Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dominican Pastelon

For the past several weeks, I have been longing for Dominican foods: frito verde (fried green plantains), mangu (boiled and mashed plantains with fried onions and salami on top), sancocho (vegetable and various meats stew), and after my son asked for it, habichuelas con dulce (a bean drink served at Easter). One of my favorite treats from the 18 months I lived in the DR was pastelon. Some call it Dominican lasagna. I think it's more like shepherd's pie. Either way, it's savory and sweet and oh so good. The saltiness of the meat, coupled with the sweetness of the ripe plantain make for a delightfully flavorful party in the mouth. I dug up a recipe last week and tweaked it for my ingredients. This is roughly what I did.

Dominican Pastelon
6 very ripe plantains
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 cup of butter
1 lb. of ground beef or sausage
2 tbsp. oil
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. salt
1 small red onion diced into small cubes
1 green pepper
1 tsp. crushed garlic
Black ground pepper

1. Mix meat with pepper, onion, a pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper and garlic. In a shallow pan heat a tablespoon of oil. Add the meat and stir, breaking it into small pieces. Cook until completely cooked. Add two tablespoons of water and the tomato paste. Simmer to blend flavors. When the meat is ready to use, cook to evaporate excess liquid.
2. Peel and boil plantains in salted water. When the plantains are very tender, remove from the water and puree with a hand mixer. Add butter and keep mashing until it is very smooth.
3. Put half of the plantains mixture in 9x9 baking pan. Cover with 1/3 of the cheese and add the meat. Add another third of the cheese, cover with the remaining plantain mixture. Cover with the rest of the cheese. Bake at 350 oven until the top is golden brown (approx. 15 minutes).
4. Serve with a few slices of avocados.

Substitution Suggestions: Green plantains will NOT work with this dish unless you want mangu instead of pastelon. I used a few tablespoons of a Latin spice blend (Goya brand) instead of some of the spices. It was a little saltier than I would have liked, but it was still good.  If tomato paste is unavailable, use tomato sauce and reduce the amount of water in the meat mixture. I omitted the green pepper (since I didn't have any on hand).

Lessons Learned: I remember that the trabajadoras who cooked for us in the DR would mash the plantains by hand. If you have electricity, use the hand mixer. (We often didn't have electricity and we definitely didn't have a hand mixer.)
I cut the butter amount down by using some of the water used to boil the plantains. When you mash the plantains and it gets really stiff (and trust me, it will get stiff), add some hot salted plantain water to the mix until it loosens up. For six plantains, I ultimately added almost two cups of water (in addition to almost a half cube of butter). If the calories don't matter to you, stick with butter.

How to pick a ripe plantain: Unlike the green ones, which are very hard to touch and even harder to peel, ripe plantains are yellow with lots of black striations. They are also soft (but not squishy). Don't let the black color fool you -- it is not bad. I'm sure plantains are edible in their raw state, but I don't know anyone who eats them raw. Ripe plantains, like their green counterparts can be fried, but I much prefer the green variety, which are the preferred "French fry" of the Dominican Republic. We would salt them and eat them with ketchup. It was a little piece of fried heaven.

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