Dining out was a rare treat for us, and usually required us to dress up. We hardly ever had fast food or take-out, so when I think of my favorite meal as a child, I have a plethora of choices. So of course, it’s not something my mom made at home. It’s what my grandmother made.

Even though my family is Puerto Rican and my mom lived on the island as a child, she never made Puerto Rican food. It was all casseroles and pastas, not rice and beans and meat. Going to my grandmother’s house was a treat away from the normal routine of things, and I loved her food! I still go over there on a regular basis just to eat dinner. Of all the foods she made, my favorite was pasteles. My friends would call them Puerto Rican tamales, but to me they aren’t anything alike.

Honestly, I think tamales are bland and mostly maza. On the other hand, pasteles are moist and spicy and full of flavor. I would always challenge myself to see how many I could eat before having to take a bite of rice to cool down my mouth. (I would have challenged my sisters, but both of them were wimps and couldn’t handle the spiciness.) I think my record was three, and for a skinny ten year old that’s not bad. It’s more than I eat now that I’m grown. Rice neutralizes spicy food so pasteles are almost always made with rice as a side. Usually we would have white rice because it was easier and quicker to make than arroz con gandules.

I don’t know if everyone does this, but my grandma usually makes a huge batch of pasteles and freezes them. Then for the rest of the month you can just pull them out of the freezer and boil them and it makes a really easy meal. Every time I go visit, she sends me home with some and I’m tempted to challenge my husband to an eating contest! I still think I’d win.