As I lie in bed I can hear the soft melody of salsa music coming from the living room. I always strain to hear what song is playing and it’s almost always Marc Anthony or Celia Cruz. A slight smile comes to my face because I can already see what my mom is doing. She is getting a head start for the long day tomorrow. From my bedroom, I can smell the plump, whole chicken and pork awaiting their seasonings. She skins the chicken so all we have to work with is the tender meat. She adds a sofrito to the chicken and pork that consists of diced red, green and Holland peppers, garlic cloves, red and white onions and cilantro.
From cooking with my mom all these years, I learned that cilantro is one of the only herbs whose stem is as rich in flavor as the leaf. It has a rich zesty smell that adds a lot of flavor to all of my mom’s meals. Along with that flavor, my mom loves putting a bit of spice into every meal so she also adds a jalapeño pepper and ajice to the meats. She massages all of these things into the chicken and pork and lets them season over night.
While I lay in bed, my mom has already put the chicken and pork on the stove to simmer and allow all the seasonings to seep into the meat. The aroma from the garlic cloves and cilantro fills the whole house and wakens everyone from their slumber. We all gather around the long wooden table in the middle of the living room to get started. Loads of platanos (bananas) are just waiting to be peeled. We start by taking the peels off and tossing them into the trash. It takes about two hours to get this done, but we don’t have any problems with that.
During those hours, my mom tells us all sorts of stories like how her grandmother taught her how to cook and dance. She gets so caught up in the story that she stops for a few minutes so she can teach us all the dance moves her grandmother taught her. My mom drags either my little brother or me (because we’re always closest) and starts dancing around the table and around the house with us. My sisters always join in, but then insist that we continue peeling. We gather back around the table, laughing and slowly begin the rhythm of peeling again.
My mom also tells us stories about her childhood and all the fun she had with my grandparents. She always talks in a low, calm voice so if feels like we’re reliving her experiences. I remember clearly when she told us about a spice that her grandmother always put into her food called achiote. She told us that Caucasians use to call a similar spice “the poor man’s saffron” because saffron was very expensive (about fifteen threads can cost up to twenty dollars). But the Spanish favored achiote because saffron doesn’t have the nutty flavor that achiote has. Hearing these stories about our great-grandmother brings warmth and love into the food, which my mom says is the reason this dish is so delicious.
After hours of hearing stories and sharing laughs, the process of grinding the platanos into paste is over. The paste is a light yellow color and smells very sweet. We add calabaza, Spanish pumpkin, and evaporated milk to the paste. This adds an orangey color and a bit of a citrus smell, which fills the house along with the seasonings from the meats.
As the meats start to become tender on the stove, we lower the flame so they will keep absorbing the seasonings without overcooking. We put a bit of olive oil into a pan and add the achiote seeds on a medium-high flame. Once we see that the oil is starting to simmer, we lower the flame so the color can come out slowly. If we rush this, the achiote seeds will release a green oil that has a nasty bitter taste. If it’s done right, they will release a sunset red color and has the sweetest nutty taste you can imagine. Once we achieve this color we drain the seeds and we’re left with the beautiful oil.
Now here’s the fun part. We clear all of the ingredients from the table and replace them with wax paper, olives, raisins, yucca, banana leaves, and the platanos paste. My mom and I place the wax paper on the table and place a banana leaf in the middle. The smell is incredible. The oils from the leaf release an herbal kind of smell that leaves you wanting to inhale it all day. We put a spoonful of the achiote oil on top of the banana leaf to give the platanos paste more flavor and a lot more color. We smear the platanos paste on top of the banana leaf and flatten it down so all sides are evenly coated. We add chicken, pork or even vegetables in the center of it depending on what everyone prefers. My little brother loves putting the golden raisins into the paste and into his mouth, so we usually end up without raisins toward the end.
We fold the wax paper in half and smooth the paste evenly into the middle so we get a rectangle shape. We fold the sides and wrap it up with a string. We do this until all of the paste, chicken, pork, and vegetables are gone. The best part of all of this is that after a full day of working, we get to eat it. Once we make the pasteles we only have to boil them in water for about half an hour until they’re ready to eat.
Once we dig our forks into the pasteles, our mouths start to water from all the different flavors that are filling our taste-buds. Personally, I love adding ketchup to the pasteles and my mom loves adding tons of hot sauce. My sisters like eating them plain, to savor the taste. There’s no better way to begin the holidays than having the family work hand-in-hand to make these delicious pasteles.
-Jennifer Soto, New York, NY