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Sunday, December 23, 2012


Posted by Bryna Bear aka Gluten Free Baking Bear

     I am posting this recipe as a service to those who want to eat traditional Puerto Rican holiday food but are now vegetarian and also to help those who cook for them.
     Pasteles are a root plant paste with a meat filling that is wrapped in plantain leaves or paper, tied and boiled.  They are like Mexican tamales using different root vegetables instead of corn to make the paste. These pasteles are made by substituting tofu (gasp) for meat in a traditional pastel recipe. 
     My family (just including my siblings and me and our children and spouses) is one big American melting pot. We are a mix of Russian/Latvian Jewish, Puerto Rican, Hungarian, German, Thai, Japanese, Swedish and Jamaican cultures and traditions.  We celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, Passover and Easter.  Our holiday meals include foods from all different countries.  We all love to eat.
      As with many interfaith and cultural marriages, ours has evolved over the years and we have formed our own traditions.  At this time of year we celebrate Chanukah with Latkes, rugelach and Menorah lighting.  We also celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees and a typical Puerto Rican holiday dinner of pernil al horno, pastels, arroz con gondules, maduros and flan. 
     Our son has been vegan for over five years now and I have learned to adjust all the family holiday meals to make sure that he is well fed (I assume that feeding our children well– no matter what age – is the desire of all mothers of every culture).
     Making pasteles is time consuming and takes some practice to form and tie them well.  In the old days it was a family project that took hours of peeling and hand grating to form the masa (paste), now a days it is much faster and easier using a food processor.
     My two favorite Puerto Rican cookbooks are Puerto Rican Cuisine in America by Oswald Rivera and Puerto Rican Cookery by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli.  Rivera’s recipes are very down home and Valldejuli’s recipes are more gourmet.  This recipe is based on the pastel recipe from Rivera’s cookbook.


Tofu Filling
3 Tbs.
Olive Oil
1 pkg.
Firm Tofu – cut into bite sized cubes
½ cup
Pimento stuffed Green Spanish Olives
¼ cup
1 8-oz. can
Tomato Sauce – I use Goya Spanish Style
½ cup
Roasted Red Peppers from a jar – chopped
1 16-oz. can
Chick Peas
½ cup
½ cup
Olive Oil
To taste
Sea Salt and Pepper
½ cup
Unsalted Vegetable Bouillon Cube
½ tsp.
Summer Savory (optional – this herb prevents gas from beans and also adds a nice subtle flavor to foods)

Green Banana (guineas)
1 lb.
Yautia – peeled and cut into pieces that will fit into a food processor feeding tube.
1 lb.
Pumpkin (calabasa) – peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
2 large
Potatoes – peeled and cut into large pieces
2 large
Green Plantains
2 cups
Vegetable Oil – I use canola oil
1 cup
Annatto Seeds
1 Tbs.
Plantain leaves or Pastele Papers
Pieces of kitchen twine cut into 3-ft. pieces
½ - 1 cup
Soy  or rice or other non-dairy milk (may or may not be needed depending upon the moistness of the vegetables)

Achiote oil - annatto seeds heated in oil.
     To make the achiote (annatto oil), place the cup of annatto seeds and two cups of oil in a saucepan and heat over a low flame.  Stir until the oil is a uniform red color.  Do not over heat the oil; once it is warm it takes less than five minutes to get the right color.  Remove from the heat and let the achiote cool.  Pour the cooled mixture through a strainer into a bowl or pot.  I find that one 5 ounce container of annatto seeds works fine, even though it is a tad under 1 cup.  A word of caution if you have never worked with annatto seeds before.  This seed is a natural food coloring and it will stain your clothes, wood tables, plastic sink mats, etc.  Be sure to wear an apron and to use care when working with it.  I cover the table with a plastic lined disposable tablecloth to protect the table and make clean up easier.  This whole pastel making process is a bit messy.
     To make the filling, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot.  Sauté cubed pieces of tofu for 1-2 minutes. 
Tofu cut into cubes sauteing in oil.
     Add olives, capers (I don’t like them whole, but I love the taste so I mince them up before adding to the pot.), tomato sauce and chopped roasted peppers. Cook over low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
     Next add the chickpeas, raisins, ½ cup olive oil, summer savory (if using), water and vegetable cube.  Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Turn off the heat and let it cool while you make the paste/masa.
Tofu filling all cooked.
     To make the paste or masa, wash and peel all the plantains, bananas, yautia, potatoes and pumpkin.  Peeling plantains and green bananas turns your hands a bit black, so use gloves if you want your nails to stay clean looking.  I cut off the ends and cut a slit in the skin and then run my fingers along the slit between the banana and the skin in order to peel it. 
     Use the grating wheel of the food processor first to grate all the vegetables into smaller pieces before blending them into a paste with the regular processor blade.  The yautia is especially hard to blend into a paste if you do not make it into smaller pieces first.
All the root vegetables, plantains and bananas grated by the food processor.
     Once the vegetables go through the grating wheel.  Switch the food processor blade to the usual one and then add ¼ of the grated vegetables to the processor bowl.  Process until smooth.  Add a few tablespoons of soymilk to moisten the mixture if it is not getting smooth.  Repeat this process until all the vegetables are ground into a smooth paste. 
The vegetables, bananas and plantains made into a smooth paste in the food processor.
Some soy milk was added to moisten and help make the paste/masa smoother.
     Add the salt and ½ cup of the achiote/annatto oil mixture that has been cooled and strained.  Mix well.
Adding achiote to the paste/masa.
     Gather all you will need on your workspace.  Place your bowl of masa/paste, the pot of tofu filling, the bowl or pot of achiote, plantain leaves or papers and pieces of string on the table.  You will need a tablespoon for the achiote/annatto oil, a large spoon for the filling and one large spoon for the masa/paste.
A bowl of masa (paste), a pot of achiote, a pot of tofu filling, a roll of pastel papers and string cut into 3-foot pieces.
     If using plantain leaves, you must treat them first by wiping them with a damp cloth and then heating them over an open flame on the stove.  Use a moderate flame.  Tongs work well to hold the leaves.  Turn them and heat them, but be sure not to burn the leaves.
     I use pastel papers because in New Jersey I have never seen plantain leaves and I rarely get to Brooklyn where one can actually find some.
     Pastel papers are the same as parchment paper, cut into 12-inch by 18-inch pieces.  The papers are sold by weight in Spanish food markets.
     To assemble the pastel place a leaf or paper on the table.  Spread a tablespoonful of the achiote around the center of the paper.  The oil prevents the cooked pastel from sticking to the paper or leaf, so that you can remove the cooked pastel and eat it.
Spreding achiote onto the center of the pastele paper.
     Spread about 2 tablespoons of masa/paste into a rectangle shape on top of the achiote. 
     Put about 2 tablespoons of the tofu filling on top of the paste.  The goal is to have some of the tofu filling in each bite of the pastel when you eat it.
Achiote spread on the paper with some masa on top spread into a rectangle.
Some tofu filling in top of the paste.
     Fold the paper in half length-wise.
Paper with paste and filling on it folded in half lengthwise.
Edge of the paper folded to make a lip.
     Fold the edge of the paper to make a lip.  And then fold once more.  This double folded lip of paper will keep the contents of the pastel from leaking out when you boil them. 
Paper with fillings folded in half again length wise.
     Push the filling toward the center and fold the paper in half again.
     Fold a double lip on the edge of one of the sides and fold this side over the filling. 
Folding the first side over the pastel.
     Fold a double lip on the edge of the other end of the pastel and push the filling towards the center as you hold the first folded end in place.  Fold the second edge over the first one.  Turn the pastel over to keep the edges in place and form another pastel.
Pushing the filling towards one side while
 lifting the other side to fold over the pastel.
     Place 2 pasteles together with the folded edges facing each other. 
The pastel with both sides of the paper folded over the center.
     Take a string and fold it in half, form a horseshoe shaped middle and spread the string ends apart.  Place the two pasteles on top of the string.
One pastel on top of the other with the folded sides facing each other
on top of the folded string.
     Thread the ends of the string through the horseshoe bend part of the folded string.  Pull the ends to tighten the string around the pasteles.
Pulling string ends through the loop of the folded string.
     Separate the strings and pull in opposite directions towards the sides of the pasteles package. 
String ends beginning to be pulled to each side of the pastele.
     Wrap the strings around to the bottom side of the pasteles.  Flip the package over and tie a knot.
Package flipped over and ready for the knot to be tightly tied.
Pasteles package tied with a knot.
     I make tofu and regular pasteles.  I use two different kinds of string to indicate what type of filling is inside.  The thicker twine is for the tofu ones and the thin string for the pork ones.  I used both strings to indicate a third type of pastel.  One guest this year cannot eat potatoes so I formed some tofu pasteles and tied them with thick and thin strings before adding the potatoes to the rest of the masa/paste and forming the rest of the tofu and pork pasteles.
     Repeat the pastel making process until all the filling and paste are used.  This recipe makes about 24 pasteles.
     I always make them ahead, as this process is way too time consuming and messy to do on Christmas morning.  I place the pasteles in plastic bags and freeze them until I am ready to cook them.
Pasteles in pot after boiling for an hour.
     To cook pasteles, boil water in a large pot.  Add packets of pasteles so that they fit with some extra room and are covered with water.  I can usually fit 4 packets in one large pot.  Boil, uncovered, for 1 hour.
     To serve, cut the string and open the paper.  Turn the pastele out onto a serving platter.  If it sticks a little use a knife-edge to help it off of the paper. 
     Serve with rice and pigeon peas, arroz con gondules.  I make the rice without any meat for vegans.
Pastel with rice and kidney beans.



  1. Thank you for sharing, they look delicious.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I hope you enjoy eating them!

  3. Can't wait to make this for Thanksgiving, haven't had any traditional puerto rican foods for the Holidays since my hubby and daughter became vegeterians. What else do you make to substitute the main course Lechon?

    1. I make different things. Lately I have been making a stewed "chicken" or pollo guisado replacing tofu for the chicken in the recipe. It comes out great. I have also taken a Quorn brand turkey roast (Quorn is a meat substitute that has a very meat-like texture.) and flavor it with the same seasonings that I would use on the pork roast. I let the seasonings marinate overnight and then heat it, slice it and serve it hot. It tastes pretty good, but is not as flavorful as the stewed tofu. If you are gluten free the Quorn is not an option as it is not GF. (My son, who is vegetarian, is not gluten free so this works for me.) I have also made tempeh that I prepare with the same seasonings as pernil al horno (garlic, sofrito, oregano, salt, pepper, oil). Tempeh is a fermented soy product that has a firmer more 'meat-like' texture than tofu. If you have not used tempeh before read up on how to prepare it as it can be bitter if not prepped right. Hope this is helpful.

  4. This is great! I will take some of my abuela's masa and make this filling.

    1. Hope you enjoy the pastels. Let me know how they come out.

  5. Baking brings back those great recollections and keeps my grandmother at the surface of my heart and musings in an exceptionally extraordinary manner.

    1. Yes baking and cooking bring back fond family memories for me also.


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