Green Cooking

By Nora Lopez

After a full day of work at EPA, I like to relax by experimenting with recipes and cooking all my favorite dishes.  One of my favorite dishes is from Puerto Rico and is called pasteles.  Once you mention this magical word to any person from Puerto Rico, you will see their face change. They open up, smile (more so than usual) and maybe start telling you who makes the best pastels.

Pasteles are made of the most natural ingredients ever. And they are wrapped in the most natural green wrapper that you have – plantain leaf.   Some people think a pastel is a tamal from Mexico, but I can tell you it isn’t. Tamales are made with corn flour which you buy in a store and then make a masa or dough and you then stuff with cheese, chicken, hot peppers and then you wrap in a corn husk or plantain leaf.

Pasteles go a little further than tamales on the greening; they are made with potatoes, green bananas, yautia (a tuber), pumpkin, and plantain, all of which you manually peel and grind (you can then compost all the remains). Some people make them out of yuca (cassava) which was what taino indians used to make bread with.  It is all natural healthy ingredients with lots of fiber!  Once you have all the ingredients peeled you need to grind them, and people fight over which way it should be done (manually grinding for the best texture or food processor for those who want to save time) This is called the masa and it has to have the right coloring, so we use another natural ingredient called achiote.  This red seed grows in a small tree, inside the fruit that is spiny. The achiote is simmered in olive oil and that is what is used to color the masa.

A stew is made with meat (pork or chicken) with the lots of natural herbs like recao, oregano, onions, garlic and many other ingredients.  Once this is made you are ready to make the pastel. Usually people gather in the kitchen and form an assembly line.  You take your plantain leaf (which has been cut to an appropriate size), you add some of the achiote and then the masa and meat.  This is folded, tied and boiled for one hour.  And then, voila!  You have your pasteles.  And after eating them you can even compost the plantain leaf.

About the Author: Nora works out of EPA’s Edison, New Jersey facility, where she manages the Region’s Toxics Release Inventory Program.  After work she can often be found channeling her inner chef.