As seen in New York Harbor. See larger by clicking here.


Eulogy for my Uncle George

I grew up in the Northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood. It was a great place to grow up because it had architecture, interesting topography and a lot of character. What made it even better was that I had two uncles, both colorful characters, living within walking distance. My uncle Roberto lived two and half blocks away, and passed away in 2002, shortly after retiring; and my uncle George, who once lived in Marble Hill and passed away yesterday, one day before tRump — whom he loathed — took office. I learned of his passing while I was at an anti-tRump rally. Of everyone on my Mother’s side of the family, my uncle George was the one I felt most connected with.

My uncle George was a mixed bag of contradictions that somehow existed harmoniously. He was a dreamer and a pragmatist. He detested inanity and had no qualms conveying that, but was still tactful, patient and a first-rate communicator. He was once a driving instructor who taught me, but what I learned from him went beyond operating and navigating an automobile. From him I learned to explain the way things work. And even though he was not college educated, he was still well informed and exceptionally insightful. Most memorable was his amazing wit. I remember once driving him to JFK Airport and sitting in traffic for what seemed like an eternity and he looked at me and said, “They should blow up the whole airport and start over.” It was the way he said it that made it funny — not unlike Bea Arthur as the sarcastic Dorothy in The Golden Girls.

Like me, he loved comic books, fantasy novels, music and film. I remember many conversations with him revolving around these topics. I remember his remarkable record collection from the 1970s, which featured all the great musicians of the time. He once gave my mother the soundtrack to The Way We Were, which she played that year while we decorated our Christmas tree, a favorite childhood memory of mine.

Above all, my uncle George understood me. When my father died in 1994, he stood with me in the back of the funeral parlor and told me a funny story about the time they smoked pot together. He knew I wasn’t about the gloom and doom of death, but the celebration and humor of life. He knew that I needed to laugh at that moment. This is how I will always remember him: as someone who always got it and made the most of it.

The cast of Julieta.

Film Review: Almodóvar’s “Julieta”

Julieta is Pedro Almodóvar’s twentieth film and joins the pantheon of his best works. It was inspired by three short stories from the book by Alice Munro, Runaway, as well as the female-centric films of the 1940’s with hints of Hitchcock as well as Almodóvar’s own earlier works, most notably, his masterpiece, All About My Mother. One might even consider Julieta to be the 21st century All About My Mother.

The film traces three decades of the title character’s life. It starts with a middle-aged Julieta living in Madrid, with her boyfriend Lorenzo, and they are planning to move to Portugal. One day she runs into Bea, former best friend of her daughter Antia, who reveals that Antia, whom Julieta has not seen or spoken with in twelve years, is living in Switzerland and is married with three children. Julieta abruptly cancels the move, breaks up with Lorenzo, and moves to her former building, hoping that Antia someday communicates with her. Julieta, alone with her thoughts, starts to write her memories and her story is told in a series of flashbacks.

One of the most interesting things about Julieta is the double casting: Julieta in her twenties and early thirties is played by Adriana Ugarte, while in middle age is played by Emma Suárez. We witness what heartache and time can do to a person through Emma Suárez. Both actresses did amazing work, but I don’t think they were able to fully realize a powerhouse performance—they shared one. Had either actress solely portrayed the title character, the performance would have likely emerged as comparable to Cecilia Roth’s in All About My Mother. Speaking of performances, I want to note Rossy de Palma’s performance in this film: she amazingly “frumped” it up!

Clothes, wallpaper and furniture continue to play an integral part in Almodóvar’s films. Starting with Live Flesh, architecture has also played a major part in Almodóvar’s storytelling and is most evident in Julieta. The contrasts between urban and rural, wealthy and lower middle class are greatly explored though architecture.

Most notably, the film explored several thought-provoking questions:

  • Are we doomed to make the same mistakes our parents made?
  • Can we break the cycle of mistakes?
  • When is it okay to move on from a relationship that has ended because of a death or illness?
  • Does the physical proximity of family contribute to your mental health in a positive or negative way?

The final moments of Julieta actually address many of these questions in terms of the title character, but you may find yourself asking these of your own life. I think this is what makes the film great: it forces introspection and that is what stays with you.


Yuca Pastel Served with Rice and Gandules.

Vegan Nuyorican Pasteles

You can be a vegan and still enjoy Puerto Rican Pasteles.

January 2017 will mark five years since I became a vegetarian—largely vegan, but the one thing I could not give up was cheese. I love pizza too much! Remarkably, I have been able to still enjoy many of my favorite dishes with meat substitutes (or by completely eliminating meat), including Puerto Rican pasteles, a holiday favorite.

Puerto Rican pasteles are not unlike Mexican tamales except they use yuca or green bananas instead of corn to make the paste / masa. They are usually filled with pork and wrapped in banana leaves or paper, and then tied and boiled. In addition to the pasteles made of paste / masa, there is an alternative way that uses rice, which is a very local recipe from Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. Whenever I ask fellow Puerto Ricans or Nuyoricans (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) if they have ever had rice pasteles, they always say no and have never even heard of them. When I asked my mother about rice pasteles she conveyed that it was only Puerto Ricans from Cabo Rojo who made that variation. Growing up, my mother and grandmother would make all three variations.

Making pasteles is time consuming and also requires a bit of patience and practice to successfully form and tie them into square shapes. Before food processors, it took hours of hand grating to form the paste / masa. Note that the Cabo Rojo rice pasteles are the easiest because they don’t require grating and generally have the easiest prep.

The following recipe makes about 25 pasteles.


My Vegan Nuyorican Pasteles substitute pork with tofu. I strongly recommend that you make these pasteles and freeze them one week prior to the date that you want to eat them. The tofu needs time to absorb the spices. For maximum flavor, make them a month prior. For example, if I am serving them for Christmas dinner, I will actually make them Thanksgiving weekend and store them in my freezer. Trust me, if you are trying to convince the carnivores in your life to eat Vegan Nuyorican Pasteles, you better be certain that the tofu tastes good!


Achiote is the heart of flavor in Puerto Rican pasteles. To create this savory and aromatic flavor:

  • Place one cup of annatto seeds and two cups of olive oil in a saucepan and heat over a low flame.
  • Stir until the oil is a consistent red color (now transformed into achiote!)
  • Do not over heat the oil; once it is warm it takes less than five minutes to achieve the right color. Overcooking will impact the flavor a bit. Remove from the stove and let the achiote cool.
  • Pour the cooled achiote through a strainer into a pot or bowl.

WARNING: Annatto seeds are a natural food coloring and will stain clothes, tables, kitchen counters—actually anything and everything! Prepare accordingly.



  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 package of extra firm organic tofu – cut into bite sized cubes

    Cubed tofu.

    Cubed tofu.

  • 1 16-ounce can of chickpeas
  • 1 12-ounce jar of roasted red peppers – chopped
  • 1 vegetable bouillon cube
  • 1 8-oz. can of Goya Spanish Style tomato sauce
  • 2 potatoes, one red and one Idaho – cut into bite sized cubes
  • ½ cup of water
  • ½ cup of olive oil
  • Goya Adobo with pepper to taste
  • Half a jar of Goya Manzanilla Olives stuffed with minced pimientos
  • 4 tablespoons of Achiote
  • 2 packets of Goya Sazon Seasoning with coriander & annatto

To prepare the filling:

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot or cast iron pot / Dutch oven.
  • Sauté cubed tofu for 1-2 minutes.
  • Add 4 tablespoons of Achiote and stir in with tofu for 3-5 minutes.
  • Add potatoes and sauté for 1-2 minutes
  • Add olives, tomato sauce and chopped roasted peppers. Cook over low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Add 2 packets of Goya Sazon Seasoning and cook over a low heat for about 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the chickpeas, olive oil, water and vegetable bouillon cube. Stir and cook for about 2 minutes
  • Season with adobo to taste.
  • Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.
  • Let it cool while you make the paste/masa. It is okay if you make this one day in advance


Pick whichever one you prefer or make all three!

Green Banana Masa


  • 10 green bananas
  • 2 large Idaho potatoes
  • 5 tablespoons of achiote
  • 1 tablespoon of salt


  • To peel the bananas, cut off the ends and cut a slit in the skin and then run your fingers along the slit between the banana and the skin in order to peel it. Peeling bananas temporarily turns your nails a black, you may want to use gloves.
  • Peel the potatoes and cube into smaller pieces.
  • Cut the bananas into smaller pieces. Keep the peeled bananas submerged in water until you are ready to grate them.
  • Run the banana and potato pieces through the grating setting of your food processor.
  • Remove from food processor, place into a bowl, add the salt and achiote and mix well.


Yuca Masa


Yuca masa waiting to mix with achiote.

Yuca masa waiting to mix with achiote.

Yuca is a root vegetable that is a nightmare to peel. It is tough, kind of dirty and very labor intensive. Thankfully, Goya is now selling frozen yuca that is ready to go—no peeling! I used it and do not taste the difference. Spare yourself the work. Yes, it is more expensive, but worth it.

  • 1 5-pound bag of frozen yuca
  • 5 tablespoons of achiote
  • 1 tablespoon of salt


  • Defrost the yuca if you are using the recommended frozen brand.
  • Cut the yuca into smaller pieces.
  • Run the yuca pieces through the grating setting of your food processor.
  • Remove from food processor, place into a bowl, add the salt achiote and mix well.


Rice Masa, Cabo Rojo Style


Cabo Rojo Rice Pasteles


  • 1 2-pound bag of sushi rice. (I often get a lot of grief for using sushi rice in my Latin kitchen, but the taste is awesome. Trust me on this one.)
  • 3 tablespoons of achiote


  • Place the entire two-pound bag of rice into a pot.
  • Rinse rice with water and be sure to drain the water as best as possible.
  • Add the achiote and mix well. And that’s it!



Banana leaves or pastele paper and kitchen twine are required to form the square shapes of pasteles. You will need 24 banana leaves or 24 pieces of pastele (parchment) paper. I find that using the banana leaves enhance the flavor. Goya sells frozen banana leaves if you can’t find them otherwise.

If you are using fresh or frozen (which must be defrosted first) banana leaves, you must treat them by wiping with a damp cloth and then heating over an open moderate flame on the stove using tongs to hold. Turn them and heat them, but be sure not to burn the leaves.

Pastel papers are cut into 12-inch by 18-inch pieces. The papers are sold by weight in Spanish food markets.

Cut kitchen 24 pieces of kitchen twine into 3-foot pieces.


Gather everything in your work space. Place your bowl of masa, the pot of tofu filling, the achiote, banana leaves or papers and pieces of string on the table. You will need a tablespoon for the achiote, a large spoon for the filling and one large spoon for the masa.

To assemble the pastel:

  1. Place a leaf or paper on the table.

    Spread about 2 tablespoons of masa/paste on top of the achiote. Put a healthy spoonful of the tofu filling on top of the paste.

    Tofu on Masa.

  2. Spread a tablespoonful of the achiote around the center of the paper/leaf.
  3. Spread about 2 tablespoons of masa/paste on top of the achiote.
  4. Put a healthy spoonful of the tofu filling on top of the paste.
  5. Fold the paper in half length-wise
  6. 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.
  7. fold-one


    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.

  8. 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.

    Laying out the string.

    Laying out the string.

  9. 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.
  10. Separate the strings and pull in opposite directions towards the sides of the pasteles package. Wrap the strings around to the bottom side of the pasteles. Flip the package over and tie a knot. Check out this video on how to tie them.

After assembly, put all the pasteles into a plastic bag and then store them in your freezer. See the above “important tip” for freezing suggestions.


To cook the pasteles, boil water in a large pot and be sure to add about four to five tablespoons of salt.

Add pasteles so that they fit with some extra room and are covered with water.

Boil for one hour: the first half hour should be covered pot and the second half hour uncovered pot.

Yuca Pastel in Leaf.

Cooked yuca pastel in leaf.

To serve, cut the string and open the paper. Carefully (they are HOT), turn the pastele out onto a serving platter. If it sticks a little use a knife-edge to help it off of the paper.

When I make the yuca or green banana pasteles, I serve them with a side of rice and gandules; for the rice pasteles, I serve them with a side of maduros or tostones.

I will be posting a recipe for my rice and gandules in a separate blog entry.

I also serve coconut flan for dessert and I will also be writing a separate blog entry for that too.



If you tried this, let me know and comment below. Have questions, send an e-mail to and in the subject line, type “Vegan Nuyorican Pasteles.”