Pasteles! Your guide to thE Puerto Rican Christmas DELICACY

According to the ethnocultural research of Dr Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, the Africans brought the technology for cooking tuberous root vegetables and the use of banana leaves for wrapping. This facilitates boiling the grated banana, yautia, and yuca mixture. Until their arrival, the taíno indians had been processing yuca without heat. This is known as cassava.

The prep consists of emptying your fridge and your freezer of everything so you can store the pasteles. Make lots of sofrito in advance. Get yourself some delantales and gloves, since banana sap and annatto oil leave permanent stains. Gather or borrow the biggest ollas you can find.

My mom has never used Sazón Accent because of the msg.

Shopping list for about a hundred + pasteles: 20 green bananas, 2 green plantains, 5 lbs of yuca, 5 lbs of yautia (Mexicans call it white malanga), 5 bundles of banana leaves from the freezer section, 3 lbs of pork shoulder, 4 chicken breasts, one 8 oz bag of whole annato seed, two red pimientos, one can of condensed milk, three rolls of paper for pasteles, one tall jar of small pitted olives, two cans of garbanzos, and one can of raisins (optional). Don't forget the sofrito ingredients and the string used to tie the yuntas. You will spend about $120 on these ingredients.

You are better off getting green bananas, plantains, pitted small olives, yautia, yuca, achiote and banana leaves from the local Latino market.

Pastel is the singular, pasteles is the plural, pronounced pas-TEH-less. Never describe them at "Puerto Rican tamales," because our pasteles had their own evolution, entirely separate from that of the Mexican tamales. Let's help Epicurious and the Food Network keep their facts straight.

Achiote oil is made with whole annatto seed. It gives the masa its color and some of its flavor. Mix with a cup of olive oil, and simmer at very low heat to avoid burning the oil. When you are done, strain the oil as you pour a portion into each masa batch. The oil will permanently stain everything a very dark red color.

There is a variety of Puerto Rican pasteles out there and they all taste slightly different. Yuca-only pasteles are softer and orange-colored. Some people say they absorb the meat flavors better. They fall apart more easily when hot. Green banana pasteles are brown-colored, firmer and retain their shape. Then there are pasteles that combine yautia, yuca, plantain and green banana in various proportions according to the taste of those who make them. It is believed that plantain-only pasteles are too hard and that yautia-only pasteles would be too soft.

Be sure to watch the green banana peeling video before you begin making the masa. Green banana sap permanently stains everything it touches. A potato peeler works great with yautia, and you will need a large sharp knife to peel the yuca. Cut everything in small pieces for the food processor. If no processor, recruit a friend as grater. Note that some people are very allergic to yautía and should wear gloves.

From the Taino Indians, according to the same professor, we inherited the use of yuca, and annatto, both native ingredients. Achiote in particular, was used as both a coloring and flavoring element. In pasteles, it is used to flavor the meat and the masa, and in the oil placed on the banana leaf to keep the masa from sticking. This use can be seen through the Caribbean and Central America. Today, annatto seed is used to naturally color many foods. Cheddar cheese is one example.

Use a can of diluted condensed milk to facilitate the food processor's job. You can also use broth if you've cooked the meat ahead of time. Add some of the achiote oil to the masa and mix it all together.

From the Spaniards we got the relleno tradition of making small dumpling-like dishes. For the mostly-christian Spanish immigrants navidad was a special ocassion. The labor-intensive dishes were saved for this time of the year. They brought with them their experience working with pork and their knowledge of olives, capers and peppers as seasonings. This is the research of Dr. Ortiz Cuadra of the University of Puerto Rico.

If you're using a cheaper cut, cut out the pork tendons and fat. Sauteé the pork pieces in a bit of annatto oil with the onion, oregano and cumin. Stir. After ten minutes, add the tomato sauce, garbanzos, and olives. The flavors have to be intense for a savory filling.

How to buy pasteles? The going rate is two dollars each. Buy them from somebody who does it as a business. The Latino market is a good place to ask. If you're desperate, don't offer money to a Puerto Rican co-worker or friend to "make you some like the ones we had at your house last year." It is not a money issue. Your friend is probably tired of such offers since many people want to eat pasteles but few are willing to do the work. Offering to pitch in to do the actual shopping or wrapping might be the ticket, along with sharing the cost.

Buy the pre-cut paper where you buy the banana leaves. Lay the paper flat the night before. Cut the hard edge of each banana leaf. Some people like to run them through an open flame to make them more pliable. This facilitates wrapping later.

There are unspoken cultural rules about their distribution. The matriarch (or whomever purchased the ingredients) decides how many each family member gets to take home. Groups of friends operate differently. They pool their ingredient money or offer their large kitchen or "sweat equity" in exchange for a certain number of pasteles. Because of the labor involved in making pasteles, it is impolite for acquaintances or guests to ask for any to take home. Try complimenting the cook in private and mentioning how much you loved them or miss them. They'll get the hint. If you are not offered any it might be because all the ones in the fridge are already committed. Or more likely, the host is planning to give you some, but not in front of those who won't get any. When and if you are offered some, do not refuse, even if you're a vegetarian.

Store in a freezer until ready to cook. If frozen and placed in a pressure cooker, they take an hour. If fresh and unfrozen, they take 15 minutes.

The ketchup controversy. First of all, it's not a Neoyorican thing. People in the island do it too, and they swear pasteles taste better that way!

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Rebeca Garcia-González

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