a rib-sticking meal. Most of the vegetables are interchangeable so feel free to throw in a bag of green beans if you’re out of zucchini. Canned whole tomatoes are fine if you have no fresh ones. When I prepared this dish this week I had forgotten fresh mint, dill and flat leaf parsley at the grocery store. We’re in high season here in South Florida. Every tourist and his brother is out joy ridin’ and if you think I was going out in that snarl of 5:00 traffic you’ve got another thing coming. And I LOVE fresh mint in my Tourlou. I had on hand, though, dried dill and a big ol’ bush of oregano. This is also the ideal dish for out of season vegetables such as tomatoes. Roasting them brings out flavors the tomatoes didn’t even know they had.
If you want to be creative this is the recipe for you. My recipe is just a guideline and what works for me. Mushrooms, peas…I guess the point I’m trying to make is roast whichever vegetables you enjoy. My vegetable stew came out positively gorgeous, I mean, just look at the photos! It was warm and satisfying, so good in fact, I didn’t even want the usual topping of crumbled Greek feta cheese. I served the dish with a chunk of crusty French bread, absolutely necessary to sop up the exquisite bend of juices from the onions, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil. And although it may be juvenile and straight out of the nursery, I’m 100% guilty of using my fork to crush a few random pieces of potato to then mix in the fragrant olive oil and juices. Oh, yes! Heaven on a plate.
3/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, halved and sliced
1 large head garlic, peeled and chopped
1 large bell pepper, halved and cut into strips
1 large eggplant, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces
1 1/2 pounds zucchini, cut into 1/2″ rounds
4 carrots, cut into 1/4″ rounds
3 pounds tomatoes, each tomato cut into eighths
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2″ pieces
1/2 cup fresh mint, leaves chopped
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped or 1 heaping tablespoon dried
1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon each salt and pepper
Greek feta cheese, crumbled, optional
Pre-heat oven to 350°.
Cover an extra-large roasting pan or casserole dish with non-stick cooking spray making certain to cover all of the bottom and sides of the pan.
If your roasting vessel is glass or not stove-top safe, use a pan for this next step. If your roasting pan is metal and stove top safe the entire dish maybe prepared in the roasting pan. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the roasting pan or skillet.
Add the onion slices cook until soft, stirring often.
Add the garlic and continue stirring. Take care that the garlic doesn’t burn. If using a pan transfer this mixture to the sprayed roasting dish. If onion mixture cooked in the roasting pan, turn off heat but leave stove top.
Add all remaining ingredients except feta cheese, stirring between additions. Make certain all ingredients are evenly coated with olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper and any pan juices.
Cover tightly with tin foil and bake for one hour.
Carefully remove tin foil, stir vegetables and continue to bake uncovered for 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and allow to cool 5 minutes.
If using feta cheese scatter one or two tablespoons over each plate.
Christmas is the best of Puerto Rican culture. There is nothing, NOTHING, like a Christmas party in Puerto Rico. Our Christmas fiestas are epic, beginning early in December and really not ending until mid-January. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale we had a conflict of loyalties at Christmas. Leading up to the 25th of December was everything every little boy and girl dreamed of. Christmas parties at school with Secret Santas. Christmas on Las Olas where we got all dressed up, played in our Florence Eiseman dresses, white socks and black patent leather Mary Janes with our friends while our parents strolled the boulevard also decked out in their formal attire our mamas sporting big jewels with cocktails in hand. Museum parties where, if you were lucky, you got your picture in the social column of the local news paper. Every waking hour found vinyl spinning carols on the big, brown hi-fi. Mama would let Cynthia and me play Burl Ives and Bing Crosby songs over and over while she sat and enjoyed our beautiful tree. She let US set up the massive manger sent from Spain that her father in Puerto Rico had given her. Mama bought us GALLONS of eggnog from Farm Stores, a convenience store known for their thick, rich Christmas drink. There were tree trimming parties and cookie exchanges. There was virtually no baking in our house so Mama would buy boxes and boxes of butter cookies with sparkling red and green sugar crystals at Jacobs Bakery. Together Cynthia and I would hide in our room and, with heads together and low, secretive whispers, carefully open the presents we had for our parents. We were so proud of them…we just HAD to look at them again. Usually the presents consisted of some sort of pottery made and fired at school. We still have our handprints we each made when we were in first grade. And Mama always, always loved and treasured each and every handmade gift. One year I made a small, squat, acid green pitcher. Another, a dark, olive green snake rising from a rock as if to strike. But Cynthia made the coolest gift of all. It would have been the late 50’s or early 60’s and each classmate had been asked to bring in an empty glass bottle. Clean, dry and labels taken off, brightly colored marbles were then inserted and the bottles were, somehow, fired in a kiln. What came out was a large glass ashtray striated with brilliant ribbons of color throughout. My parents didn’t smoke but that thing sat in proudly in our living room for an eternity. Christmas morning was an astonishing extravaganza of thoughtful, magical gifts that stunned us year after year. Mama was quite frugal year round but come Christmas, well, she let Daddy know in no uncertain terms that she was pulling out all stops and that was that. Piled high and exquisitely wrapped were dollies, complete with wardrobes and wardrobe trunks from France and Switzerland, beautifully wrapped books from England, pen and ink drawings concealed between the heavy, linen paper pages patiently waiting to whisk us away to new lands and adventures. There were gleaming bicycles and roller skates complete with keys tied with a string of yarn ready to be worn around our necks during a fast paced race down the street. And that’s wherein our conflict of loyalties would lie.
Mama would allow us to play with our new toys for a few hours but then we had to clean up and give all our attentions to Christmas dinner with our grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousins. Upon returning home we had a quick bath, story then bed, for the following morning we were flying to Puerto Rico and we wouldn’t see our toys and books again for another month. Cynthia and I never wanted to leave. Tell me the 4 and 6-year-old that doesn’t mind walking away from their NEW TOYS? We never said much about it because Mama was so darned happy…she was going home. HOME. And she would be there for the happiest, most fun time of the year. There was no discussion. So off we went. On Pan American. With our little white socks on and Mama frantically asking, “Cielo, did you pack your veil as I asked?”. That would be for all the Masses we would be attending on this VERY Catholic island. Or, “Alicia, did you find your other glove?”. Probably not. I never had a matching pair. One seemed to always be lost from each pair. From the moment we landed it was color, music, laughter and clear-cut, point-blank, unreserved love. The happy, exalted, pick-you-up-and-swing-you-around kind. My mother’s family adored us, gave us everything we wanted and gave us that which we weren’t even aware we wanted! Night after night, at my grandparent’s house, we were awakened in the middle of the night by “parranderos” made up of family friends and relatives singing Puerto Rican Christmas songs. Still a tradition, the singers gather quietly at the unsuspecting family’s house sometime after 10 or 11:00 p.m. and, at a given signal, burst into song surprising the sleeping family. Parranderos all play a musical instrument from guitars, tambourines, and maracas to palitos, short, hardwood sticks struck together to give off a deep rhythmic sound, and guiros, dried, hollowed gourds with parallel notches carved out on one side. Scraping a stick or metal tines across the notches of the guiro makes a raspy, sexy sound and all these instruments played together produces the kind of music that’ll bring your oldest grandmother or grandfather to their feet for some hip-shaking, hand-clapping music you’ll be thinking of with a smile on your face for a long, long time. The awakened family is then expected to join the group for some song and then invite all into the house for some holiday food and a few fingers of fine Puerto Rican rum.
The family is invited to join the group as they go on to the next unsuspecting household for more surprise and song. You can leave the parranda to go back home any time you like but most parrandas go on until 4 or 5 in the morning. Mama would hurry into our room and, gently shaking Cynthia and me on the shoulders, whisper, “Girls! Girls! Wake up! Come to the balcon! Come see!”. In our cotton nightgowns, barefooted with eyes half-shut, we’d hurry to the front balcony and looking down there would be friends of the family, a few neighbors and a handful of uncles, dressed up, playing their instruments and singing their hearts out. Our grandfather, Papa Pepe, would be holding court in one of the mammoth cane-back rocking chairs, the rich smoke from his cigar curled off in long wisps and disappeared into the black night. Mama would be dancing in place, singing and clapping as if it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Too young to know how to swing our hips, Cynthia and I would clap our little hands, jumping up and down in perfect syncopation with the latin beat. My grandparents always smiled and welcomed the carolers but never continued on with the parranderos. It was back to bed for us after they left. Well accepted and custom in Puerto Rico, this practice is routine weekend AND weekday! For family parties whole pigs were roasted on hand-turned spits at our Tio Enrique’s farm. He and my other uncles always had a substantial supply of “pitorro”, illegal rum made from a still, and made certain that the farm worker hired to sit and turn the spit all day was well oiled with a discreet sip and maybe a slightly off-colored joke or two. Along with the roast pork, or lechon, was served the ultimate of Puerto Rican holiday dishes, pasteles, a tamale-like treat of blended of root vegetables seasoned with tasty chunks of savory pork wrapped in banana leaves, incredibly tasty but labor intense beyond belief. Alongside the lechon and pasteles was served our island’s version of rice and pigeon peas or arroz con gandules, spicy blood sausage called morcilla, garlicky cod fritters known as bacalaitos, crispy, salty fried plantains or tostones and, of course, the Puerto Rican egg nog drink, the Coquito, which is a creamy coconut cocktail spiked with a liberal amount of island rum. While the grownups relaxed and visited my sister and I would swing as fast and high as we possibly could on strung up hammocks. Our uncle would gather the both of us onto one of his horses and, machete in hand, cut down a good-sized piece of sugar cane, one for each of us to munch on, and off we’d go to explore his property and, essentially, run free. His gated house was set far off the road, surrounded by mountains and studded with palm and mahogany trees. My favorite, the scarlet flamboyan, offered delicious shade where Cynthia and I wiled away hours playing fairy and in later years sneaking cigarettes and having boy-talk.
New Year’s Eve brought more parties and Cynthia and I were permitted to stay up although when our family rang in the new year we were then in our nightgowns and close to going to bed. There were countless toasts, hug and kisses for all and, of course, good wishes. In the tradition of the island, one of my aunts or uncles would fill a bucket with water and with everyone standing back, cheering and whistling, the water would be flung with abandon off the second story balcony onto the street below signifying renewal and washing away all bad luck. Cynthia and I bounced up and down and climbed from lap to lap, skittish with excitement…this behavior was crazy! At the threat of something worse than death, we weren’t ever allowed to throw anything off the balcony. Our eyes were big as dinner plates at this display of dangerous living. Each of the grownups had had a sip or two, possibly three, and emotions were running high. My mother’s family rejoiced that she was with them, they were ecstatic that their girl was back if only for a month. Emotion washes over me when I think of how much my mother must have missed them and they her. Mama NEVER complained, she was raised in a world which dictated that complaining was common and unrefined, but I know it must have ripped her heart to pieces to have to leave. January 6th was Three King’s Day, the most important of holidays in Puerto Rico, when the Magi traveled all over the world on their camels leaving gifts for all good little boys and girls. The evening of January 5th would find children in the city, in the country and the mountains, outside with cardboard boxes in hand eagerly searching to fill them with the greenest grasses and most tender and loveliest of flowers to offer the camels who had journeyed so far. Cynthia and I, without fail, asked our aunts for a shoebox for each of us to fill with the prettiest of flora and they never let us down. We’d follow closely in their footsteps to their closets with eagerness because their closets were veritable treasure troves. Out came the big, brass keys they wore. The doors swung open and we caught sight of delicate fans made of lace and balsa wood, jewelry boxes with small, brass padlocks and fragrant rounds of soaps from Spain delicately wrapped in pleated, red tissue paper finished with a stamped coat of arms. Their leather high-heels were neatly lined up on the floor but all the prettiest, dress-up heels, were wrapped and stored in their ornate boxes. Both aunts would pick out the loveliest of boxes because you only put out your best for the Three Kings. The boxes were left at the foot of each child’s bed in the hopes that while the camels ate the flowers and greenery, the Three Kings, Los Reyes, would reward the children with wonderful presents. Like Santa, the Three Kings came in the middle of the night. It never occurred to Cynthia or me to question how those elaborately designed boxes ended up BACK in their respective closets but they did and without a scratch on them. January 7th through the 9th are holidays as each king has his own day and then, hard to believe but it’s gospel, the next 8 days are known as Las Octavitas with continuous celebrations all over the island. Sometime towards the end of Las Octavitas would be when we returned home to Fort Lauderdale. I won’t even go into the overwhelming sadness and yearning felt by all. I know Mama would have given her right arm and one eye to stay but Cynthia and I had usually already missed a good week of school. Through all our heartfelt hugs and tears we consoled ourselves knowing that soon we would be back for summer vacation, three whole months, for new adventures and memories to be made. We’d had a magnificent time and we knew it. Again, Mama, thank you for the most perfect, blissful childhood a little girl could ever want. This glimpse I give you all into a past time, my world, is not only a precious, treasured memory but my Christmas gift to you. And so I say Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad!
Pasteles are easiest made with two or three people helping and in stages, over two days. The achiote oil can be store-bought or homemade. For the most part I prepare the meat and grate the root vegetables the first day and the second day is spent preparing the banana leaves and wrapping the pasteles. Frozen banana leaves may also be purchased at most large grocery stores. The outer paper is also available at grocery stores or online. When peeling the green bananas and plantain I strongly suggest using disposable gloves otherwise the juices will stain your cuticles and under your fingernails and you will look like you have farmer hands. James and I assembled the pasteles at our dining room table which we covered with thick layers of news paper to avoid not only sticky messes but achiote oil stains. Please know, achiote stains permanently. So it’s probably not a good idea to wear your favorite pajama top. Jus’ sayin’.
3 pound boneless lean pork picnic, fat off and cut into 1/2″ cubes
3 tablespoons adobo powder, I use “light” for less sodium and Goya brand
4 tablespoons achiote oil
1 1/2 cups sofrito, homemade or store-bought
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 15.5 ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed, drained and skinned
1 tablespoon oregano
1 cup green olives, I use olives with the pit for more flavor
Mix the pork with the adobo until the meat is evenly and completely covered.
Add olive oil to a heavy bottomed pot and over medium heat cook the pork until the meat begins to release its juices stirring all the while.
Add all the remaining ingredients, stir well, and cook covered over medium low heat for 1 hour or until the meat is tender.
Remove from heat and set aside.
9 pounds very green bananas, peeled and maintained in cold, salted water until grated
5 pounds yautia or malanga, peeled and rinsed clean
1 large green plantain, peeled then put in the salted water with the bananas
2 envelopes of Sazon Goya with Culantro and Achiote
4 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup achiote oil
Using the large grater side of a box grater, grate all of the bananas, yautia and plantain. They will grate down to a sticky, runny paste, very loose and smooth.
Mix the root vegetable paste well then add the Sazon Goya, salt, achiote oil and the meat mixture, juices and all.
Mix well then take one or two tablespoons of the mixture and fry it up in a little olive oil to taste for seasonings. This will give you a really good idea of what the final product will taste like. Season accordingly and refrigerate, covered, until ready to assemble the pasteles. For me that’s Day Two.
ASSEMBLING THE PASTELES
1 pound frozen banana leaves, washed, trimmed and cut into 5″X7″ or 8″ pieces, Publix carries them
30-35 sheets paper for pasteles, I get mine at Sedano’s
30-35 pieces of cotton string measuring about 60″ in length
achiote oil, maybe 1/2 cup
Heat a large skillet or griddle to medium high heat. Place a cut banana leaf on skillet and warm the leaf for maybe 30-60 seconds moving around to avoid burning. With tongs flip leaf to the other side and continue wilting. This wilting process will make the leaves much easier to work with. Set aside when finished.
Set up your work stations however it’s most convenient for you. I put a stack of pastel papers right in front of each person and assemble the pasteles from there.
To begin, place one banana leaf in the middle of the pastel paper and spread a scant teaspoon of achiote oil all over the leaf. It doesn’t have to be all the way to the edges. This keeps the pastel from sticking when it comes time to serve it.
Place 1 cup of the pastel mixture in the middle of the leaf.
Take the pastel paper with the leaf and mixture in it and fold in half towards you so the edges of the paper meet. Hold the edges down with one hand and with the side of your other hand press the mixture away from you, back into the leaf. You’re going to often press the mixture back into shape as you fold.
Take the edges in front of you and make a tight, 1/2″ fold. Make the same fold two more times, tightly and the same 1/2″.
Place the tightly creased fold over the pastel mixture. It will look like a torpedo with a fold running lengthwise.
Pressing the pastel mixture to the center of the bundle, make two 1/2″ folds at one end of the torpedo and, where the mixture begins, fold that entire end over towards the center.
Repeat with the other end and you’ll finish with a small bundle. Set aside, folded edges down.
Fold another pastel and tightly tie the two pasteles together placing the folded edges facing each other. I tie the length and width both two times.
Freeze until ready to cook. Because of the high fat content they freeze marvelously. We just ate the last of the pasteles I made last year and they were sublime!
When ready to eat, heat a large pot with one inch of water and a steamer, bamboo or stainless steel.
If fresh, gently steam for one hour, covered, and add water as needed. If frozen, steam for two hours, again, adding water as needed.
To serve, cut string, unwrap, discard paper and banana leaf and slide pastel onto waiting plate.
I’m crazy about middle eastern and mediterranean flatbread. I’m even happier when they’ve been stuffed with a surprise or two. Eight or nine years ago, on one of our vacations in Greece, we took a quick side trip to Turkey. From our island of Lesvos it’s only a short ferry ride away. Not to segue from this delightful recipe but if you should ever have the opportunity to take a ferry outside of the continental US you ought to take it. Ferry rides are a wonderful way to really see how your temporary neighbors live. On our way to Turkey the boat was filled with people, of course, and cars. Lots of cars. But on the return trip the cars were gone and in their place were refrigerators, patio furniture, a rainbow of comforter sets all in their clear, plastic storage bags. Pallets of fruits and bundled up cardboard boxes as far as the eye could see. Truly, it’s a great way to see a little slice of local life. Anyway, after a few hours on the water we safely arrived and disembarked. We had been told there was a “Grand Bazaar” and we took off to find it. Just steps before us the bazaar opened up to a beehive of activity with children running, some playing, some on urgent errands, shopkeepers hawking their wares from their stalls and a colorful topping of headscarves on the women shopping for their family’s lunch and dinner. The cacophony of sounds was exhilarating; music blaring, people yelling at the top of their lungs, dogs barking and always the call to prayer over loudspeakers. It was great! We walked a while and stumbled across a table where a man and a woman were selling borek, the ubiquitous Turkish street food.
Borek is a thin, thin round sheet of dough or flatbread that is stuffed with a combination of greens and cheese or meat, any concoction you wish. The filling is place in the middle of the dough, pinched closed and tossed onto something that looks like a convex steel drum or upside down wok griddle. The borek blisters to a gorgeous golden brown on the outside while the filling cooks on the inside. Different than our’s here in the States; often they are folded when finished then wrapped in wax or parchment paper. The corners become chewy while the flat outside bubbles up to a crispy flavor-fest.
The dough requires no yeast or sugar, it’s just flour, salt and water. The resting time is blessedly short so if you feel like rattling around the kitchen on a Friday night after a couple of glasses of wine and still have dinner ready in and hour or so you can. And think of the fillings…good gracious! The combinations are limitless. I’ve made the classic spinach and feta but tonight I’m also preparing potato and onion with a little Aleppo red pepper flakes added. Borek are so gorgeous and easy, not to mention forgiving. The secret, if there is one, is to let the dough rest sufficiently and then take your time rolling it out super thin. I mean SUPER thin. Perfect for a picnic…a ballgame…or under a tree, downtown, with the one you love. It’s pretty sexy food. Yeah. I think you’ll really like it. Just do yourself a favor and, if you decide to throw them together, resist the temptation of leaving the dough too thick and, also, try not to overload the borek with your filling. They’re supposed to be flat. To that, let me add, if your filling is spinach and feta, you can heap on the spinach as it will wilt to next to nothing as they cook. But if you go with potato or ground meat scatter with a light hand. This recipe comes from the book entitled “Savory Baking from the Mediterranean” written by Anissa Helou. Not only is this recipe brilliant but so is the book. I hope you enjoy it. That’s what it’s all about!
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading and shaping
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese, PLEASE use a good quality feta and crumble it yourself
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 1/2 cups fresh spinach, finely shredded (I use more…about two large handfuls before shredding)
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter, melted
Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Gradually add just over 1/3 cup warm water to the well, bringing in the flour as you go along. Knead to make a rough ball of dough.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead for three minutes. Invert the bowl over the dough and let the dough rest for 15 minutes. Knead the dough for about 2-3 minutes more to make a smooth, firm dough.
Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Form each piece into a ball. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and let rest for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the cheese and parsley.
Sprinkle a work surface and rolling pin with flour. Roll out a ball of dough to a circle about 12 inches in diameter, lightly sprinkling with flour every now and then. (I have to tell you. I had a hard time with that. Mine were about 9 or 10 inches in diameter and they came out beautifully!) Sprinkle a quarter of the spinach over half the dough. Cover the spinach with a quarter of the cheese mixture. Fold the dough over the fillings to make a half circle. Prepare the remaining boreks in the same way. Heat a nonstick griddle or frying pan over medium heat. Transfer the boreks, one or two at a time, to the hot griddle or pan and cook for 1-2 minutes on each side, until lightly crisp and golden. Transfer to a serving plate and brush lightly with melted butter. Serve immediately. (I cut mine in half before serving. The boreks are easier to handle and look prettier.)