Milena Pagán has always been passionate about cooking and baking, especially as a way to express creativity and connect with other people.

"It took me a long time to appreciate the complexity, beauty and uniqueness of the Puerto Rican cuisine I grew up with," Pagán told "Good Morning America." "But now I’m there, and I am very proud to showcase this melting pot cuisine that has evolved from our painful colonial history."

PHOTO: Milena Pagán, owner of Little Sister in Providence, Rhode Island.
Little Sister
Milena Pagán, owner of Little Sister in Providence, Rhode Island.

Her success running Little Sister -- an all-day café that turns out breakfast pastries, 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 it wasn't gonna have any Puerto Rican element. I just felt like people weren't going to be interested by it, or they were going to be confused by it," Pagán said. After a friend urged her that it could "set their food apart" in the Northeast with more Italian and European influences, Pagan found comfort in elevating the food she knows best.

"Puerto Ricans are used to seeing Puerto Rican food presented and like a very homey, very humble way, not really elevated in the same way that you see now like elevated Korean food or elevated Mexican food," she said of her approach to the menu. "Instead of ham, I'll offer a ham croquette or instead of Smucker's strawberry jam, I'm going to give you a mango-passion fruit jam that I made in house -- we make tweaks, that combined, make it feel really different and unique."

She continued, "This food is authentic to my experience, which is I lived half of my life in Puerto Rico, half of my life in America and I love to travel all over the world, so I'm just putting all of it together, and in that sense it's very authentic."

With the recent devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Fiona, Pagán has used her restaurant's platform to help with relief efforts through local organizations in the U.S. territory, like Casa Pueblo and Taller Salud.

"Anything we can do right now to showcase Puerto Rican culture and food in America feels like racking up points for my homeland in the global scorecard," Pagán wrote on Instagram, adding "we want to do more of this."

PHOTO: Croquetas de Mamposteao with Spanish saffron aioli and chayote squash slaw
Little Sister
Croquetas de Mamposteao with Spanish saffron aioli and chayote squash slaw

Pagán first moved to Rhode Island for a consulting job after earning a chemical engineering degree at MIT, but eventually felt the corporate burnout and came to the realization that her career path should lead to something culinary.

"I thought back to what did I want to do when I was younger," she recalled. "I've always enjoyed cooking, I have a lot of memories being a kid and being in the kitchen and I am good at it. So I started baking at home and kind of turned that into my first business."

Within 12 months of home baking and pursuing pop-up opportunities, Pagán opened her first brick-and-mortar shop, Rebelle Artisan Bagels.

"In 2019 I started making plans for Little Sister and we opened in the summer of 2020," she said of the bootstrapped venture. "Because this was born in the pandemic we designed it to have a lot of flexibility, and that even comes down to staffing. I think what's helped us keep it together is me and my husband work together and we live very close by, so we can give it a very high level of attention. We emphasize a pretty collaborative environment and try to give the team a lot of autonomy. Once I trust them to uphold like the structure of the kitchen -- then I'm like 'OK can you come up with a pastry special with whatever we have in the fridge?'"

As for the impacts of supply chain or product shortages, Pagán said "Puerto Rican culture is very resourceful -- we're used to like scarcity -- so I'm not fazed by it." "Inflation" on the other hand "definitely plays a role because the cost of ingredients is going up and I can mark up the menu accordingly, but it takes time for people to kind of adapt. So we use the lunch specials to test out new ideas that can be more affordable for us to produce."

As a result, Pagán has created "a lot more vegetarian options that allows me to like give people a good portion of food and will keep the cost down." She has also leaned into creating new lunch specials that redefines rice-based plates of food.

"In Puerto Rico you eat rice for lunch and dinner like every day -- there's a million ways to eat rice. So every week we pick a different dish that centers around rice -- it's like a really cool way to introduce people to Puerto Rican cuisine," Pagán said, adding that she polls customers on Instagram a few days in advance to come up with new dishes.

One star dish that has become a staple on the menu is Pagán's pernil. The traditional roasted pork can be used in a variety of uses to create a hearty, money-saving meal -- whether it's served with rice, beans and plantains or sliced and made into a Cubano sandwich.

PHOTO: A cross-section of a Cubano sandwich at Little Sister in Providence, Rhode Island.
Little Sister
A cross-section of a Cubano sandwich at Little Sister in Providence, Rhode Island.

"Puerto Ricans also enjoy pork in all its forms, with many of our dishes utilizing the prime cuts like the shoulder for pernil, as well as more resourceful applications like blood sausage," she said.

"Making pernil at home is easier than it seems and it is bound to impress your diners at home," Pagán said. "Pernil is both an everyday staple pork dish and a centerpiece of the Christmas table, when families gather to do a whole pig roast. This is a scaled down version that still hits the spot."

Pernil (Puerto Rican roasted pork)

PHOTO: A chunk of Puerto Rican roast pork, pernil.
Little Sister
A chunk of Puerto Rican roast pork, pernil.

Yield: 8-10 portions

1 skin-on boneless pork shoulder or Boston Butt (about 4-6 lbs)
Adobo, 20g for every lb of pork shoulder (recipe follows)

Adobo seasoning
60 g kosher salt, about 5 tablespoons (we recommend Diamond Kosher salt for its flaky texture)
15 g dried garlic, about 1 tablespoon
3 g dried oregano, about 1-2 teaspoons
6 g fresh ground black pepper, about 1.5 teaspoons
6 g ground coriander, about 1.5 teaspoons
3 g ground cumin, about 1 teaspoon

For the adobo seasoning: Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Can be prepared ahead of time and stored in the pantry.

The night before: pat dry the pork shoulder using paper towels. Rub generously with adobo, ensuring all sides are evenly covered. Place the pork skin side up on a roasting rack inside a roasting pan, so that the pork is elevated from its juices as it cooks. Allow the seasoning to penetrate overnight in the fridge; this will ensure that the meat is seasoned throughout and stays juicy.

The next day: Preheat the oven to 275º F and set an oven rack closer to the bottom of the oven. When the oven reaches 275º F, put the roasting pan in the oven. Cook for 2.5 to 3.5 hours at 275F, taking the temperature of the pork periodically. The pork is ready when the internal temperature reaches 165ºF and the juices run clear. If the skin is not crispy enough, you may raise the temperature to 400F for 5-10 minutes to crisp up.

Allow the pork to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before cutting it. We recommend carving out the crispy skin before cutting the meat, then serving each portion with a little of the crispy skin.

Serving recommendations: Prepare some rice with pigeon peas to serve with the pernil for a traditional Christmas meal. Or cool completely and slice thinly to prepare Cubano sandwiches with some ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. Full recipe below.

Cubano sandwich

PHOTO: A Cubano sandwich on a brioche bun.
Little Sister
A Cubano sandwich on a brioche bun.

2 ounces pork/pernil
2 ounces ham
2 slices of Swiss cheese
Sliced pickles (to taste)
Bread - use any that you like!


Place ham on top of pernil, top with slices of Swiss cheese on a pan/baking sheet; place in oven to heat until cheese is melted.

While meats and cheese are in oven, toast your bread or bun.

Dress bread with mayo, mustard, and sliced pickles.

Using a spatula, remove meat + cheese from pan, place on bun.