Early mornings at my grandparent’s house in Puerto Rico were extraordinarily beguiling and captivating. My older sister, Cynthia, and I awoke every morning in the soft, white-cloud canopy of mosquito nets hung from hooks embedded in lofty ceilings. In the drowsy world of being not quite awake, as we stirred, not yet aware of sights and sounds, we felt like brides…or princesses. As we lay in our beds savoring the last vestiges of morning coolness, we took pleasure in the cooing of doves outside our windows. The gentle swish, swish, swish of slippers against old floor tiles signaled the house was coming to life and someone, thank you God!, was making coffee. Even as little girls we always drank coffee. Everyone did. I remember my mother laughing as she told me the story of my Tio Roberto and coffee. Mama said my uncle was a young boy of maybe five or six years old when my grandfather found him somewhat wistful and down in the mouth. Tio Roberto was my grandfather’s favorite boy and couldn’t bear to see him unhappy. “Mi nene, pero que te pasa”? “My son, what’s wrong?” In a low voice my uncle answered, “Aye, Papa! I hate school!” “But why?”, asked my grandfather. Tio Roberto answered, “I miss my 10:00 cafe con leche.” That cracks me up every time I think about it. His father replied, “Well, you don’t have to go to school. Stay home and have your cafecito as long as you want.” Can you imagine saying that to your kindergartener? And so my uncle did. Everyday my mother, aunts and uncles would pile into the coach to be driven to school while my Tio Roberto stayed home…alone…with no one to play with. No brothers to go fishing or ride together. No brothers to climb trees with or sisters to tease. That had to be hell. That lasted two or three days, he gave up his mid-morning coffee and back to school he happily went.
Breakfast in Puerto Rico was always modest and light. Don’t get me wrong, it was always enjoyable but never heavy with pancakes and meat and cheesy casseroles. Breakfast typically consisted of strong Puerto Rican coffee laced with steamed whole milk and a generous spoonful of island sugar. Oh, but it was good! Alongside jugs of ice-cold water, one at each end of the table, were baskets of crackers to be eaten with a little local cheese or butter. And there was, without fail, fresh fruit. Luscious wheels of deep, coral-red papaya or sweet, golden pineapple beautifully carved and laid out on platters would complete the meal. But if we were really lucky we would be served guava paste or guava spread. Guava and cream cheese spread is sublime offered firm and cold from the refrigerator or warm and runny having been freshly made. These days it’s a beautiful addition not only at breakfast or brunch but also at cocktail hour. The addition of the cream cheese and sour cream in the recipe lends the spread the perfect balance of sweet and savory. It’s beautiful at a shower, picnic or pool party and lasts forever covered in the refrigerator. Here in Florida guava paste may be found on the bread aisle at Winn-Dixie and on the canned fruit aisle at Publix. If you can’t find it just ask. And last, I buy the guava paste cryovaced in block form made by Goya. Buen provecho!
One of the highlights of our summers in Puerto Rico was our trips into Viejo San Juan, Old San Juan. Cynthia and I would be taken by our aunt, Madrinita, and, of course, Mama would accompany us. It was an all-day affair of shopping at my aunt’s favorite jewelry store, always lunch at La Mallorquina, the oldest operating restaurant in the Western Hemisphere and culminating perhaps with a tour of cellist Pedro Casals’ house. What wonderful times we had! In and out of shops we went, Mama buying gorgeous French and Belgian sets of tablecloths and napkins, Madrinita giving in to the siren call of a particularly lovely gold bracelet as Cynthia and I stood by watching wide-eyed and highly impressed. My mother and aunt adored each other and this outing gave them the opportunity to spend uninterrupted hours catching up on family news and their own sister secrets. Cynthia and I were already BFF’s so we, too, shared our own 8-year-old/six-year-old secrets, whispering that maybe, just maybe, this was the trip Madrinita would buy us some pretty little earrings, a delicate ring or exquisite charm for our bracelets. As we grew older, Madrinita and Mama strolled ahead of us, arm in arm, chattering away. Cynthia and I lagged behind enjoying the lazy afternoon, soaking in the beauty of cascading bougainvilla spilling off the balconies above us and the magnificence of the smooth blue cobblestones below our feet dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. One of our favorite games was to hunt for ruts and grooves cut into the cobblestones by horses dragging canons up to the fort and back. Puerto Rico was a Spanish territory, a jewel in their crown, and the Spaniards were quick to defend it against land attacks. We were content with the pleasures of the sun on our skinny, little arms, the soft padding sound of our shoe leather against the rounded cobblestones and the dichotomy between the loud, riot of colors and the quiet, graciousness of the residents. Toward the end of the day Cynthia and I tended to unravel. After a day of walking and getting too much sun we both needed energy, a small pick-me-up to tide us over until we got back to home base: our grandparent’s house. On every corner it seems there was a minute wooden cart, always gaily painted a bright red, shielded from the searing afternoon rays of the sun by a striped awning or umbrella. Alongside the cart and in the shade sat the vendor usually on a folded, wooden chair, wearing a straw hat and welcoming us with a brilliantly white and friendly smile. All the vendors were kind and patient with us, treating us as the adults we had yet to be. Some sold ice cream, some snow cones shaved from huge blocks of ice and others offered little bags of plantain chips gathered in small, wax paper bags, folded at the top and fastened with one staple in the center of the parcel. We were, and still are, crazy about them. Each bag was 10¢. When enjoying these plantain chips with my husband, Jimmy, he pointed out it gives new meaning to “dime bag”. But they were a fabulous treat for us and gave us the stamina needed until we reached home. We loved everything about them, from the “snap” of the first chip down to the bits of salt at the bottom of every bag. Another perfect ending to a perfect day.
This is one hors d’oeuvre you won’t often see here in the states unless you are at a gathering with Latinos. Plantain chips are easy and quick to prepare. And although they are fried, you will find that properly stored, the chips stay fresh and crisp for two or three days after preparing…if they last that long. In fact, I find their flavor almost deeper the following day. Plantain chips are typically served as an appetizer or snack but my family and I love them crumbled over shrimp, fish or mixed green salad. We like them sprinkled with sea salt or drizzled with a little chimichurri sauce. They marry exceptionally well with all manner of sea food. This recipe may be doubled or tripled and if not serving immediately, do not need to be reheated. Just serve them at room temperature. The thick, hard peel of the green plantain has to come off, easily done but not as easy as peeling a yellow banana. Plantains stain your fingers so I always wear disposable gloves. The following is how I peel them. You will find 3-4 ridges running lengthwise on each plantain. Using a paring knife cut through the peel down the length of the plantain taking care not to cut into the flesh. Starting at the top, slide your finger under the skin and pry each section away. I run the paring knife lightly over the surface of each plantain to scrape off any bits of peel left behind. You’ll see the flecks of peels as they will turn gray in color making it easy to scrape off any missed. The chips are thinly sliced into a 1/16″ thickness. I use a lightweight mandoline that makes slicing the plantains a snap but obviously a sharp kitchen knife will work just fine. Some people then give the sliced plantains a quick rinse of salted water, drain them well, then fry them. The rinsing keeps the starchy slices from sticking together. However, I find no matter how well I drain them there is always a certain amount of moisture causing the hot oil to pop so I don’t rinse. It’s up to you. I keep my gloves on while frying, also, to avoid any stains as my fingers touch the slices while dropping them into the hot oil. Last of all, and this is important, the very second you take the chips out of the hot oil and drain on paper towels sprinkle them with sea salt. The tiny bit of oil on them will help the salt to stick whilst the oil drains off.
This is island comfort food. Served with red beans and rice, Sweet sliced avocado and juicy rounds of tomato, this stew will feed crowds and satisfy all. Pollo en fricase was served to my older sister and me at least once a week during summers spent in Puerto Rico. We couldn’t get enough of it. Having a mother who didn’t know how to cook and didn’t care to learn pretty much guaranteed bland at best, off-putting and unpalatable at worst, dinners at home in Fort Lauderdale. For Cynthia and me, Puerto Rico was a richness of flavors, a panoply of scents rolling out of the kitchen of our grandparents’ home, heady and overwhelming in their mystery and perfume. All sorts of rules were broken. As little girls we were served strong Puerto Rican coffee with steamed milk sweetened with all the sugar a child could want every morning with breakfast. I knew of no child in Fort Lauderdale given coffee with breakfast. In Puerto Rico it was unheard of to have a sandwich for lunch, something almost expected at home. Our midday meal was invariably the largest meal of the day with dinner being a much smaller serving of what had been prepared for lunch or we could choose to have soda crackers with butter and Quick, chocolate milk. Chocolate milk for dinner? Another rule broken. At our home in Fort Lauderdale chocolate milk was not allowed…ever. It was understood between my parents and Cynthia and me that our summer indulgences were allowed unrestricted. We weren’t aware at the time but it turns out whatever happened in Puerto Rico stayed in Puerto Rico. Buen provecho!
This stew could be served alone it is that hearty. With the addition of potatoes and/or pumpkin it is a complete meal. Both white meat and dark meat work well in this dish, however, if white meat is used make certain the stew never heats up to more than a simmer. A healthy, boiling pot will guarantee dry, tough meat. I take the skin off of all the pieces of chicken because the skin becomes incredibly unappealing after having been simmered in the sauce. I usually prepare boneless chicken as it can be difficult to maneuver around a slippery bone with a fork and knife. The cup of sofrito called for in the recipe is necessary for a spectacular result so make sure you don’t leave it out. It can be bought in the international section of your grocery store but better would be home-made. That recipe can be found at http://wp.me/s264J2-sofrito and is easy as can be. If your family isn’t wild about olives they may be left out. I try to find green olives with the pits still in as I think they add more flavor to the recipe. Please don’t feel you have to use your best bottle of wine, either. Jimmy went out and $7.00 on a bottle of Pinot Grigio, it was perfect and didn’t break the bank.
2 tablespoons adobo seasoning or the seasoning blend of your choice. Adobo is an all-purpose blend of salt, garlic powder, oregano, black pepper and turmeric.
3 tablespoons achiote oil (optional) This may also be found at the grocery store on the international aisle or on the blog at http://wp.me/p264J2-EB.
1 cup of sofrito
2 1/2 cups of onion, chopped
2 large cubanelle peppers, cleaned of seeds and inner white ribbing, chopped
1 bunch of cilantro, washed, dried and leaves chopped
1 head garlic, minced
1 heaping tablespoon dried oregano
1 standard 750-ml bottle inexpensive Pinot Grigio or dry white wine
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4″ rounds
2 pounds calabasa or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
3/4 cup small green olives
1/3 cup capers, rinsed and drained
salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl combine the chicken, lime juice and adobo and mix well making certain all surfaces of the meat have been competely coated. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to marinate for an hour if you have the time. An afternoon or overnight is ideal for the best flavor.
In your largest saucepan heat the achiote oil over medium, add the chicken with the surface that would have had skin facing down, and brown for 5-6 minutes.
Add the sofrito, onion, cubanelle pepper, garlic, oregano and cilantro and cook until softened stirring all the while.
Raise the heat to medium high and pour into the pot the bottle of wine. Continue to stir and scrape the cooked bits from the pan as the wine evaporates, 4-5 minutes.
Add the carrots, pumpkin, if using potatoes add them now, tomato sauce, olives and capers. Stir well to combine all the flavors.
Taste for any needed salt and pepper and bring to a boil.
As soon as the stew begins to boil, cover and drop the heat to simmer. Cook for 1-1 1/2 hours or until chicken is tender to the fork.
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.
It seems as though every culture has its own version of Chicken and Rice and Puerto Rico is no different. As a child, my older sister and I spent whole summers, Christmas breaks and Easters with my mother’s family. Our father spent a huge amount of time up and down the Amazon working on the genetics of a certain tropical fish in order to create his own strain. So as the weeks before he departed loomed before us my mother would start making noises to the effect of “I’m not staying here. Girls, what do you think if we go to Puerto Rico? Jackson, (that’s what she called my father), vamos a Puerto Rico. Girls? GIRLS! I want you to check your gloves and make sure they all match. Alicia, make sure yours are clean.” And off we went. We loved Pan American! The flight attendants were so glamorous and they would give us hot chocolate. Until my younger brother and sister came along, we were the only children in my grandparents house. And, boy, did we love it. Aunts and uncles spoiled us so we always had crayons and coloring books, china tea sets, wonderful dolls and books. Oh, the books! A few days after we arrived, for every visit, my aunt, the one who adored my older sister and looked upon me as though I was the ultimate bad seed, would take us to “our” bookstore in old San Juan. Libreria Campos was three stories of gorgeous books with glossy hardwood floors and an old-fashioned elevator. There, a gloved elevator attendant closed the solid brass door to the elevator before we lumbered up to our desired floor. I remember I would be left alone in the young reader/children’s section as my sister and aunt went off whispering, arm in arm… 1960’s style bff’s. After we had chosen our heart’s desire, the transaction would be finalized at the massive, dark polished wooden counter. Our books would be wrapped in their signature green paper then tied neatly with twine. They were beautiful. Every trip back to the house left me feeling a little as though I had somehow been tricked. In the taxi cab I’d be well into my one, single Nancy Drew thriller when I’d look over and there would be my sister sitting smugly with something like the entire collection of Anne of Green Gables. I received one book, she got eight. It just smacked of wrong. Oh, well. Afternoons found the two of us having tea parties with our dolls beneath our grandparent’s tall, dark, mahogany beds where we sat up straight while pretending to be aristocratic ladies. Chicken was the star of most of our meals and they, too, were a ritual. Our dinners were somewhat dressy affairs. At 5:00 p.m. sharp we were given baths, changed into little dresses and hair was neatly combed. We were allowed to watch a few episodes of Felix the Cat in Spanish and then we dined… alone. The grownups never dined with the children. And that’s where the chicken and rice comes in. Always perfectly seasoned, aromatic and glistening with olive oil coated capers, olives and peppers. It was just heaven. The traditional Puerto Rican accompaniment was, and is, red beans and pumpkin, either in the beans or steamed separately. Nothing makes Puerto Rican adults happier than children asking for more. And there was always, always more!
6-7 fresh culantro leaves (Here in South Florida they can be had at all leading grocery stores. If unavailable, cilantro makes a suitable replacement.)
1 whole cut-up chicken or which ever chicken parts suit your fancy, 6-8 pieces. I always cut off all fat and the skin. But that’s just me.
1 16 oz. bag white rice, I always use medium grain but if you like long grain, have at it.
2 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt or more to taste
In a heavy Dutch oven or large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add chopped onions and cook until almost clear, stirring often.
Add garlic, oregano and bell peppers and cook until almost cooked through, still stirring.
Add capers, green olives, tomato paste and culantro. Stir well.
Add chicken pieces, cook just to brown outside.
Add rice, stir well to coat the rice grains with other ingredients, add water and salt.
Stir so rice is equally distributed, tomato paste broken up and dissolved etc.
Bring water to a boil, cover pot and drop heat to simmer.
Cooking time varies depending on size of chicken pieces and whether they’re boned or bone-in. Just keep your eye on it and check the pieces to see if they’re done from time to time. Small pieces of boned chicken may take 45-60 minutes. Large pieces with bone make take 1 1/2-2 hours until the chicken is tender and almost falling off the bone.