Newsflash: Onions make you cry

While this may be old news to seasoned cooks, I never seem to hear the end of the pain and suffering that chopping onions inflicts on the middle school students I teach each Tuesday.  While I assure them that the “aromatics” – onions, garlic, etc. – are what make our food so flavorful, it doesn’t seem to offer much consolation.

I love hearing the tactics they all offer to avoid crying in front of their classmates.  One student’s grandma keeps her onions in the refrigerator while someone’s uncle swears by putting the onions in cold water first.  They often express the desire to wear goggles while working through the onions for our meal and last week Carol, the supervisor at the Bakery Cafe, offered an ingenious suggestion that had students wrapping plastic wrap around their eyes.  I’m not sure it worked but I did get the priceless picture above.

The girls above participate in a program called GREAT (Gang Resistance Education And Training) through their school.  The program is run by Boston police officer Bill Baxter who has dedicated his life to working with youth and has, I’m sure, impacted countless lives in the Boston area.  Officer Baxter, or Officer Donut as the students affectionately call him, brings a group of seventh graders to Haley House each week during the school year where we teach cultural understanding through food.

We pile our ingredients in the center of the table and get to work on them after we spend the first portion of our class learning about the culture where our week’s recipe originated.  We regularly travel to far flung regions in India, Italy, Jamaica, and Cape Verde.

For our final celebratory class, this group wanted to make Pastelon – a lasagna-like dish from the Caribbean that layers deliciously spiced ground beef with fried plantains, cheese, and is baked until warm and bubbling.    I didn’t make many changes to the recipe but we did bake the platanos rather than fry them and I think the final dish came out just as spectacular.

When Officer Bill asked the students what they thought of our final meal, on a scale of one to ten, we got a “one million” and an “infinity” so I’d call it a success.  Served with some of the bakery cafe’s famous coleslaw, I’d call this a fantastic dinner.


Barely adapted from

  • 1 lbs ground beef
  • 1 onion,minced
  • 3 gloves garlic, minced
  • 1 green pepper, minced
  • 1/2 chopped cilantro
  • 2 tsp adobo
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 2 Tbs vinegar
  • 1 envelope sazón
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8 green stuffed olives, halved
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup tomato sauce
  • 4 plantains, peeled and sliced into strips
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 Tbs milk
  • 2 cups white shredded cheese
  • vegetable oil
  • salt


Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.  Butter square pan with 1 tbs of butter.

Combine, beef, onion, pepper, garlic, cilantro, adobo, oregano, vinegar and sazon.  Mix well.

Heat a large skillet at medium-high heat with 2 Tbs of olive oil, add meat mixture.

Cook beef until brown and of the juices bubble up, add bay leaves, olives, raisins and tomato sauce.  Mix and let simmer for 10 minutes, set aside.

Prepare a cookie sheet or large baking pan with a thin coat of vegetable oil.  Place thinly sliced plantains on the oiled sheet in a single layer then brush each plantain with a thin coat of oil on the top side.  Sprinkle the plantains with salt and pepper then bake them in the oven for approx. 10 minutes or until they begin to brown.  When browned, remove plantains from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 350 degrees.

To assemble pastelon: Take your prepared square pan, start with a layer of plantains, then beef, then a fistful of cheese, repeat.  You want to finish with cheese and plantains.  Beat 3 eggs with 2 Tbs of milk, pour over the pastelón.  Let it sit for a minute allowing the egg to soak in.  Top off with just a bit more cheese.

Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

Serve and enjoy!


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