Yulemas is over and my vacation is almost over, I return to work on Thursday. It’s been a wonderful break. One of the highlights of the holiday season for me was making a big Christmas eve feast centered on the bounty from my own garden. First up was yuca pasteles. Pasteles are the Puerto Rican version of Mexican tamales but with spiced yuca dough instead of masa. I have never made pasteles before so I found the most detailed recipe and followed it closely.
Pasteles are boiled in banana leaves. You can buy frozen banana leaves in all of the ethnic grocery stores here, but why on earth would anyone buy banana leaves when there are bananas growing all over Gainesville? A friend pointed me to the UF Horticultural Gardens. There are several banana groves there so there were still plenty of green leaves to harvest even though the recent frost killed off the tops. We only took one leaf from each tree to minimize our damage. This was my first time visiting the gardens, which are basically experimental garden plots for UF horticulture students, and it was like a giant beautiful food jungle. I can’t wait to go back and do some serious exploring.
Next came the yuca. I cut down a cassava plant that morning and dug up the roots, but when I weighed it, it wasn’t quite enough, so I cut down a second plant. These two plants had about 6 1/2 pounds of roots, plenty to make the pasteles. The boys and I scrubbed, peeled, shredded, and then pureed the cassava roots. I don’t own a food processor but I borrowed one specifically for this project… I was afraid my kids would rebel entirely if we had to do this by hand. Cassava is less labor-intensive to prepare than grains but let’s just say that we all appreciated electricity a bit more by the end of the day. We left the ground cassava to drain.
While the boys and I dealt with the pile of cassava roots, my daughter was industriously chopping vegetables for the sofrito. Sofrito is a regional mirepoix- a minced vegetable and herb favor base. I don’t know why I don’t use sofrito more often! We made a huge bowl of sofrito including sweet green, red and yellow peppers, garlic, green onions, culantro, hot peppers, and salt. The culantro and Caribbean thyme were supposed to come from my garden but the early frost wiped them out. The hot chiles were all mine.
Then we made the red achiote oil and mixed up the yuca “dough” with the sofrito, ground cassava, and achiote oil. The color came out such a brilliant yellow. The husband cut a big pork shoulder into small pieces and cooked it down with some of the sofrito, mexican oregano, and achiote oil. While my husband and I worked on these steps, the kids cut the huge banana leaves into pieces, started a fire in the fire pit out back, and wilted the banana leaves over the fire with long tongs.
Finally it was time to assemble the pasteles! You can read an excellent description of the steps by the Noshery here. The husband and I made the first dozen, and then my parents arrived and they helped with the next dozen.
The pasteles boil for 45 minutes, so while the pasteles were simmering away in my big canning pot, I made guisados de gandules con coco- Dominican pigeon pea stew with coconut milk- using the pigeon peas I picked and shelled a few days earlier, more of the sofrito, a few extra chiles, and a big sweet potato from the garden. A big pot of plain rice finished out the meal.
We sat down to dinner at 8 pm. Five people worked almost continuously for four hours to make this meal. Four hours not including the time to dig up the cassava and sweet potatoes, harvest the banana leaves, harvest and shell the pigeon peas… however. Making a labor-intensive meal like this together as a family made the food taste even better, and we sat down together feeling quite triumphant. It was truly a feast!