A taste of Hawaii in Italy. It’s always around this time of year when the nostalgia for comfort food kicks in with great appetite. In particular, this flavorful stew of pork and grated bananas which I’m beginning to think is something found only in the Aloha State. Search results are sadly lacking on the how-to’s of this island favorite, so I thought why not share the love? Patele (or pastele) is a savory filling of cooked pork wrapped in masa — a mixture of grated green bananas flavored with achiote oil — which is then bundled in ti or banana leaves and boiled until done. Patele stew is a different take on that dish; a thick, textured, delectable mass that I could endlessly elaborate on how delicious it is. Introduced by immigrants from Puerto Rico, no wonder cooks hesitate to share their family secrets online. Hawaii folks go nuts over wrapped patele, but since the process of making them requires time and effort, they’re not an item that everyone chooses to prepare at home. A lot easier to buy, and those in-the-know find the tasty bundles in small local eateries, on the menu of lunchwagons, and on tables, naturally, of puerto rican relatives.
Every family will have their own method to preparing patele stew, and usually it’s quite a lot! The good thing about this stew is that it can be portioned and frozen for future meals. To serve, simply thaw and heat, thinning with water if necessary. Serves 8-10.
Patele Stew Recipe
This is a true work of love, as several steps go into the making. To simplify the process, prep the achiote oil and masa ahead of time. The oil keeps well in a cool place, and the masa can be frozen for several weeks.
2 pounds boneless pork butt, cubed about 3/4 inch (don’t trim too much of the fat if any)
6 tablespoons achiote oil (recipe below)
1 large onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ tablespoons salt
2 bay leaves
1 cup chopped cilantro (I use the stems too)
½ cup tomato sauce
1 (15oz.) can pitted olives
10 cups water
1½ pounds masa (recipe below)
ground black pepper
extra freshly chopped cilantro for garnish
In a very large pot or dutch oven, heat the 6 tablespoons of achiote oil over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, cumin, salt, bay leaves, cilantro and pork. Stir and cook for about 10 minutes, until onions have softened but not browned.
Next add the tomato sauce, olives and their liquid, and 4 cups of the water. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Now add the masa and the rest of the water (6 cups). Taste and adjust for salt. Cover and continue to simmer for 1 hour, stirring and checking from time to time to avoid scorching. The stew should thicken nicely, but if it looks to be too thick, add more water to thin. Season with freshly ground pepper. Serve over steaming white rice and garnish with chopped cilantro if desired.
For the achiote oil:
2 oz. packet *achiote seeds (1/3 cup)
1 1/3 cup olive oil
Heat the achiote seeds and olive oil over medium heat for about 5 minutes until the oil has taken on the reddish color of the seeds. Cool and store in a tightly sealed jar.
For the masa:
4 – 5 large green bananas or plantains
½ cup achiote oil (see above)
salt to taste
Peel bananas and place in lightly salted water. I find that halving them lengthwise and using gloves makes the job easier (green bananas leave a sticky sap). Grate on smallest opening of a food processor or cheese grater. In a bowl, combine grated bananas and achiote oil thoroughly, seasoning lightly with salt. Store in a heavy ziploc bag in the refrigerator, and use within 1-2 days, or freeze until needed.
Note: The trick to making good masa are green bananas (and I mean very firm, unripe green) and a grater that will allow you to achieve the proper texture. I do not suggest using the cutting blade of a food processor or blender; it will produce too coarse of a result (or too gritty if overdone). The smallest hole of a kitchen grater should do. My brother-in-law shared a nostalgic story of how his grandma used a tin plate that had been punctured with holes made from a nail. Necessity is always the mother of invention, no?