Few words cause Hispanic people as much consternation as the word pastel, plural pasteles. Nominally translating to “cake,” this word can apply to anything from sweet flaky filled pastries (very popular in Miami) to ordinary American-style cakes to today’s entry, a meat-filled savory mash wrapped in banana leaves and boiled.
If you’re wondering how the word for “cake” could apply to all those things that have nothing except the vague concept of starch in common, you’re not alone. Essentially any use of this word between people from different Latin American ancestries requires clarification, lest someone expect this recipe and receive a cake. Sometimes the same person uses pastel in multiple ways, alternatives forgotten, and only a heaping dose of adjectives can rescue any sense of comprehension. Is it the American pastel, the Cuban pastel, the Puerto Rican pastel? You turn to your loved ones for assistance and steam issues from their banana-leaf clothing; they too are pastel.
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Some memories demand to be remade.
One of the few culinary memories I have been completely unable to experience outside of a home kitchen is alcapurrias. This classic Puerto Rican fritter features prominently in my childhood as an occasional treat, especially around holidays, and made for exciting lunches because of their rarity. On occasion, the whole family would get together to make an especially large batch, a rustic experience wonderfully out of place in our big-city home. Posted recipes posit that the alcapurria is a variety of croquette and usually recommend the familiar croquette log or cigar shape, but the ones I knew were round, more like hand-pies or empanadas in size and presentation. Once I left Miami, those memories became more and more distant, and more and more treasured. As a matter of my Puerto Rican pride, I needed to take control of those memories and make them more firmly mine, and that meant learning how to make alcapurrias. And today, I succeeded.
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A quick survey of the dishes I’ve presented so far might present the impression that Puerto Rico’s and Cuba’s primary proteins are sausage, beans, and beef. Beef certainly has a prominent place in Cuban cuisine, but in Puerto Rico, the place of honor goes to the pig. (And we haven’t even started exploring the chicken possibilities that these gastronomies offer.) Like everything else about Puerto Rican cooking, the pig became the fixture it is today because pigs are easier to raise in Puerto Rico’s difficult terrain than cattle, and less expensive for an island with a long history of poverty and neglect from is colonial masters. I’ve neglected my way into a nostalgic fixation with the pork dishes of my youth, so, here are chuletas a la jardinera, or, “garden pork chops.”
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This recipe is as much a requiem as a celebration.
Frijoles negros, black beans, are at the center of the Antillean Hispanic culinary constellation. Any group meal will have them, any celebration platter will center them, and any rotation of different dishes will find them eventually. One does not experience the food of Puerto Rico, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic without dining on black beans and rice. I made this meal the center of numerous efforts to impress non-Hispanic paramours, and I kept it in my repertoire because of how constant, and powerful, its memories are.
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The papa rellena, or “filled potato,” is some of Latin America’s finest party food. A papa rellena is mashed potato made into a meat-filled dumpling/fritter, breaded, and deep-fried. They emerge from the fryer looking like small loaves of golden-brown joy, and provide a deeply engaging combination of textures when bitten. I’m a big fan, and I challenged myself recently with learning how to make them, as part of a foray into more technically challenging Hispanic recipes.
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You’re attending a quinceañera. You’ve never seen the birthday girl before. Everyone else in attendance knows you, but if you ask them how, they change the subject. The caterers kiss you on the cheek and ask you when you’ll give them grandkids. You’ve never seen them before, either.
Continue reading “Cuba-Rican Gothic”
I had a very special experience last night. I cooked for Ania’s parents for the first time, as part of her father’s birthday festivities. I made a point not to cook something elaborate and time-consuming, though, as one might expect of a holiday meal. Instead, I went with something simple that shows off Puerto Rican cooking techniques that is also very special to me: arroz con salchichas. I look forward to arroz con salchichas every time a visit to Miami is in the offing, and after long, tense absence, I missed it profoundly. As tensions with my parents continue to rise and fall like so many narcissist tides, bringing this dish to a family that accepts me with enthusiasm is an emotional coup. As I come to recognize my belated mastery of this dish, that I had tried to learn how to make intermittently since I moved to Ottawa, I am ebullient.
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Images of people in my culture don’t look like me.
There’s a trivial sense in which that’s not true. My dark, angled eyes, curly hair, curvaceous figure, and diminutive stature all betray my origins. Our beauty queens and pop stars in particular look like me, conspicuously lighter in hue than even our own relatives. As distinctive as I always am in family photos, someone else who looked like me would not have seemed out of place.
But the image of us isn’t a scientist. She isn’t an atheist or a socialist. She isn’t dating outside her race. She isn’t deliberately far away from her parents. She isn’t autistic. She isn’t transgender. She isn’t gay.
Continue reading “My Place in the Palms”