Puerto Rican and African dishes are full of flavor and variety. The plethora of fruits and vegetables available in their subtropical regions makes for a wild time in the kitchen. Pastelón bridges the gap- if there ever was one- between my two cultures in a delicious way. In the traditional dish, slices of very ripe, fried plantains are assembled in alternating layers with flavorful ground beef picadillo and shredded cheese before being doused in eggs, and baked with more cheese. Clearly, even I have to admit that pastelón, which I don’t let anyone talk bad about, isn’t one of the healthier dishes in our recipe box.
What makes this Pastelón “healthier”?
Despite how “not-so-healthy” the original version is, there is something about someone setting a plate in front of you that has a serving of pastelón on it. As a result, I have started preparing mine in a way which makes it healthier without compromising its bold flavors and comfort food status. Instead of using ground beef, I’m browning lean ground turkey, which is lower in sodium, saturated fat, and calories, than the former. Also, in lieu of frying the plantain in oil, I mash them. Lest you think me a pioneer of the cooking banana, this isn’t revolutionary. This dish is commonly made with mashed plantains, although the debate rages as to its proper name. But more on that later.
Seasoning the meat can undo all of the work you’ve put in to making it healthier. Instead of going with a store-bought spice blends, I use my own homemade versions. These I purposely make with less salt, so the sodium content isn’t stupid-high. Additionally, I swap out regular tomato sauce for no-salt added sauce. Finally- as it pertains to the pastelón itself- the cheese I use in this version is a no-fat mozzarella. I forgo the typical accompaniments served with this dish for another healthier option: salad.
All that said, I’m a firm believer that food guilt is bad. For those times when you want a traditional pastelón, I want you to do your thing. Fry those plantains. Brown that ground beef picadillo. SMOTHER IT ALL IN CHEESE. Just do it in moderation.
What’s the difference between Pastelón and Piñon?
Before you limber up your fingers to tell me about myself, I know that the name of this recipe is going to cause a debate. Even my husband and I argue about what it should be called based on its ingredients. Seems like there’s only one definitive distinction between piñon and pastelón: green beans. And that depends on where in PR your family is from. Traditionally, fried plantain slices and green beans equal piñon. Mashed plantains and no green beans equal pastelón. Let my Rio Piedras, PR-bred hubby tell it and green beans and fried plantains equal pastelón. I just say, “Okay, dear,” and keep it moving. Life is too short to argue over a moniker.
If you want to leave a comment about the name and how wrong I am, don’t. It’s not worth the time or stress. Just call it what you will and enjoy the recipe. I promise it won’t matter after the first bite. All things considered, you can totally throw a layer of drained, canned green beans in your dish to cover all of your bases. Even raisins in the picadillo are an option. I mean, not in my house or pastelón, but you can add them to the dish if you’d like to.
What is in Pastelón?
Okay, now that we’ve addressed the controversy that is the name of this dish, let’s go over what you need to make it.
The base of the pastelón is the mashed yellow plantain. Depending on how many people you’re serving, you will need to pick up 2-6 large plantains. We’ll go over what to look for when shopping for the plantains in a little bit.
The final layer in the healthier pastelón is no-fat mozzarella cheese. An egg-baking soda mixture binds the whole casserole together.
What is the difference between a yellow plantain and a banana?
Plantains are more vegetable than fruit- even the sweet ones. Take a bite out of one and you can taste the difference (and the regret). Plantains are starchier than their banana bread cousins. They are a beloved ingredient in many cuisines, but especially those of tropical nations. Plantains are an excellent source of potassium and can replace potatoes as a side dish or ingredient. When it comes to the sweet, yellow plantain, treat it as you would a sweet- albeit a very sweet- potato.
When you shop for the plantains to use in this recipe, look for ones mottled with black spots. This indicates that the plantain is sweet, soft, and easy to mash. Even a small bit of green on the peel leaves you with a plantain that is too starchy and potato-y to add to the pastelón. Instead of achieving a balance of sweet and savory flavors, you end up with a bland, mostly savory dish.
However, also avoid plantains that are too black, they have a cloyingly sweet flavor and that’s no good, either.
How do I prepare the plantains for Pastelón so they’re healthier?
Think of pastelón as a Puerto Rican lasagna.
The plantains are the pasta, the picadillo is the meat sauce, and the cheese is, well, it’s the cheese. The difference between this “pasta base” and the lasagna one, is that this is much easier to prepare. I made this pastelón dozens of times before I was happy with it. Most of the time, you par-boil the plantains before mashing. Doing that, I found the plantains, as they cooked further during the baking step, would become really hard and dry. So, instead, I take a paring knife and peel the plantains. After peeling them, I use the knife to slice them about an inch thick and throw them into a pot or mixing bowl. Plantains this ripe are super soft, so I use a potato masher, or a sturdy fork, to mash them smooth.
Done! See? I told you they are easier to prep than lasagna noodles are.
Can I fry the plantains for Pastelón if I don’t want to make it healthier?
If for some reason you don’t want to make the healthier pastelón, the traditional recipe calls for peeling and slicing the plantains lengthwise. From a large plantain, you can typically cut 5-1/8″ thick slabs. To prepare the plantain for the recipe, you quickly fry the plantain slices in oil, heated over medium heat, for 2-3 minutes, or until they brown lightly. Drain the plantain slices on paper towels to absorb excess grease and they’re ready for the layering.
But, since this is the healthier version, form the mashed plantains in an even layer in the bottom of a rectangular, or square, baking dish. Because the second layer of plantain is the most difficult to assemble- it smooshes the picadillo all out of place when you attempt to smooth it out- I have a little trick that I use. I line the bottom of the baking dish with a sheet of plastic wrap that is lightly greased. I arrange the layer of mashed plantains in the bottom of the dish, smoothing it out evenly. Then, I carefully lift out the plastic wrap, leaving me with a perfect layer to plop onto the picadillo later! Once my second layer is formed and removed, I use the rest of the mash to form the bottom layer in the pan.
Set these both aside so you can prepare the ground turkey picadillo. Alternatively, you can make the picadillo first, then mash and form the plantains. Either-or, no biggie.
What other meats can I use to make picadillo?
Picadillo is a popular meat dish in many Spanish-speaking countries. It’s easy to prepare, goes with just about anything, freezes magnificently, and is economical if you have a strict budget. It is the epitome of the Spanish favorite: “las tres B’s: Bueno, Bonito, y Barato.” The “three B’s: good, pretty, and cheap.” Picadillo meets the mark in all of these areas.
If you want to switch up the proteins in your picadillo, feel free to do so. In the past, I used ground chicken, pork, beef, and even meat substitutes to make my picadillo.
How do I season the meat for Pastelón?
In a caldero or dutch oven, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. If you’re using ground beef, you don’t need to add oil. The fat in the meat will render out and assist in greasing the pot. Lean meats, like the turkey or chicken, need a little bit of help to keep from sticking to the pot. As soon as you put the meat into the shimmering oil, season it with the adobo and sazón. I prefer to season the meat before browning it in this dish, because it seals the seasoning into the meat. Cook the ground turkey for 4 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the meat is brown and the juices run clear.
Once the meat is browned, drain all but a tablespoon of the fat from the pot.
Stir the aromatics- the green bell pepper, onion, and garlic- into the pot with the seasoned meat. Add the oregano as well. Sauté these together for 2-3 minutes, or until the veggies begin to look glossy and start to brown slightly.
After a few minutes, stir the tomato sauce, olives, capers, and sofrito into the meat in the pot. Bring the mixture up to a simmer and reduce the heat to low. Stir the picadillo occasionally while allowing it to gently simmer, uncovered, for 5-10 minutes. If you didn’t mash the plantains yet, now’s a great time to do it.
Once the picadillo is thick and only a smidge runny, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool slightly.
What do I use to keep Pastelón from falling apart?
What holds the pastelón together once it’s baked is an airy-egg binder.
In a small mixing bowl vigorously beat together 3 large eggs with a tablespoon of baking soda. The baking soda causes the eggs to bake up lighter and fluffier than they would without, which makes all the difference between a light, delicious pastelón and a pastelón omelet.
If you have an allergy to eggs, you can omit this binder altogether. Instead, add more cheese and do so in between each layer instead of in the middle and on top. This will bind the dish together like the egg does.
What kind of cheese do I use in Pastelón? Which cheese is healthier?
On the whole, mozzarella is one of the healthier cheeses out there. To make this pastelón even healthier, use a no-fat mozzarella. Because it’s made with skim milk, no-fat mozzarella is a great choice for cheeseheads who are looking to cut calories and fat. Not only does mozzarella contain less sodium than other cheeses, one serving provides 9 grams of protein and helps keep our calorie count down. Parmesan, Swiss, and lastly, cheddar cheeses are among the healthier cheese choices. When it comes to which of those taste best in this dish, though, I suggest Swiss or cheddar. But, that’s only if you have something against mozzarella.
PLEASE shred your cheese at home. Store-bought, pre-shredded cheese is coated in a starch to prevent it from clumping in the bag. That same anti-caking agent affects the melting of the cheese, so, instead of Instagram-worthy cheese pulls; you end up with cheese snaps, which just isn’t cute. Hand-shredded cheese melts like butter and tastes better.
Begin assembling your pastelón by spreading half of the ground turkey picadillo on the layer of mashed plantains you smoothed out earlier. Top the picadillo with a cup of the shredded mozz.
Plop the pre-formed layer of mashed plantains onto the cheese layer and cover that with the last of the picadillo.
Take a paring knife- the same one you used to slice the plantains is fine- and stab the pastelón in a few spots. This will ensure the egg mixture gets down through that solid layer of mashed plantain. Now, pour the egg mixture all over the pastelón.
How long do I bake the Pastelón?
Cover the baking dish in a layer of aluminum foil and bake the pastelón in an oven that’s been pre-heated to 350°F.
Bake the pastelón for 30 minutes. This baking time cooks the plantains thoroughly, while also making sure the raw eggs are completely cooked. With the help of that high-moisture mozzarella, the aluminum foil creates steam inside of the pastelón, which is what helps melt the cheese, as well.
After 30 minutes, remove the baking dish from the oven. Remove the foil covering and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the pastelón. Return the dish to the oven and bake for an additional 5 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and browned just a smidge on the edges of the bubbles.
Remove the pastelón from the oven and allow it to cool, uncovered, for 10 minutes. The truth is, you should leave it to cool for 20 minutes so it can hold its shape. The reality is that you want to eat it while it’s still hot and you couldn’t care less about it holding its shape. So, 10 minutes it is.
What is traditionally served with Pastelón?
Don’t you dare judge us, but most Puerto Ricans eat their pastelón with steamed white rice and a few slices of avocado. We don’t mind that it’s carb-overload. Food is life, and pastelón and rice just make sense together. Hell! I’ve even seen people eat pastelón with tostones: smashed green plantains. We don’t play!
Buuut, we’re doing a healthier version, right? Right. So, instead of the “common” sides, I recommend you serve this version with a garden salad. Still throw a few slices of avocado in the mix to keep it “authentic”.
Besides that, there’s not much else you need to serve with pastelón. It truly is a meal on its own.
How do I store the leftovers?
Transfer leftover pastelón to a food storage container and keep it in the fridge for 3 days (if it lasts that long).
Reheat the leftovers in the microwave on high heat until warmed through. You can also cover the leftovers and reheat the pastelón in a 300°F oven for 10 or 15 minutes. Any reheated leftovers should be discarded.
Can I freeze Pastelón?
Yes! You can freeze pastelón two ways, in fact!
To freeze unbaked pastelón: don’t pour the egg mixture onto the casserole- save that until just before you bake it. But, after assembling the pastelón in a freezer-safe dish, wrap the pan in a couple of layers of plastic wrap and one layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Freeze for up to 2 months. Thaw the pastelón in the fridge for 24 hours (or until completely thawed), then pour the egg-soda mixture over and bake as instructed above.
To freeze baked pastelón: bake the casserole completely and allow it to cool fully. Once cool, wrap the pastelón (in its freezer-safe dish) in a couple of layers of plastic wrap and one layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw the pastelón under refrigeration for 24 hours and reheat in the microwave or a 300°F oven until warmed through.
How far ahead can I make Healthier Pastelón?
Healthier Pastelón can be made up to 2 days ahead. It’s best to assemble the casserole completely, without pouring on the egg mixture. After an hour, the baking soda doesn’t retain the same leavening power it has when first mixed, so you want to wait until the last minute to mix the egg. The rest of the pastelón can be fully assembled, wrapped, then stored in the fridge for 48 hours.
Hopefully, you give this healthier version of one of Puerto Rico’s most beloved dishes a spin. Share it with your friends and be sure to pin it to your casserole or dinner boards.
Looking for more recipes like this Healthier Pastelón?
Healthier Pastelón (Puerto Rican Sweet Plantain "Lasagna")
- potato masher
For the Turkey Picadillo
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2-2 pounds lean ground turkey
- 2 teaspoons sazón
- 1 teaspoon adobo
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup (1/2 medium) green bell pepper small diced
- 1 cup (1 small) white onion small diced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
- 1 cup (1- 8 ounce can) no-salt added tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup sofrito
- 6 olives sliced
- 1 teaspoon capers
- 1 bay leaf optional
For the Pastelón
- 6 large ripe plantains peeled and sliced into 1" chunks
- 8 ounces no-fat mozzarella cheese shredded
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
Prepare the Turkey Picadillo (may be done a day ahead)
- In a 3 quart caldero or dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the ground turkey. Sprinkle the adobo, sazón, and black pepper evenly over the meat to season it.
- Use a spoon to break up the meat and cook the ground turkey for 4 minutes, stirring frequently, until the meat is brown and the juices run clear. Once the meat is browned, drain all but a tablespoon of the fat from the pot.
- Stir the green bell pepper, onion, garlic, and oregano into the pot with the seasoned meat. Sauté these together for 2-3 minutes, or until the veggies begin to look glossy and start to brown slightly. Next, stir the tomato sauce, olives, capers, and sofrito into the meat mixture in the pot. Allow the liquid in the mixture come to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Allow the picadillo to gently simmer, uncovered, for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.Once the picadillo is thick and only a smidge runny, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool slightly.
Prepare the Mashed Plantains* While the Picadillo Cools
- After peeling your yellow plantains, use a knife to slice them into 1" thick rounds. In a pot or mixing bowl, use a potato masher or a sturdy fork to mash the plantains smooth. The plantains should look like mashed potatoes.
- Create a pre-formed layer of the mashed plantains to use as the second layer of the pastelón: line the bottom of the baking dish with a sheet of plastic wrap that is lightly greased. Arrange the layer of mashed plantains in the bottom of the dish, smoothing it out evenly with an off-set spatula or spoon. Press firmly so the plantain layer is compacted, then carefully lift out the plastic wrap. You'll now have a perfect layer to use as you assemble your pastelón.
- Once the second layer is formed and removed, use the rest of the mash to form the bottom layer in the pan.
Whisk the Egg-Soda Binder
- In a small mixing bowl vigorously beat the eggs and baking soda together. Set this aside while you begin assembling the pastelón.
Assemble the Pastelón
- Preheat your oven to 350°F.Begin assembling your pastelón by spreading half of the ground turkey picadillo on the layer of mashed plantains you smoothed out earlier. Top the picadillo with a cup of the shredded mozz.
- Nestle the pre-formed (second) layer of mashed plantains onto the cheese layer. If it breaks apart while you're arranging it on the picadillo, that's okay. Just smush it together as best you can.Cover this second layer with the last of the picadillo.
- Using the same paring knife that you cut the plantains with, stab the pastelón in a few spots. This helps the egg mixture get down through the solid layer of mashed plantain. Now, pour the egg mixture all over the pastelón.
Bake, then Top with the Remaining Cheese
- Cover the baking dish in a layer of aluminum foil and place it in the preheated oven. Bake the pastelón for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the baking dish from the oven. Remove the foil covering and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the pastelón. Return the dish to the oven and bake for an additional 5 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and lightly browned.
- Remove the pastelón from the oven and allow it to cool, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Serve with a garden salad, a few slices of ripe avocado, or on its own.
Tips when shopping for Plantains:
- look for plantains mottled with black spots: it indicates that the plantain is sweet, soft, and easy to mash.
- avoid plantains with even a slight bit of green on the peel, as these are too starchy and potato-y to add to the pastelón.
- too quickly ripen a green plantain, heat them in a warm (170°F) oven for 30 minutes. Once they develop a dark peel, they're soft.
- avoid plantains that are too black, they have a cloyingly sweet flavor which will overwhelm the pastelón.
To Make Traditional Pastelón:
- Peel and slice the plantains lengthwise into 5 slabs that are approximately 1/8" thick.
- Heat an inch of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat.
- When the oil is hot, lightly fry the plantain 1 1/2-2 minutes on each side, or until they brown lightly.
- Drain the plantain slices on paper towels to absorb excess grease and arrange in layers in the baking dish as you would the mashed plantains.
Egg-Free Pastelón:If you have an allergy to eggs, you can omit the binder completely. Instead, add more cheese, sprinkling it between each layer instead of only on the middle and top layers.
To store leftover pastelón:
- Transfer leftover pastelón to a food storage container and keep it in the fridge for 3 days.
- Reheat leftovers in the microwave on high heat until warmed through or cover the leftovers and reheat the pastelón in a 300°F oven for 10 or 15 minutes.
- Any reheated leftovers should be discarded.
To freeze pastelón:
- Unbaked: don't pour the egg mixture onto the casserole until just before you plan to bake it.
After assembling the pastelón in a freezer-safe dish, wrap the pan in 2 layers of plastic wrap and 1 layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Freeze for up to 2 months.
Thaw the pastelón in the fridge for 24 hours (or until completely thawed), then pour the egg-soda mixture over and bake as instructed above.
- Baked pastelón: bake the casserole completely and allow it to cool fully.
Once cool, wrap the pastelón (in its freezer-safe dish) in a couple of layers of plastic wrap and one layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Freeze for up to 3 months.
Thaw the pastelón under refrigeration for 24 hours and reheat in the microwave or a 300°F oven until warmed through.
- Pastelón can be made up to 2 days ahead.
- assemble the casserole completely, without pouring on the egg mixture.
- wrap the assembled pastelón, then store in the fridge for 48 hours.
- just before baking, whisk and pour the egg mixture over the casserole.
- bake as instructed above.