Ham, Mozzarella, and Tomato Pastels Recipe
Happy New Year! Yes, we know we’re a little late, but we’re finally publishing our first post of 2017. Not that we’ve just been sitting on our hands: we’ve both been busy with other projects and work so we took a bit of an extended holiday break from this site. But now we’re back and the plan is to keep coming to you monthly with new recipes, inspired by the places we visit and people we meet.
This month we’re bringing you pastels, the fried meat pie-like delights well-known and loved in Brazil. Why Brazil? For the last two week of January, Addie was there visiting her sister (Joy) and family. While there, Joy showed Addie how to make pastels. We documented the whole process and created a pastel recipe so that we could bring it to you here today. Enjoy!
History / Background
Pastels are popular throughout Brazil but especially in the south (think São Paolo and Rio areas). They’re essentially meat pies or empanadas, but they can be served with a variety of fillings, as you’ll see here today. Pastels are served as street food, but you can also find them in restaurants. People also make them at home to serve at parties or to big groups–Brazilians love to have a good time! As with so many delightful sandwiches and street food items, the history of pastels is not well-documented. It’s thought by some to come from the Chinese spring roll (pastel wrappers have a similar texture, sort of) and then made popular by later waves of Japanese immigrants who saw an opportunity to capitalize on a popular and easy-to-make dish.
Since we hadn’t had this dish before, research was necessary! Before making these pastels in Brazil, Addie’s sister and brother-in-law took her to a couple of restaurants where we ordered pastels as our appetizers (they seem to be on most menus). Both times, the pastels we had were stuffed with seasoned ground beef. They were delicious and tasted just like the meat pies we have here in the United States. Below are two that we tried. The one on the left is from Durval and the right-side one is from Quiosque Arco Íris. Both of these places are located in Macaé, where Addie was visiting.
The pastels we’ve made here today aren’t one of the “classic” Brazilian types but they’re the type that Joy first had so they’re the type she likes making best. Therefore, we followed suit here.
A pastel wrapper is essentially a circular pastry wrap. They puff up a bit when fried and are fairly plain-tasting on their own. The goal for pastels is to have the ingredients be the star of the dish. Below are pastel wrappers that we found in Macaé. In the U.S. you’d probably have a hard time finding these (if anyone does know where to find them, please comment below!). We’ve located a couple of recipes for pastel dough that you can find here and here.
Moving on to the filling: we filled these pastels with a variety of chopped ingredients: ham, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and green onions. It’s a bit of an Italian flare, but the flavors match well with the pastel pastry dough. We also rounded out the flavors with minced garlic, onion powder, salt, black pepper, dried parsley flakes, and just a touch of olive oil.
Optionally, you can also add olives to your mix. Interestingly, olives are popular in Brazil, especially in the state of Rio. We are not quite sure of the connection there—whether tied to the popularity of a particular dish, the whims of the long-vanished Portuguese nobility, or brought by a wave of immigrants from the olive loving regions of the world. Given Brazil’s long and complex history, any could be likely. Regardless, olives are well-liked by most Brazilians so we decided to add some to our dish.
Bright and early one hot Saturday morning in January (Southern Hemisphere, remember?), Joy brought Addie on her normal weekend shopping routine. Joy prefers to shop early in the morning on the weekends because the stores are less busy yet freshly well-stocked.
The first store we visited was Supermercado J Pavani. Here we purchased the pastel wraps. J Pavani is my sister’s favorite store down there for their bakery bread, and they also have the best prices on pastel wrappers. It’s a large grocery store with a wide variety of groceries. They don’t have a website so we aren’t able to tell you much more about the store itself. From what we can tell it’s a single store operation (not a chain), and it’s very popular with the locals (see below all the people waiting outside for it to open).
The next stop was HortiFruti where we picked up the veggies (tomato, green onion, garlic), ham, mozzarella cheese, and green olives. While we could have gotten the rest of our ingredients at J Pavani, Joy wanted to visit our HortiFruti since they have a better produce selection overall. HortiFruti is a small chain found throughout the state of Rio. They have several locations and most of them focus on fresh fruits and vegetables and bakery goods. Yum, yum!
With all of our ingredients in hand, we’re ready to start prepping!
Preparation of all of the individual ingredients is pretty straightforward but we want to call out the tomato preparation, specifically. Below you see how we’ve halved the Roma tomatoes then scooped out all of the seeds and water. This step is vital because tomatoes are quite watery. Removing the interior of the tomato before chopping minimizes the amount of water inside the pastel. Excess water will make the pastel pastry flimsy, soft, and prone to popping open. This is the same reason that the recipe calls for the ham to be lightly sautéed first: that process helps rid the ham of excess water.
Overall assembly for these pastels is super easy. You start with a round of pastel dough and then near the middle of the pastry place about a teaspoon each of ham, tomato, green onions and olives (if using). Over that lay a couple small strips of mozzarella cheese (or shreds if you’re using shredded cheese). It’s important to remember that this is not an exact science. As long as you’re not filling the pastel dough so much that it won’t seal, all will be good. See the picture below for an example of how to load filling into pastel dough.
Something else to keep in mind is that you want to use a bit of water to seal the pastel dough and then use a fork to flute the edges. The water is necessary to give your seal its first binding mechanism. If you don’t seal the pastel properly, the filling will come out into your oil and that will be a big mess.
While you’re at it, watch our quick demo video below to see how easy it is to assemble your own pastels.
Finally, when you’re frying, make sure that your oil is up to the proper temperature before frying. It’s best and most accurate to use a frying thermometer, but you can just your judgment if you’re an experienced fryer. Frying at the proper temperature ensures that the pastels are only in the fryer as long as they need to be. Which brings us to frying time: these only need about 45 seconds on each side to be cooked through. Overall, it’s a very quick frying process.
Like so many sandwiches we’ve made before, pastels are the food of the people. All the ingredients used for them can be found in basically any grocery store and purchased for very little cost overall. Pastels also represent the vibrant cultural diversity in Brazil. Indeed, if the legend of origin is correct then these pastels, beloved by Brazilians, were a Japanese creation, inspired by the Chinese spring roll, filled with ingredients popular in European cuisine.
It’s fascinating to us how cultures and cuisines can blend and melt and be influenced by each other in so many different ways. Indeed, though powerful cultures often tend to impose their practices on subjugate peoples, food is a rare level playing field where cultures freely mix without the sociopolitical hierarchies that accompany religion, politics, and even art. It seems that one of the few times we admit we are all fundamentally equal is when we are hungry.
Ham, Mozzarella, and Tomato Pastels
- 1/4 pound sliced smoked ham, chopped
- 4 Roma tomatoes, chopped (remove seeds, core, and water first)
- 5 cloves of garlic, minced
- Season to taste: salt, black pepper, dried parsley, onion powder
- Dash of olive oil
- 24 pastel shells (buy pre-made or make your own)
- 3/4 to 1 cup thinly sliced green onion tops
- 2 tablespoons chopped green olives (optional)
- 1/4 pound mozzarella, cut into thin strips or shredded
- Oil for deep frying (about a quart)
- Sauté the ham for about a minute or so in a dry non-stick skillet to cook out any water in the ham.
- Be sure to remove all excess water from the tomatoes before chopping. You want this filling as dry as possible to prevent the pastel from popping open while frying.
- Once the tomatoes are chopped, place them in a mixing bowl then add salt, black pepper, dried parsley, and onion powder to taste. Add a dash of olive oil and mix well but gently to combine.
Assembling the pastels:
- To the bottom half of each pastel shell, add about a teaspoon each of smoked ham, tomato mixture, and green onions.
- Top that with about a 1/2 teaspoon of chopped olives (if using) and a few thin slices or about a teaspoon of shredded mozzarella.
- Dab a bit of water around the edges of the pastel shell, fold over the pastry shell into a half moon shape, then use a fork to press and seal the edges. Be sure to fully seal the pastry so that the filling doesn’t fall out while frying.
- Repeat the process until you have all the pastels assembled.
Frying the Pastels:
- In a large skillet, add about two inches of oil to your skillet and allow it to pre-heat to 350 ªF.
- Once the oil is pre-heated add two to three pastels to your skillet (depending on its size). Don’t over crowd the skillet and work in as many batches as needed to properly fry the pastels.
- When each batch is done, set the pastels to drain on a platter lined with paper towels.
- Once the frying is done, remove the skillet from the heat and allow the oil to cool in a safe place.
Serve and enjoy your pastels!
- Assembled, uncooked pastels can be frozen for up to six months in an air tight bag or container. Fully thaw before frying.
- Leftover cooked pastels can be reheated in the microwave for 30 to 45 seconds. You may need a fork and knife to eat reheated pastels because they won’t be crunchy as they were freshly fried, but they will still be quite tasty.