Maria Bonawits visited our booth at the Monroe Farmers' Market in Stroudsburg, PA two summers ago as part of our book tour "The Baking Bible." She brought several of my books for me to sign and also to get the newest one. I was enchanted by her exceptionally vibrant and charming essence. Since that day, we have become dear friends. When we did a demonstration and book-signing event at the Buck Hill resort last month, Maria and friends came to see us. Over dinner, we made plans to stop by her house the next morning to see her and her husband, Malcolm. Maria is originally from Puerto Rico so when the subject of pasteles, one of my favorite Puerto Rican specialties came up she offered to teach us how to make it. Maria told us that it normally takes her three days to make but that with three of us working we should be able to accomplish the task in one day. We picked a day for Maria to come to my home and kitchen and she offered to make the pork shoulder filling ahead to speed up the process. This dish is traditionally a seasoned pork shoulder, cubed and mixed with ham, garbanzo beans, onions, garlic, peppers cilantro, olives, capers, and raisins which are encased in a dough made of taro root, green bananas (and plantain, and in her version also potato and pumpkin), which is then wrapped in banana leaves and finally in parchment paper which is tied with string as individual servings. The packets are then placed in a pot of boiling water to cook for 45 minutes. It could be considered as a relative of the tamale--a meat filling encased in a masa harina dough, wrapped in a corn husk, and steamed. This version of pasteles is an old family recipe which Maria had been preparing since childhood, when she and her sister helped her aunt make dozens upon dozens of them, using a hand grater instead of a food processor. After Maria arrived and was given a quick tour of the kitchen, she set up two stations for making, assembling, and cooking the pasteles. Maria explained to Woody what to purchase for banana leaves which are readily available under the Goya brand at his local Shoprite. Woody was given the task of boiling, drying, and cutting the banana leaves into individual servings. Maria and I took the task of preparing the dough. With vegetable peelers, knives, food processor, and many stories to share, we made the paste like dough. Maria did a couple of tests on the dough, frying up small spoonfuls in oil before she was convinced it had the balance of flavors she remembered. At first Maria thought the banana was too predominant but when more meat juices were added it turned out to be perfect. She explained that the dough has to be extremely soft because it firms up on boiling.
After a speedy cranberry scone lunch on the porch, it was back downstairs for the assembling phase. The three of us each assembled individual pasteles, perfecting our newly learned technique. A 13 by 9 inch sheet parchment with a rectangular piece of banana leaf was then smeared with an oval of the dough and topped with a heaping spoonful of the filling. The banana leaf and parchment are then folded over lengthwise and then each end folded over to form an encased packet. Two pasteles are then tied together with string. (We took a short break to see a Daisy Martinez video to see how she tied the string.) We next enjoyed a short needed break for the three of us with Elliott to take a tour of the Hope area, as Maria had never been to this part of New Jersey. The final task was boiling enough pasteles to have for dinner. Maria also brought ingredients for a salad of leaf lettuce with slices of avocado, Vidalia onion, and fresh local tomato. On the porch the four of toasted with margaritas for our enjoyable bonding day of making pasteles. The folded open banana leaf served as a surface for the pasteles and salad. The banana leaf lent an intriguing flavor to the filling. Maria commented that for many, pasteles is an acquired taste. Any of her doubts disappeared as Woody and I were splitting a third one. She explained to us that this is a traditional Christmas entree which, due to its lengthy preparation, assembling, and cooking, is frequently made as a family participation event. Since they freeze well for months, we made 24 to enjoy in the future while many families make dozens and share them amongst the many participants. Hopefully, more future "family participation events" will be in the kitchen for us with my dear friend Maria.