Latin Cooking

In Defense of In The Heights

A skit in the second episode of the brilliant second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show depicts a market research focus group with Black women for a fictious real housewives type series called Black Women Doing Stuff that hilariously doesn’t go very well. Even before the market researcher starts playing the pilot episode, one of the participants invokes Twitter and notes that she would have, “sent my 67 Tweet thread.” The market researcher starts to play Black Women Doing Stuff and the first thing we see is a leg getting out of car wearing a red high heel. Within two to three seconds, the video is paused on the leg: “I have notes!” And WOW, do they have notes:

“A show about Black women and the first thing you show us is a disembodied leg?”  

“Why not have her drive a black Jaguar?”

“Don’t link Black women with cats! We are not catty!”

“And where is Miss Leg even from? Are classy people from the diaspora excluded from this experience?”

“If she is not a descendent of enslaved people, I don’t why I am here.”

“A little light to be dark skin and a little dark to be light skin.”

You get the picture. The researcher never gets beyond the leg getting out of the car. I could not help but remember this skit when I saw some of the unreasonable backlash to In The Heights.

Perhaps the most preposterous assertion came from The Washington Post which declared in a headline that “‘In the Heights’ is just more of the same whitewashed Hollywood.” The article asserts, “With its White and light-skinned leading roles, the film became part of a long tradition in the Americas of Black erasure.” Really? We must not have seen the same film. I did not see one white actor playing the part of a Latino/a/x individual. Corey Hawkins certainly isn’t light skinned and no one in the United States would ever confuse Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz, Anthony Ramos, or Daphne Rubin-Vega for white. Most Latino/a/x people are of mixed races. My own DNA shows that I come from people who were Portuguese, Spaniard, Native American, African and several other peoples. In my own extended Puerto Rican family, there is a range of skin tones and hair colors and textures. Better examples of whitewashing would be Natalie Wood playing Maria in West Side Story; Marisa Tomei playing Dorita Evita Pérez in The Perez Family; Kyra Sedgwick playing Suzie Morales in Man on a Ledge. Whitewashing is a film like Birth of the Dragon, which was supposed to be about Bruce Lee but is largely told from the point of view a fictitious white character. Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, noted, “The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material.”

Proper representation is best achieved when the people being portrayed have a voice. Isn’t that exactly what In The Heights is doing? Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Nuyorican (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) from the neighborhood (I grew up a few blocks away from him) who, through this musical, is exploring issues that affect all Latino/a/x Americans, of all colors, in various ways including gentrification, immigration, identity, discrimination, and profiling. The character of Nina, for example, was accused of stealing pearls from her dorm mate at Stanford and her belongings searched: the way the story is told leads one to realize this may not have happened if she looked more like Cameron Diaz. The film even features a brief, but effective, exploration of Latina/x women’s history. Miranda and Chu also manage to prominently highlight authentic Latino/a/x cuisine without one Goya product in sight! Including Goya would have been whitewashing.

During the 2019 Museum Mile Festival, a group of protesters distributed flyers at El Museo Del Barrio called the Mirror Manifesto that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto explored the meaning of Latinx:

If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.” Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post- Maria, that have and will grow up here.

In The Heights is not exclusively an exploration of Washington Heights; it is a partial representation of the diasporic Latinidad in the 21st century described above. Miranda and Chu did an exceptional job representing the colors of the Latino/a/x rainbow. Often many of those colors are not represented, except as criminals and maids. You know where the representation is really lacking? American Spanish language television.

James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” Miranda gave us a story of a hopeful and positive diasporic Latinidad that deftly responded to the bigoted Trump era still lingering. It’s not Scarface or Carlito’s Way. Artists with Miranda and Chu’s scope and vision should be revered, not reviled—they are the ones carving paths. Anyone saying otherwise is just a limited focus group participant.

Si Es Goya Tiene Que Ser…Alternatives!

Today is July 10, 2020. The coronavirus continues to rage on in the United States while Republicans continue to politicize wearing a mask. Today, The New York Times noted that the United States was the biggest source of new coronavirus infections, reporting more than 59,880 cases as it set a single-day record for the sixth time in 10 days. Make no mistake and spin it all you want, this is because of Trump failed to coordinate a national effort.  

The New York Times published another story today on how ICE helped spread the coronavirus:

“Even as lockdowns and other measures have been taken around the world to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, ICE has continued to detain people, move them from state to state and deport them.”

Speaking of ICE, the United States is STILL caging the children of individuals seeking asylum—many of whom are from Latin America.


Yesterday, Bob Unanue, the president of Goya Foods, was at the White House to announce that the company would donate one million cans of chickpeas as well as one million pounds of food to food banks in the United States as part of the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, an executive order created to “improve access to educational and economic opportunities.” Really? What happened to sufficient aid from the federal government for Puerto Rico after a series of natural disasters? Notably, the founder of Goya, Prudencio Unanue Ortiz, a Spaniard, got his start in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico before he moved to New York City.

During this event, Unanue bizarrely said the United States was “blessed” to have Trump as its leader.

While I truly applaud the company’s humanitarian efforts, I have to wonder if Unanue has been living under a rock these last three years? Trump is enormously unpopular among Latinx Americans: according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, Latinx Americans favor Biden over Trump by a 36 percentage-point margin. The timing of the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative is curious.

The following day, Unanue went on to Fox “news” to say he wasn’t going to apologize.  He claimed a double standard in the reaction to his remarks about Trump, noting that he accepted an invitation from Michelle Obama in 2012 to an event that promoted the former first lady’s healthy-eating initiative. Unlike the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, the healthy-eating initiative had been in full swing by 2012 and President Obama was not trying foster divisiveness. In short, Unanue was simply acting as a cog in Trump’s publicity machine.

Predictably, conservatives belly-ached about freedom of expression. Unanue indeed has the right to express himself, but I also have the right to no longer buy Goya products (in spite of the fact that they employ many Puerto Ricans) and express it. Maybe the company needs a change of leadership, much like the United States does right now. My message to Unanue is to look at what Trump does, not what he says.


Looking into my pantry, it is FILLED with Goya products and I have to plan on how I am going replenish them once I have consumed them (and to anyone thinking about throwing out Goya products, don’t be foolish—eat it or donate it). I would like to present you with some possible alternatives.

  • Sofrito and Recaito: Iberia makes a product similar to Goya.
  • Abodo: Iberia makes a similar product  as well as Simply Organic. I have tried the latter and it is more expensive, but it is organic and the taste is on par with Goya.
  • Sazon: I have not tried these, but it seems that Iberia also produces this (with achiote).
  • Tomato paste and sauce: Again, we have Iberia as well as an assortment of other companies. I have tried the organic brand, Muir Glen, and it is very good, but more expensive.
  • Beans: Again, Iberia, like Goya, offers canned and dry varieties. I have tried the canned beans by Eden Foods and they are quite good (expensive, but organic). In a pinch, I once used Bush’s kidney beans and they were quite good.
  • Rice: If you can find Vitarroz (I feel their presence in stores has diminished in the last few years, and the company doesn’t appear to have a website); I actually prefer to use sushi rice (which is a lot like Valencia rice) when I make the classic rice and beans and having been using the one produced by RiceSelect for several years now.
  • Empanada dough: This was a tough one because I have been using the Goya discs for a very long time. Then I remembered that my Mother used La Fe.
  • Frozen banana leaves: These are often used for pasteles, but Asian markets also sell them.
  • Frozen yuca: Since I discovered Goya packaged these, I started using them for my pasteles as they save a ton of time. Thankfully, La Fe packages them as well.

I feel like Unanue is having his ‘shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing voters’ moment—I can shoot my mouth off and praise Trump and I won’t lose customers. Words matter and let’s show Unanue how much they do.

#BoycottGoya #goyAWAY #BoycottGoyaFoods

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 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
  • Adobo with pepper to taste
  • Half a jar of Manzanilla Olives stuffed with minced pimientos
  • 4 tablespoons of Achiote
  • 2 packets of 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 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,  frozen yuca is available—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. Use 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.”