The holiday season is synonymous with copious amounts of food you have not “had in ages”. For example in my family, my mother is famous for her Beer Ham that I have ever-so-keenly taken into arms with my own holiday cooking away from home here in Chicago.
The ham, however, is for another post for another time as it is something to be revered by itself and not fighting for the limelight with this piece of rustic culinary artistry.
I’m talking about the Puerto Rican dish…er… casserole… called Pastelón de Plátano Maduro. Loosely translated, it is a Plantain Lasagne where instead of strands of lasagne pasta between the filling there are layers of fried plantains. It is rustic, it is heavy and quite frankly it makes no apologies.
This sort of balls-deep mentality is the beauty with islander food. I am not by any means a stranger to this sort of culinary palette. Growing up Filipino, food is the centerpiece of the household. It is the building block to family bonding, friendship making… and foe crossing. Islander food is a euphoric experience that some do not understand. There are two sides to this, those who look at islander food as a mess on your plate; tribal food that will likely clog all your arteries by age 50. On other side there are those who look at its rustic charm with all the love and compassion instilled in every piece of starch, every piece of fat and *maybe* a vegetable or two within.
…and that’s exactly what it is. It is soul food. Soul food is definitely not for the diet conscious and believe me, it has definitely busted my diet during the last quarter of 2015.
But, I did not shed one light of care for that.
Bring on the carbs, the fried foods, the meats, the cheeses… the… MSG (*cringe*). It is the complete package. Like all holiday food, it must be done this way. The magic will not be quite as right and the light from everyone’s faces will not spark with every bite without the full-fat and full-flavour pairing.
So where am I getting at? This very casserole brought an outsider such as me into a family that I never knew I could have. I have a roommate, I would not change him for the world, and I have become a part of his family through this very dish.
I believe his exact words were, “If you can make a Pastelón, I will love you forever.”
Pastelón de Plátano Maduro
6-8 Plantains (Bruised, but not too soft… like a ripe Avocado)
3-4 lbs of Ground Meat (This example was pork)
2 packages of frozen Mixed Vegetables (frozen for time and ease)
1 lb of Chihuahua Cheese (or Mozarella)
1 can of Tomato Paste
1 packet of Sazón Seasoning (MSG with Achiote and Cilantro)
1 tbsp dried Parsley (or 1/2 cup fresh)
1 tsp Garlic Powder (or 3-4 cloves of minced Garlic)
1 tbsp Minced Onion (or 1 chopped fresh Onion)
Cumin, Oregano, Salt, Pepper (Start with 1/2 tsp each before building up flavour)
Two baking pans as shown above.
Preheat oven to 400ºF. Begin with preparing your plantains. I was able to cut them into 3-4 layers, first by slicing off the ends, slicing the skin down the length of the plantain to open (like a book), but not completely. Just enough to expose the plantain so you can slice the layers while the skin is still on. This is done so because the plantain is slippery. Once you remove all the skin it will be difficult to handle. Carefully slice your desired layers lengthwise as shown and then remove from the skin completely. Look at the skin as a glove for the plantain. Alternatively you can slice them smaller (like in cereal), however, your frying and casserole assembly may become cumbersome later.
Fry on both sides and set aside on a plate lined with a paper towel to soak up excess oil.
Now it is time for the filling. If you are choosing to use fresh onion and garlic, now would be the time you would minced both and fry in a large pan or wok with oil. If you are using dry spices then skip this step.
Add meat into the oil and cook thoroughly. (Add in garlic and onion at this step). At this point you can throw in your dry spices, Sazón packet, salt and pepper. Start first with 1/2 tsp of each as everyone’s preference is different. Once incorporated, you can add your can tomato paste with about 1-2 cups of water to incorporate. Mix well, you should end up with something that looks like a meaty pasta sauce.
Let simmer slightly covered on a low flame for a good 5 mins to let all the flavours mix. You will start to see the oil separate from the tomato paste when you know it is ready. Now throw in your frozen vegetables and let cook for a few minutes. (It will look like a chemistry experiment for a bit while they defrost in the sauce). Taste and adjust spice, salt and pepper as needed and turn off heat.
Now you’re ready to assemble.
In a bowl beat your eggs until well-scrambled and set aside.
In your casserole dish or baking pan start with a layer of plantain, then a liberal amount of cheese (save some for the top!) and a liberal amount of meat filling. A final layer of plantains and whatever sauce is leftover then pour your egg mixture over the top. Lastly finish with any left over cheese.
Bake until browned (…and crispy?) on top. Start with 15 minutes. All the contents are fully-cooked so you are just wanting the egg and cheese mixture to set.
Cut and serve. Enjoy by itself or take it up a notch with sour cream.