Puerto Rican Pasteles

I love how the Christmas season in Puerto Rico is celebrated with such zeal and enthusiasm. The warm weather and clear skies make it perfect for outdoor gatherings, where one can relish the delicious earthy tamales called pasteles and adobo-flavored pork under the shade of a gourd tree while admiring the sea view.

It’s fascinating how Puerto Rican families come together to prepare pasteles by the hundred, which they freeze until needed for various occasions such as Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, family reunions, the Fiesta de Reyes, and the religious season called octaves that follow the Feast of the Epiphany.

What makes these earthy tamales so unique is the blend of the tiny pepper ají dulce and broad-leaf culantro in the fragrant sofrito (cooking sauce). The sofrito has a distinctly Puerto Rican flavor, and a dash of vinegar gives it just the right amount of tang against the mild dough of malanga and plantain, which is tinted orange-yellow with achiote-infused lard.

I was fortunate enough to learn how to make these tamales in the traditional kitchen of the Puerto Rican side of my family. It was a team effort, with one person trimming the plantain leaves, others grating the vegetables, and making the sofrito. Although the vegetables are ground by hand in Puerto Rico, I found machines designed to simplify the process. Puerto Ricans are very particular about the wrapping, which has to be perfect and watertight since pasteles are usually boiled. But I prefer to steam them instead.


Makes 25 pasteles

For the Seasoning Base (Recado)

6 large tomatoes (about 3 pounds), coarsely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper (about 6 ounces), cored, seeded, deveined, and coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion (about 8 ounces), coarsely chopped
8 garlic cloves, peeled
20 Caribbean sweet peppers (ajíes dulces), seeded and cut in half
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
2 broad-leaf culantro leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon dried oregano

For the Cooking Sauce (Sofrito)

1/4 cup achiote-infused extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces slab bacon, rind removed, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder or butt, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/4 cup chicken broth

For the Masa

1/3 cup whole milk
1 1/2 pounds malanga, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 pounds green bananas, peeled and thickly sliced
1/2 green plantain, peeled (see Cooks’ notes) and thickly sliced
8 ounces calabaza (West Indian pumpkin) or Hubbard or kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup achiote-infused extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

For the Wrappers

Twenty-five 12-inch plantain leaf squares (4 to 5 packages; see Cooks’ notes for how to prepare)
1/4 cup achiote-infused extra-virgin olive oil
Twenty-five 42-inch pieces of kitchen twine

For the Garnishes

1/3 cup dark raisins
One 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed, or 2 cups cooked chickpeas
2 medium red bell peppers (about 6 ounces), roasted (see Cooks’ notes), peeled, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
50 pimiento-stuffed olives, cut in half
  1. Making the Recado

    Step 1

    Place all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree. Set aside. DO AHEAD: You can make the seasoning base (recado) the day before.

  2. Making the Sofrito

    Step 2

    Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and brown for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the pork and cook, stirring, until it begins to release its fat, about 15 minutes.

    Step 3

    Stir in the recado, reduce the heat to low, and cook, covered, for about 50 minutes, or until the pork is tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. Add some chicken broth if the sauce thickens too much during cooking. When the meat is done, transfer it to a plate with a slotted spoon. Set the sauce aside. DO AHEAD: You can make the sofrito the day before.

  3. Making the Masa

    Step 4

    Working in 2 or 3 batches, puree the milk, malanga, green bananas, green plantain, and calabaza in a blender or food processor and pour into a large bowl. Add the oil and salt and mix well to color the masa evenly. Stir in the reserved sauce. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

  4. Wrapping the Tamales

    Step 5

    Place one plantain leaf square on a work surface with the veins perpendicular to you. Brush generously with achiote oil. Place 3 heaping tablespoons of masa in the center of the leaf and spread into a 6-inch square, leaving a 3-inch margin on all sides. Place 3 tablespoons of the diced pork on top, forming a rectangle. Garnish with 4 raisins, 4 chickpeas, a strip of red pepper, and 4 olive halves. Tie the tamal following the instructions for the pastel wrap (see Cooks’ notes). Repeat with the remaining wrappers and ingredients. DO AHEAD: You can prepare the plantain leaves the day before.

  5. Cooking the Tamales

    Step 6

    Using two steamers (or working in batches), steam for about 1 hour (see Cooks’ notes).

Cooks' notes

Most people like them with a little sauce. Ajilimójili is a good choice.

Preparing Plantains
To peel them before cooking, cut off the tips with a small sharp knife. Cut crosswise into 2 or 3 chunks. Make 2 or 3 lengthwise incisions in each, following the ridges that run down the fruit. Trying to bruise the flesh as little as possible, pull the skin away from the flesh with a table knife, then work it free with your fingertips. Trim off any underskin.

Plantain Leaf Wrappers
To prepare, defrost them in the refrigerator overnight or in warm water for about 20 minutes. Wipe both sides clean with a damp cloth and pat dry with paper towels. Working on a cutting board, use a ruler and knife to measure and cut the leaves into squares.
Singe the squares by running each side over a gas flame or an electric burner set on high for a few seconds. You will notice that the leaf immediately becomes supple and its outer side shinier. If any leaves are torn, just overlap a couple of them when wrapping the dough.

Roasting Peppers
Heat a comal or heavy skillet over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Place the whole peppers on the hot surface and roast, turning occasionally with tongs, until they are blackened on all sides. This may take up to 15 minutes for bell peppers. Remove from the heat and place in a paper or plastic bag to “sweat” for a few minutes (this helps loosen the skin).
When they are slightly cooled, peel the charred skin from the roasted flesh. Scrape and pick off the black bits a little at a time; don’t rinse. Core and seed the peppers before proceeding with the recipe.

The Pastel Wrap
Fold down the top edge a little more than halfway, pressing lightly, then unfold. Fold up and press the bottom edge in the same way; unfold. The masa will now completely enclose the filling.
Now fold down the top half again a little more than halfway toward you. Hold it in place while you bring up the bottom edge to make a seam about 1/2 inch from the folded side. Holding the seam closed, fold back the open right and left ends of the packet into flaps slightly overlapping under the seamless side.

Steaming Tamales
To steam tamales, pour water into the steamer pot, place the steamer basket in the pot (above the water), and arrange the tamales in the basket. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and steam the tamales until they are set. The timing depends on the size and composition of the tamales, but most take about 1 hour. Be sure to check the water level in the pot from time to time and replenish with boiling water as necessary.

Scroll to Top