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.
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.
Doesn’t it seem as though the prettiest or most fun beaches always have the most delicious food close by? Beach food. Pick-up food. And it’s almost always hideously bad for you. But something about being in the hot sun, maybe under a thatched shack…a fruity rum drink or a cold beer in your hand makes it natural to throw caution to the wind and start ordering. Some sort of scalding hot, deep-fried, savory bit blanketed in a crispy, salty outside which will transport you to paradise with every single bite. Puerto Rico is no exception. The beaches are exquisite, some known for surfing others for sunning but all tempt with the king of naughty…hot fat. All manner of delectable morsels are fried to a golden perfection on those beaches; some amiably co-mingling with garlic or onion and cornmeal while some are happy to be fried naked with no breading what so ever. One of our favorite treats are fried, green plantains, Tostones. Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside these yellow speckled rounds are perfect with an icy beer or cold rum drink. They’re served in wax paper triangles, sometimes with a garlic and olive oil sauce drizzled lightly. Perfect for a hot, lazy day in the sun! Every now and again my grandmother would make them for us. Not often enough so tostones were a real treat. And reason enough for a big, family get together. Plantains must be cooked; they cannot be eaten raw. They look like bananas but they’re not. Bananas are high in sugar whereas plantains are high in starch. There are hundreds of recipes for plantains but, typically, three stages of ripeness will determine how they are prepared. For good tostones you want hard, deep green plantains. As they ripen plantains will begin to turn yellow and that is perfect for frying and serving as a side. As they darken and ripen they turn black. Don’t throw them out! At that stage the plantains are at their sweetest and are wonderful as dessert baked in butter, sugar and rum served hot over melting vanilla ice cream. The plantain is truly your friend.
small bowl of water with 2-3 mashed up garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
sea salt for sprinkling
Cut about 1″ off each end of the plantain. Cut the plantain from end to end cutting only through the skin.
Work your finger under the skin and pull the skin away from the plantain working from top to bottom. The plantain will stain your fingers. I’ve heard it said of a Puerto Rican newly arrived to the States, “She still has the stain of plantains” meaning she’s country or a hillbilly…”una jibara”.
In a deep-frying pan heat 2″ of vegetable oil to 350° of medium high. Cut the plantain into 1″ pieces or, if you want larger tostones, cut into 2″ pieces.
Add them to the hot oil and fry until they are just starting to turn golden, about 5-6 minutes.
Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Leave the oil as you’ll be using it again.
Place one piece of plantain on your counter and using a small plate, bowl or small pan press down firmly on the piece of plantain. Continue with all.
Bring your frying pan back up to medium high.
Lightly dip each tostone into the salted garlic water and quickly but carefully return the smashed tostones to the hot frying pan. Don’t leave the tostones long in the water or they’ll fall apart. Just a quick dip is all they need.
Fry the tostones again until they turn a rich, golden brown, remove from the oil and drain on paper towels.
Green Bananas. These little darling’s are so darned good I’ve had people eat them as a side! Made in advance they are perfect for poolside, picnics, parties you name it. They’re so easy and as luck would have it cheap. Make them one day in advance of serving. I know they’re kind of ugly but, hey, lots of things in life are. Think of monk fish. Who would have thought that veiny mess would taste like lobster? So trust me on this one. They’re always a huge hit! Btw, they’re not exactly low cal…but then neither is the long, tall Mojito you should be having with them!
Pickled Bananas or Guineitos Verdes en Escabeche
8-10 green COOKING bananas
8 cups of water
2 tablespoons of salt
2 cups olive oil
1 cup white or apple cider vinegar
15 whole peppercorns of the equivalent coarsely ground
pinch of salt
5 bay leaves, fresh if you’ve got them
2 pounds white, yellow or sweet onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 gloves garlic, finely minced
Trim the ends of the bananas and cut a shallow slit just the peel, lengthwise, on both sides of the bananas.
In a large pot bring the 8-10 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil.
Add the slit bananas to the pot, cover and boil over low heat for 25 minutes.
Drain and peel. Set aside.
Fill a medium size pot with all the rest of the ingredients, olive oil to garlic, mix well, cover and cook over low heat for 45 minutes to an hour.
Cut bananas into 1-inch rounds. Layer bananas and Escabeche sauce in a deep glass or non-reactive dish.