Milena Pagán has always had a passion for cooking and baking, especially as a way to express her creativity and connect with others.
“It took me a long time to appreciate the complexity, beauty, and uniqueness of Puerto Rican cuisine that I grew up with,” Pagán told “Good Morning America.” “But now I’m here, and I’m very proud to showcase this melting pot cuisine from our painful colonial history.”
Her success at the helm of Little Sister – an all-day cafe that bakes pastries for breakfast, brunch and lunch, then pivots to present a multi-course tasting menu with natural wines in the evening – has brought a taste of Puerto Rican cuisine to Providence, Rhode-Island.
“When I first came up with this idea, there would be no Puerto Rican elements. I just felt like people weren’t going to be interested in it, or they were going to be confused,” Pagan said. After a friend urged her to “set their food apart” in the northeast with more Italian and European influences, Pagan found solace in elevating the food she knows best.
“Puerto Ricans are used to seeing Puerto Rican food presented and as a very intimate, very humble way, not really elevated in the same way that you see now as Korean food elevated or Mexican food elevated,” she said. about his approach to the menu. . “Instead of ham, I’m going to offer a ham croquette or instead of Smucker’s strawberry jam, I’m going to offer you a mango-passion fruit jam that I made at home — we make adjustments, that combined, that really makes it feel different and unique.”
She continued, “This food is authentic to my experience, which is that I’ve lived half my life in Puerto Rico, half my life in America, and I love to travel all over the world. , so I’m putting it all together, and in that sense, it’s very authentic.”
With the recent devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Fiona, Pagán has used his restaurant’s platform to help with relief efforts through local organizations in the US territory, such as Casa Pueblo and Taller Salud.
“All we can do now to showcase Puerto Rican culture and food in America is like racking up points for my homeland in the global scoreboard,” Pagán wrote on Instagram, adding “we want to Do more”.
Pagán first moved to Rhode Island for a consulting job after earning a chemical engineering degree at MIT, but eventually felt the burnout and realized his career path would have to lead to something bigger. culinary.
“I thought back to what I wanted to do when I was younger,” she recalls. “I always loved cooking, I have a lot of childhood memories and being in the kitchen and I’m good at it. So I started cooking at home and made it my first company.”
Within 12 months of baking at home and looking for pop-up opportunities, Pagán opened his first physical store, Rebelle Artisan Bagels.
“In 2019 I started making plans for Little Sister and we opened in the summer of 2020,” she said of the venture started. “Because it was born during the pandemic, we designed it to have a lot of flexibility, and that even comes down to staffing. I think what helped us stay together was me and my husband. work together and we live very close so we can give it a very high level of attention.We emphasize a fairly collaborative environment and try to give the team a lot of autonomy.Once I make them trust to respect the structure of the kitchen, so I’m like, “OK, can you come up with a special pastry with all that we have in the fridge? »
Regarding supply chain impacts or product shortages, Pagán said “Puerto Rican culture is very resourceful – we’re used to loving scarcity – so I’m not fazed by that.” “Inflation”, on the other hand, “certainly plays a part because the cost of ingredients is going up and I can change the menu accordingly, but it takes time for people to adapt. So we use the lunch specials to test new ideas that may be more affordable for us to produce.”
As a result, Pagán has created “many more vegetarian options that allow me to love giving people a good portion of food and keep costs down.” She also focused on creating new lunchtime specials that redefine rice dishes.
“In Puerto Rico, you eat rice for lunch and dinner like every day – there are a million ways to eat rice. So every week we choose a different dish that revolves around rice – it’s is like a really cool way to introduce people to Puerto Rico cuisine,” Pagán said, adding that she polls customers on Instagram days in advance to suggest new dishes.
Pernil de Pagán is a star dish that has become a staple on the menu. Traditional roast pork can be used in a variety of ways to create a hearty, economical meal – whether it’s served with rice, beans and plantains or sliced and made into a cubano sandwich.
“Puerto Ricans also enjoy pork in all its forms, with many of our dishes using the best cuts like shoulder for pernil, as well as more ingenious applications like blood sausage,” she said.
“Making pernil at home is easier than it looks, and it’s sure to impress your dinner guests at home,” Pagán says. “Pernil is both an everyday pork dish and a centerpiece for the Christmas table, when families get together to make a whole pork roast. It’s a scaled-down version that always hits the mark.”
Pernil (Puerto Rican roast pork)
1 boneless pork shoulder with skin or Boston Butt (about 4-6 lbs)
Adobo, 20g for each pound of pork shoulder (recipe follows)
60g kosher salt, about 5 tbsp (we recommend Diamond Kosher salt for its flaky texture)
15g dried garlic, about 1 tbsp
3g dried oregano, about 1-2 tsp
6g freshly ground black pepper, about 1.5 tsp
6 g ground coriander, about 1.5 teaspoons
3 g ground cumin, about 1 teaspoon
For the adobo seasoning: Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Can be made ahead and stored in the pantry.
The day before: wipe the pork shoulder with paper towel. Rub generously with adobo, making sure all sides are evenly coated. Place the pork skin side up on a roasting rack inside a roasting pan, so the pork is high off its juices as it cooks. Leave the seasoning to penetrate overnight in the refrigerator; this will ensure that the meat is seasoned throughout and remains juicy.
The next day: Preheat the oven to 275°F and place a rack closer to the bottom of the oven. When the oven reaches 275ºF, put the roasting pan in the oven. Bake for 2.5 to 3.5 hours at 275F, periodically taking the temperature of the pork. Pork is ready when internal temperature reaches 165°F and juices run clear. If the skin is not crispy enough, you can increase the temperature to 400 F for 5-10 minutes to crisp it up.
Let pork rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before carving. We recommend cutting out the crispy skin before cutting the meat, then serving each serving with some crispy skin.
Service recommendations: Prepare pigeon pea rice to serve with pernil for a traditional Christmas meal. Or let cool completely and slice thinly to make cubano sandwiches with ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. Full recipe below.
2 ounces of pork/pernil
2 ounces of ham
2 slices of Swiss cheese
Sliced pickles (to taste)
Bread – use whatever you like!
Place ham on pernil, top with Swiss cheese slices on skillet/baking sheet; place in oven to heat until cheese is melted.
While the meats and cheese are in the oven, toast your bread or brioche.
Season the bread with mayonnaise, mustard and sliced pickles.
Using a spatula, remove the meat + cheese from the pan, place on the bread.