Kitchener chef Arielle Neils shares her food gift of pastelles

Pastelles are a popular dish for Trinidadian chefs and home cooks during the holidays. Kitchener, Ont., chef Arielle Neils offers step-by-step instructions on how to make them at home.

'Ultimate Christmas food,' chef says pastelles 'feed the soul and create happiness and fulfilment'

Sounds of the Season: Chef Arielle Neils

1 year ago
Duration 11:03
Sounds of the Season: Chef Arielle Neils

While parang music is being played in the background, Trinidadian kitchens will be busy making pastelles during the holiday season.

Pastelles are a Caribbean dish similar to tamales and are traditionally made at this time of the year, says Arielle Neils, executive chef with Kitchener, Ont.'s the Compass Group, including in her home.

"It's said that they are a very old dish coming from Spanish influence," Neils says of the Trinidadian version she loves to prepare. "Making them brings me back to being in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother at Christmas time."

Beef or chicken is sautéed with capers, olives, raisins and other aromatics, which are then stuffed into a pocket of corn flour dough and wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf.

"It's important to note that we use corn flour, not cornmeal," Neils said.

Grandmother taught her to cook

She has been making pastelles since she was seven years old in Chaguanas in central Trinidad, helping her grandmother, who was a chef and caterer.

"My grandmother was the first person who taught me to cook. She's still with us and represents the mix of cultures that is Trinidad," Neils says. "When I was 13 years old, my grandmother took a catering job for a huge number of pastelles. It took us two days to make them all. We worked very hard and they surprised me by getting me a cellphone when we were done."

The recipe for pastelles isn't necessarily difficult, but there are many steps, so chef Arielle Neils suggests having all the ingredients laid out and ready to go before getting started. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Learning to cook at a grandmother's elbow is a common memory shared by many chefs. From a dough-making perspective, Neils learned the importance of touch and feel — how a successful pastelle dough must be pliant and malleable.

"My grandmother taught me to squeeze the dough and if a crack forms, it needs more liquid because it is too dry."

Typically eaten close to Christmas Day, pastelles seem to inspire people to assemble them much earlier, according to Neils.

"I was looking on Facebook in November and people have already started making and eating pastelles."

'Heart, passion and love' go into pastelles

The process isn't necessarily difficult, but there are several steps so Neils advises getting all your ingredients ready and waiting before starting to cook. While some cooks boil pastelles, she prefers to steam them for a better texture. 

She said you can omit the butter and meat in the ingredients and use lentils for vegan pastelles.

Neils recommends visiting Latin and West Indian grocery stores for supplies such as green seasoning and banana leaves.

Food columnist Andrew Coppolino, left, visited chef Neils's home in Kitchener, Ont., for a lesson on how to make pastelles. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

"As for the Scotch bonnets, if you don't like too much heat, remove the seeds and membrane, or leave them out all together," she said. 

The tactile act of working the dough and folding it into banana leaves also stirs memories of childhood for Neils.

"Making pastelles, I start to feel warm inside. There is heart, passion and love that goes into making them," she said, adding it's important for her to pass along the tradition to her son.

"Pastelles … bring me fond memories of working in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother; they feed the soul and create happiness and fulfilment.

"They are the ultimate Christmas food in my culture." 

Wrapped in a banana leaf for boiling or steaming, a pastelle is like a little gift of food you get to unwrap and eat. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Beef pastelles by chef Arielle Neils


For the dough:

  • 1 cup corn flour

  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • 1¼ cup water

  • ¼ teaspoon sugar

  • ¼ teaspoon salt

  • ½ teaspoons beef bouillon cube

For the filling:

  • 3 tablespoons green seasoning (available in West Indian food stores)

  • ½ lb ground beef

  • ¼  cup diced onions

  • ¼ cup chopped pimento peppers

  • ¼ cup diced celery (optional)

  • 2 tablespoons chopped pimento-stuffed olives

  • ¼ cup raisins

  • 1 teaspoons capers

  • ¼ cup sliced green onion 

  • 2 sprigs chopped Italian parsley

  • 1 teaspoon annatto paste

  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

  • Salt

  • Black pepper

  • 6 pieces banana leaf measuring 9 inches by 9 inches

  • Butcher's twine

  • ¼ cup canola oil


Marinate ground beef with green seasoning and refrigerate, preferably overnight.

Add marinated ground beef to a hot pan and cook for six minutes or until meat is browned. 

Add onions, celery and garlic, sauté for three minutes, then add pimento peppers, olives, capers, Worcestershire, annatto, raisins, salt and pepper. Sauté until peppers and raisins have softened and any liquid has evaporated (about four to five minutes).

Turn off heat and add green onions and Italian parsley, then set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl add warm water and butter. In another medium bowl add corn flour, beef bouillon and sugar (pinch of salt and pepper is optional). 

Once butter is melted in water, begin adding the water mix little by little to the corn flour until dough comes together and is very soft.

Divide the dough into six roughly equal parts.

Wash and dry your hands and then rub your palms together with oil. 

Spoon the dough into your oiled hands and shape into a ball, one by one; they don't need to be perfect spheres. 

Cover the dough balls with a wet towel and set aside.

Add water to a pot or steamer, place on medium-high heat and allow water to come to a boil. A colander over a pot of boiling water also works well.

Cut seven pieces of banana leaf and use a brush to oil the flat side of the banana leaf.

Method for banana-leaf wrappers:

Ensure banana leaf is on a flat surface and place dough in the middle of the greased side of the banana leaf; cover with another piece of banana leaf, greased side down to touch the dough then press dough to open up (it doesn't have to be a perfect circle). If using a tortilla press, follow the same method and continue with all the dough balls. Feel free to stack them in the press.

Add cooked meat to the middle of the opened up pastelle dough.

Gently fold the leaves in two opposite sides, one at a time over the filling, then fold in the remaining two ends to enclose the pastelle.

If boiling, cut pieces of butcher's twine and tie around the pastelle in the banana leaves so they don't open when boiling. If steaming, skip this step as you can steam seam side down.

Steam or boil for 15 to 20 minutes then remove from heat and allow to cool for five minutes in a colander. 

Unfold, eat and enjoy!

These can be refrigerated for up to four days or frozen for up to three months then steamed or boiled as you go. If steaming before freezing, they can be reheated (two at a time) in a microwave with a small bowl of water beside them.


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.


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