Oswald Rivera

Author, Warrior, and Teacher

Category: Appetizers (page 1 of 3)

RELLENOS DE HARINA DE MAIZ (Stuffed Cornmeal balls)

This one of those dishes where Puerto Ricans on the mainland U. S. took a native dish and changed it to suit their needs. On the island, this dish was prepared as pastelillos or meat pies. This entails the use of plantains leaves.  A portion of cornmeal filling in placed on a leaf, which is then folded to give the meat pie its shape. The meat pie is then carefully removed from the plantain leaf and deep-fried, hopefully retaining its form. Nuyorican’s find this time consuming We’ve developed our own way of doing things. We shape the cornmeal mixture with the hands, or by using two spoons. Then we fry it.

Even with the Nuyorican method, this dish that takes time. This is not a quicky meal  and, in our culture, it is served as an appetizer or a meal in itself.  But the time it takes to make it is well worth the effort. Note that beef is used to stuff the cornmeal balls. If preferred, you can substitute ground chicken or turkey. I know some folks, on the high end, who stuff it with veal. Use whatever suits your taste.

This recipe calls for sofrito, that popular flavoring indigenous to criollo cooking. In Puerto Rican cuisine, sofrito is the standout. Think of garam masala in Indian cuisine or kimchi in Korean  cooking. Sofrito serves the same purpose. Today you can find processed sofrito in specialty food stores or most supermarket and, honestly, it’s chemicalized crap. Your best bet is to make some at home. We have a recipe for it on my post of 11/08/10.  If you can’t find the right ingredients in your area, here’s a quick recipe that will do in a pinch. It’s not the genuine stuff, but it’ll be close. In a blender or food processor, blend 1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro; 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley; 1 medium chopped green pepper; 1 clove garlic; 1 coarsely chopped medium onion; 3 sweet chili peppers (not the hit kind). This will make about ¾ cup . You can double or triple the recipe if desired. It should be stored in a closed tight jar in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 day, or in the freezer compartment indefinitely.

(Stuffed Cornmeal Balls)


1 cup water
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups yellow cornmeal
½ cup flour
¾ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons sofrito  (see above)
1 cup lean ground beef (about ¼ pound)
2 tablespoons tomato sauce
½ teaspoon capers
Vegetable oil for frying


  1. Boil water in a small saucepan and add the salt and butter.
  2.  Combine cornmeal and flour in a bowl. Add the boiling water, mixing well to form a soft dough. Set aside and let stand for 30 minutes.
  3.  Meanwhile heat olive oil in a skillet or cast iron pan. Add sofrito and ground beef. Sauté over medium heat until meat loses its red color.
  4.  Stir in tomato sauce and capers. Cover and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
  5.  For the final step, some folks like to shape the cornmeal using two spoons.  That is, scooping out a spoonful of cornmeal mix, and smoothing out the mixture so  that it’s level with the spoon. Then placing  a teaspoon of beef filling atop the cornmeal. Lastly,  covering filling with a tablespoon filled level with the cornmeal mix, and shaping the whole cornmeal ball into an oval. While doing this, always remember to keep your hands lightly wet.. Some cooks prefer to shape the cornmeal balls by hand. Use whatever technique works best for you.
  6.  Deep fry in hot oil until golden.
    Yield: About 8 stuffed cornmeal balls.

Crab Cakes

Put crab cakes on a restaurant menu, and it’s gonna sell out pretty quick. They’re a favorite all season  long. Crab cakes are actually a type of fish cake popular through out the U.S. The ingredients may vary but every recipe I’ve come across always contain bread crumbs, mayonnaise and eggs. And then you can add whatever seasonings desired. So, don’t be shy, experiment. Usually served as an appetizer, it’s an easy dish to prepare at home. In the Rivera clan we love crab cakes. The preferred topping for crab cakes is tartar sauce. With or without the tartar sauce, we eat them for breakfast with eggs, and an an ente for dinner with rice, veggies or whatever.

The recipe given follows the traditional method of frying in butter (if you’re worried about cholesterol intake, you can substitute olive oil). Or you can bake the suckers: just preheat oven to 375 degree F. and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.


1/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs
2 6-oz. cans crab meat, drained
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter

1. In a medium-sized bowl combine all ingredients, mixing by hand, Form into good-sized patties, about 1/2-inch thick.
2. In a large skillet (I prefer cast-iron) heat butter over medium heat. Fry patties until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes on each side.
    Yield: 4 servings (about 8 patties).

Alcapurrias De Yuca

Alcapurrias De YucaThe American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language describes cassava as a tropical American plant with a starchy root from which tapioca is derived. To us Latinos from the Caribbean, it’s yuka (yoo-ka). Yuka is most commonly served peeled and boiled with a bit of olive oil sprinkled on top. But it also yields a bitter or sweet starch known as manioc which is used in the making of farina and, of course, tapioca. For those interested in arcane terminology, manioc is a word of Tupian origin, attributed to the Tupis, a group of American Indian tribes living along the coast of Brazil and the Amazon River valley. To explorers from the Old World, this new food was a wonder.

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Papas Rellenas – Stuffed Potato Balls

Papas rellenas, or stuffed potato balls, makes a great appetizer or side dish for the Thanksgiving table. Yes, that venerable holiday is upon us again. So how about giving that potato dish a unique take. Tired of the old potato salad? Then papas rellenas is it. You family and friends will say, Wow! C’mon, liven up that Thanksgiving turkey. Make papa rellenas a part of your tradition. You won’t be disappointed.

This recipe calls for sofrito, the Puerto Rican  seasoning that is ubiquitous in our cooking. A recipe is readily available in my posting of November 8th 2015. If that’s not good enough for you, you catch my video of July 10th 2014 on how to make sofrito, step-by-step. Otherwise, you can get it store bought in almost any supermarket—but it won’t the same as the genuine product.   

By the way, this recipe, among many others, is from my first cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America, which is now in its third printing (Running Press, Avalon Books) 

(Stuffed Potato Balls)

1 pound Idaho or Maine potatoes, peeled
2 quarts (8 cups) water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound lean ground beef (can substitute ground pork, chicken or turkey, if desired)
2 tablespoons sofrito
2 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Vegetable oil for frying

1. Rinse potatoes under cold running water and pat dry.
2. Place in a pot or medium saucepan. Add water and boil on moderate heat, covered, until tender (about 30 minutes).
3. Meanwhile, for filling, heat oil in a skillet or fry pan. Add meat and stir-fry over medium heat until meat losses its color. Add sofrito, tomato sauce, oregano and salt. Mix and sauté 3-4 minutes.
4. Cover and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Drain potatoes, place in a bowl and mash with a fork or potato masher.
6. Add butter, egg and one teaspoon cornstarch. Mix well and let cool.
7. Spread some of the potato dough mix in the palm of your hand (keep palms wet while doing this). With fingers makes small nest in the center of palm, and stuff with a spoonful of the filling. Cover the filling with more dough mix and shape into a ball. Brush lightly with cornstarch. repeat until filling and mix are used up.
8. Deep fry in hot oil until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels.
    Yield: 6 to 8 stuffed potato balls, depending on size.

Alcapurrias – Stuffed Green Bananas

In Puerto Rican cuisine the most favorite savory are frituras or fritters, and cuchifritos. These are snacks, side dishes and appetizers that are deep fried. Frituras are fried vegetables, some with meat stuffing, which are mainly for noshing between meals. Cuchifritos, the other hand, are fried pork products such as pork rinds. These delicacies have been in our culture since time immemorial. In the old days, pork fat or lard was used as the frying agent. These days it’s olive oil or vegetable oil. Within the vegetable category, the best would be safflower oil or a good canola oil, if nothing else because of reasons of health. True, even today, frying in lard or Crisco will give a better taste—at the expense of hardening your arteries.

Alcapurrias come under the heading of frituras. As to the term itself, alcapurrias (pronounced: al-kah-poo-reeas), could be a traditional Caribbean Indian word or island slang of a more recent derivation. Wherever the word came from, this snack is very popular with islanders and Nuyoricans alike. Basic alcapurrias are made with green bananas; what we call guineos (ghee-neh-os). Traditionally, the other way we serve green bananas is boiled and then drizzled with olive oil. So you’re probably saying, Who the hell would eat green bananas? Simple, anyone who knows how good they are, cooked in a sauce or, as we have it here, stuffed with ground beef.

The  recipe below calls for achiote, which is an ingredient used for taste and coloring. It consists of annatto seeds cooked in vegetable oil or olive oil. Annatto seeds can be obtained in 8-ounce jars in most supermarkets or any Asian or Caribbean market. Simply heat 1/2 cup of oil in a small skillet or pan, add 1 teaspoon annatto seeds, turn heat to low and cook the seeds, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. If the flame is kept on high the seeds may crack and splatter. During cooking, the oil will turn a bright orange-red color. The longer the seeds steep in oil, the deeper the hue. Remove from heat, let cool and, using a strainer, pour into a small jar or container. Cover and refrigerate. In my family we use a lot of achiote. Some of our recipes call for a whole bottle of vegetable oil (32-ounces) and one jar of annatto seeds. This would be enough to feed an army.    

If you’re interested in learning more about frituras and cuchifritos, you can always pick up my cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America (Perseus Books, Running Press) which has recently gone into its third printing. It’s chock-full of similar Boricua recipes. And even if you’re not native to the Caribbean, your taste buds will thank you for it. 

 (Stuffed Green Bananas)

8 whole black peppercorns
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh chopped oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 pound lean ground beef
1/4 cup tomato sauce
3 pounds green bananas
1 large green plantain
1/2 cup achiote (see recipe given above)
Vegetable oil for frying

1. In a mortar, crush peppercorns, garlic, salt and oregano. Blend in olive oil and vinegar. Add seasoning to beef and mix
2. Brown seasoned beef in a skillet over high heat (no extra oil is necessary). Reduce heat to low. Stir in tomato sauce and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove meat to a bowl and set aside.
3. Peel bananas and plantain, and cut in half. Grate the bananas and plantain using the grating disk of a food processor or a hand held shredder. Mix in a bowl with the achiote, then mash with a fork or
potato masher.
4. Spread some of the banana-plantain mix in the palm of your hand (keep palms wel while doing this).
With your fingers make asmall nest in the center of the mix in your palm, and stuff with about a spoonful of the beef filling. Cover the filling with more mix and shape into a cylinder or croquette. Repeat until filling and bananas are used up.

5. Deep-fry in hot oil (375°) until golden brown (about 4 minutes each). Remove and drain on absorbent paper towels.
    Yield: About 15 alcapurrias.


Potatoes Stuffed with Hummus

This is the easiest appetizer to prepare—short of filling a plate with crackers and cheese. It is simple and delicious. Most everyone likes hummus, the thick spread made from chickpeas and (sometimes) sesame seeds, and which had become very popular worldwide over the last two decades or so. Given that fact, what’s easier than stuffing potatoes with it? Not only that, it’s a great beginning to any meal.

In the recipe given I use baby potatoes. But you can use regular Maine or Idaho potatoes. I know friends who prefer big potatoes with the hummus. To me, this is more of a first course than a run-of-the-mill appetizer. Use whatever suits best.


1 bag (24 ounces or so) baby yellow and/or red potatoes, washed and scrubbed (not peeled)
1 tub (8-10 ounces) hummus, plain or any flavor desired.

1. Fill a medium pot or pan with water.
2. Bring to a boil. Add potatoes and boil until fork-tender. Do not overcook.
3. Drain. Let the potatoes cool (or rinse under cold running water for faster preparation). Cut the top third off from each potato, and just enough from the bottom so that it can stand upright.
4. Scoop out insides of each potato without cutting or collapsing the sides. Using a small spoon, stuff humus into the cavity.
5. Place on a serving dish or platter, and serve.
    Yield: about 10 stuffed potatoes. 

Empanadillas – Stuffed Meat Pies

Empanadillas are a delicacy popular in Nuyorican cooking. Basically, it’s a stuffed meat pie. Cubans have their own version of it, and they call it empanadas. We also have empanadas. But our version differs from the empanadillas in that the ingredients are traditionally wrapped in plantain leaves and then the stuffed empanada is baked in a medium oven. The most famous use of plantain leaves in our culture is in the preparation of pasteles (for a step-by-step recipe, see my video of 12/4/10). For pasteles, if plantain leaves are not available, we wrap them in waxed paper. With empanadas, you can use aluminum foil which works just as well.

Empanadillas need no plantain leaves or waxed paper. It’s a very straight forward recipe, and depending on the filling, empanadillas can be made large, medium, or small size. It’s just a matter of preference. The following recipe will make about 10 empanadillas, depending on size.

The recipe is from my first cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America (Perseus Books, Running Press) which has gone into its 3rd printing.

(Stuffed Meat Pies)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
4 cups flour
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup water mixed with 1/4 teaspoon sugar
Vegetable oil for frying

1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan. Add beef, bell pepper, onion, garlic, salt and ground pepper. Sauté over high heat, stirring constantly, until meat loses its red color.
2. Reduce heat  to low, stir in tomato sauce and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine 3 cups flour, 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, baking soda, sugar and salted water. Sift through the hands until the flour is moistened and a soft dough is formed.
4. Roll dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently.
5. Break off a small piece of dough and flatten into a patty. Using a rolling pin, roll out dough into a circle 6-7 inches in diameter. Fill center with a tablespoon of beef filling, and fold circle in half. Using a small plate as a guide, trim off excess dough to get a perfect half moon shape. Seal edges by pressing all the way round with the tines of a fork. Repeat until ingredients are used up, dusting the surface and empanadillas with flour, as needed, to prevent sticking.
6. Deep-fry in hot oil until golden (about 3-4 minutes). Remove and drain on absorbent paper towels.

Tostones with Broiled Lamb Chops

Tostones are fried green plantains. Its probably the most popular side dish in Puerto Rican cuisine. It’s also popular in Dominican and Cuban cooking. In our family we have tostones frequently, which reflects our cultural norm. Go to any Caribbean restaurant, and tostones will be on the menu.This is not the first time we’ve featured fried green plantains on this blog. It was one of the first recipes we noted when I began this journey (see post of 9/9/10).

For tostones, you need green (not ripe plantains). Yes, ripe plantains can also be prepared, but that’s another story. Green plantains (platanos) can be found in most supermarkets these days, If not, any Caribbean or Asian market will usually carry them. This time around I’ve paired tostones with another favorite, broiled lamb chops. A light red wine, like a Gamay, Bardolino or Beaujolais, will complement the meat very well. If not, then a good robust beer or ale will will do (not that light beer stuff that taste like water).


3 green plantains
4 cups water
2 tablespoons salt
Vegetable oil for frying
4 lamb chops, about 1-inch thick
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon turmeric
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Remove skin from the plantains. This is done by cutting tips at both ends; then cut a slit along the length of the plantain and peel off. To facilitate easier handling, some cooks dip plantains in hot water and then remove the skin. Once plantains are peeled, cut into diagonal slices about 1-inch thick. Reserve peels: typically, the unbroken skin of the plantain is used for flattening the tostones.
2. Combine water and salt in a bowl and soak plantain slices for 30 minutes. Drain well.
3. While plantains are soaking, in a bowl combine the olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano and turmeric. Add the lamb chops and marinate for at least 1 hour. Or you can place the lamb chops in a large zip-lock bag, add the ingredients, and marinate that way in the fridge.
4. Broil the lamb chops in a very hot preheated broiler. Brown on both sides, cooking a total of 10 minutes for rare, 15 for medium, 20 minutes for well done.
5. While lamb chops are broiling, fill a cast iron or heavy bottomed skillet halfway with vegetable oil. Heat oil until very hot (373 degrees F.). Deep fry plantains for 5 to 6 minutes over medium heat until golden yellow.
6. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
7. Place a plantain slice between two plantain peels, envelope fashion, and pound flat with the palm of the hand. Repeat until all slices are pressed. Return plantain slices to skillet and cook until golden brown (about 4-5 minutes longer). Drain on absorbent paper towels and sprinkle lightly with salt. Three plantains will render about 12-15 tostones.
8. Transfer lamb chops to a warm platter, and place a pat of butter on each chop. Sprinkle with lemon juice and parsley. Serve with tostones.
    Yield: 4 servings.

Home Made Fish Nuggets

In recent times our illustrious fast food culture had co-opted fish nuggets. They are now selling like hotcakes in every fast food venue. Problem is, though they may be artificially tasty, they suck in that they are very bad for you health-wise. They are chock full of sugar, chemicals and artificial ingredients. In essence, you are ingesting poison. So why eat this crap when you can make tasty fish nuggets at home? That’s right, home-made fish nuggets at very minimal expense and time. You can also make you own dipping sauce as well. With that in mind here’s a quickie, tasty recipe for crunchy fish nuggets with an appropriate sauce.

The recipe is easy as pie: coat the fish with seasoned milk, then dredge in seasoned bread crumbs; bake and serve with a honey-curried mustard dipping sauce. The whole thing takes about twenty-five minutes to prepare, if that. By the way, you can try the same recipe with chicken fillets and have chicken nuggets. It works just as well.


1/2 cup milk
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/4 pound cod or haddock fillets, cut into 1 by 2-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (or more if you want it really spicy)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Honey-Curried Mustard Sauce:
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons mustard (preferably coarse-grained)
1/2 teaspoon curry powder (more if you want it really spicy)

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, salt and pepper to taste.
3. In another shallow bowl or pie plate, mix together the breadcrumbs, chili powder, cumin and garlic powder.
4. Immerse the fish nuggets in  seasoned milk, turning to coat evenly. Then dredge the nuggets in the breadcrumb mixture, coating all sides evenly.
5. Arrange the fish on a greased baking pan (I prefer cast-iron), baking dish or greased foil paper. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until the breadcrumb coating is golden brown and crisp (the fish should be opaque at the center).
6. Meanwhile, prepare the dipping sauce: in a small bowl, whisk together the honey, mustard, curry powder, salt and pepper to taste.
7. Serve the fish nuggets with the honey-curried mustard sauce.
    Yield: 4 servings.

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Papaya Preserve for the Holidays

Back on the block, the favorite dessert for this time of year was, invariably, bread pudding or, as we called it, “Budin.” The rest of the year, our desserts were the usual stuff: tembleque (a coconut based custard) or flan. But, for the holidays, my mother also created a family favorite: Dulce de Lechosa (Papaya Preserve). We weren’t the only ones. Our barrio neighborhood would be redolent with the fragrance of simmered papayas ready to be consumed by all. Neighbors would vie as to who had the best dulce de lechosa in the apartment building. Every time I prepare this regal dish, those memories awaken.

Let me state that papayas are as delicate fruit. When green they taste awful.They are best when ripe. But be aware that if too ripe, they’ll dry out. You can discern ripeness by a smooth yellow color and tenderness to the touch. Overripe papayas will start to discolor. So seek out fruit that is mellow yet firm and unblemished. For cooking purposes, a moderately ripe one will do. Some cooks claim only green papayas should be used for making a preserve. The problem with that is that more sugar or honey is needed. Whether ripe or green, store the preserve in the refrigerator in a glass bowl.

The recipe given is from my cookbook Puerto Rican Cuisine in America (Perseus Books – Running Press). Though this dessert is common in the holidays, you can serve all year round. It’s that good. Also, some prefer to serve it over ice cream, or with whipped cream on top. In my family we like it as is, with nothing extra to mar it’s great taste.

    (Papaya Preserve)

3 medium ripe papayas, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch strips.
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 quarts water
2 sticks cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground anise seed
2-3 cups sugar, depending on taste, or 1/2 cup honey (or more to taste)

1. Place papayas in a saucepan with water to cover. Add salt and let stand 5 minutes.
2. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Place in a pot or heavy kettle but not aluminum for it will stain. Add 2 quarts water, cinnamon stick and anise seed.
3. Bring to a boil and cook on low-moderate heat, uncovered for 15 minutes or until tender.
4. Add sugar or honey and continue cooking, uncovered, for 20 minutes or until sugar is thick and syrupy.
5. Remove cinnamon sticks and allow papaya to cool at room temperature.
6. Serve in a dessert bowl or store in a glass jar or container.

    Yield: 4 servings.

Photo: courtesy of PK Diet


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