For this month’s #LetsLunch, a virtual potluck on Twitter, the theme is a festive side dish from one’s family or culture in honor of the holidays. This one comes from Trinidad, whose culture I married into. The dish I have chosen comes from my husband’s Great Aunt Victoria, who is known to everyone as Auntie Doll.
Auntie Doll is a striking presence in her vibrant, flowing caftans (pretty groovy). She is a gentle soul whose Trinidadian Indian and Creole cooking are legendary. My husband lived weekdays with her and his great uncle Randolph for several years during elementary school, because his own parents lived too far away from the school. Auntie Doll and Uncle Randolph were unable to have children of their own, and were therefore able to pour all of their love and attention into nurturing my lucky husband. When we were last able to bring Auntie Doll over for the long journey to visit us, after Uncle passed away, I was regaled with stories from my husband’s childhood.
I enjoyed hearing the dirt (which was disappointingly sparse), but I secretly hoped she would also share some of her cooking pearls with me. I needed to learn some basic techniques of Caribbean cooking (what is “browning” anyway? what is “green seasoning?”), plus there were a few recipes I was desperate to learn: pelau, pastelles, sorrel, and her version of curries. Lucky me, she read my mind, and shared a few secrets. ”Browning,” when used as a term in Caribbean cooking, is an almost black caramelized sugar used to add color and flavor to meat. It is made by heating brown sugar in a hot pan until smoking and liquefied, just a millimeter short of burned. This can be thinned with water and the resulting smoky, smoky caramel flavored-liquid stored in a bottle for the next time. “Green seasoning” is a mixture of various chopped green herbs, including culantro and cilantro, green onions, as well as garlic and lime juice. It’s an excellent marinade for meat and fish.
The recipe I convinced Auntie Doll to share with me was for pastelles. These are the Caribbean equivalent of tamales, filled with a slightly sweet mince studded with raisins, and are normally wrapped in banana leaf packets. There is a similar dish in Puerto Rico named pasteles. Pastelles are a tasty treat served on special occasions, traditionally during Christmas celebrations. Auntie Doll was enthusiastic about passing this recipe down to me, but as with most mother’s recipes, at least in my experience, she left something out. In this case, the omission was intentional: Auntie Doll didn’t want me to go through the trouble of wrapping the filling in banana leaves, so she invented a casserole version, “baked pastelles,” perfect for me, her American daughter-in-law. If true pastelles are like tamales, these baked pastelles are like tamale pie, or even Shepherd’s Pie. The original recipe has no measurements, like many recipes of excellent home cooks. Auntie Doll was kind enough to create a written recipe for me, including measurements, so I could approximate her version.
I think she did a great job with this recipe- -it tastes almost as good as the real thing (I think she still left something out), but easier to make for a crowd. Connoisseurs of true pastelles might not be satisfied, but should keep an open mind and take a bite– this is pure comfort food, Caribbean-style. Happy holidays!
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Trinidadian Baked Pastelles
By Auntie Doll
1 lb ground beef (may also substitute lamb or turkey), seasoned with salt, pepper, chili sauce (ideally habanero), worcestershire sauce or tamarind sauce, and green seasoning if you’ve got it, all to taste
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk
1 1/2 cup corn meal (masa– what’s used for tamales– not standard corn meal)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1/2 pound of margarine (not butter, if you want to be authentic. This sounds like a lot, and it is, but it is needed to moisten and bind the cornmeal)
2 eggs, beaten into the evaporated milk
1 can of cream style corn
2 Tbs each of raisins, capers, olives, sweet bell pepper, and celery, adjust to taste
1. Melt margarine in a pot, then add seasoned ground beef. Stir until cooked well.
2. Add corn meal slowly and stir constantly, so it doesn’t clump.
3. Add in onions, raisins, capers, olives, sweet pepper and celery, and continue to stir and fry.
4. Once onions are slightly translucent, pour in the creamed corn and combine.
5. Remove pot from stove.
6. Blend in the egg/milk mixture.
7. Transfer contents of pot into a greased casserole dish.
8. Bake in a 350 oven for 30 to 35 minutes until golden. Test for doneness with a knife, which should come out clean.
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