For the Love of Puerto Rican Cuisine, Part 2, by Victor Ribaudo
As I was telling you last week, the love of my life is Puerto Rican. And although I am a true romantic at heart, I must say that my infatuation stems in some part to my adoration for Puerto Rican cuisine. We spoke about sofrito (the chef’s own coveted flavoring base), platanos (plantains) and rice and beans. Let’s delve a little deeper now, discovering some of the dishes that put Puerto Rico prominently on the gastronomic map.
Puerto Rican Specialties
I recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico. Seven pounds later, I can report that we had a grand time exploring the various dishes this tropical jewel has to offer.
Deep fried finger foods abound on the island, and can often be enjoyed at roadside stands. I sampled mine near Luquillo Beach. As I had mentioned last week, fried tostones (plantains) serve as a delicious nibble. I particularly like them topped with a crabmeat salad. Alcapurriasyautia (taro), batata (sweet potato), yucca (a starch root) and platanos that are grated into a firm dough (masa), and then filled with highly seasoned ground beef and deep fried. How bad can that be? Other delights include bacalaitos, or salt cod fritters; surullitos, tasty cornmeal sticks; and empanadillas, crispy turnovers filled with a variety of succulent meat or seafood stuffings. are another favorite. Preparation consists of Mofongo, another personal favorite, is offered in almost every restaurant on the island. Green platanos are fried, and then mashed in a pilon (mortar and pestle) with lots of garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings. It’s served plain, or “stuffed” with chicken, beef or seafood. If I don’t choose this as a main course, I always order it on the side. It’s outstanding.
Guisados (stews) and asopaos (gumbos) are also favorite fare in Puerto Rico. From chicken to beef to seafood, they’re all creatively prepared with the chef’s own sofrito, of course, along with lots of vegetables, and served with a nice portion of rice and beans or a side of tostones. My absolute, all time, most preferred Puerto Rican stew is called sancocho. My sister-in-law spoils me with her version, when I plead hard enough. Starting with, you guessed it, her personal sofrito, she combines different portions of chicken, pork and smoked ham with every imaginable vegetable – my favorite in this dish are the green bananas, batatas and portions of corn on the cob. It simmers for hours and hours resulting in the most unimaginably delicious dish. Served with her white rice and bean stew, it just can’t be beat. She’s also been known to treat us to holiday specialties such as pastelon, a sweet plantain lasagna, as well as pasteles, a sort of tamale with a Puerto Rican twist. Amazing!
Puerto Ricans also have a special way of preparing simple meat offerings. Truly, you haven’t tasted pork until you’ve sampled lechon asado, or roasted pig. Marinated in sour orange juice, it’s usually spit-roasted for hours until the skin is just perfectly crisp and succulent. Or pernil, which is pork shoulder dry-rubbed with lots of adobe (a garlicky spice mixture) and slow roasted overnight. Oh, don’t forget to try bistec encebollada, a satisfying dish of perfectly marinated beefsteak sautéed with lots of onions and oregano. Simple, yes. Intoxicating, always.
Oh yes, I can’t speak enough about the glories of Puerto Rican cuisine. End the meal with a strong cup of Puerto Rican coffee and flan, a custard enrobed in a caramelize sugar sauce, or tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in sweetened, condensed milk and topped with whip cream – well, what can I say? You’re set. It’s a matter of love for me. And although your loved one may not be Puerto Rican as mine is, I can promise you that the tastes of Puerto Rico will strike a cord in your heart as well.
Puerto Rican Sancocho; A Centuries-Old Stew – Still a Classic Today
This satisfying meat stew is thought to have evolved from “Puchero Canario” and brought by Canary Islanders who immigrated to Latin America. It is a hearty stew of meat, sometimes fish, and vegetables, largely root vegetables, and plantains, to mention just a few of the main ingredients. Simmered a long time, the fragrant mouthwatering melange goes a long way to satisfy a lot of hungry people. Every family has its own version. While researching this treasure, I came across a recipe calling for 46 ingredients. The following recipe, far less demanding, has been tweaked a bit to suit contemporary cooking.
(Inspired by El Boricua, online cultural magazine)
Ingredients (Serves 6)
2 T olive oil
1/3 cup chopped yellow onions
1 ½ lbs. beef chuck or flanken (cross-cut ribs), cubed into 1 1/2 –inch pieces
5 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup chopped sweet green pepper
1/3 cup chopped sweet red pepper
1/3 cup chopped celery
1 aji dulce,* seeded and minced
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 t salt
¼ t freshly ground black pepper
4 medium tomatoes, cored and chopped
4 quarts beef stock,** divided
1 yellow plantain, peeled and sliced into ½-inch pieces
2 green bananas, peeled and sliced into 1-inch pieces
1 medium sweet potato, diced into 1-inch pieces
½ lb. butternut squash, peeled and cubed into 1-inch pieces
3 medium new potatoes, scrubbed clean and quartered
1 large chayote, peeled, cored and diced into 1-inch pieces
2 ears of corn, cleaned and sliced into 6 parts each
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven. Add onions and beef cubes and cook until onions are translucent and meat is browned on all sides. Add garlic, green and red peppers, celery, aji dulce, cilantro, salt, pepper and tomatoes.. Add I quart of beef stock, bring to a boil and cook at a bare simmer until reduced by half.
Give beef a stir and then add remainder of ingredients and beef stock. Continue cooking at a simmer until meat is tender and vegetables are soft.
A crusty peasant bread good for soaking up the delicious broth.
Diced Hass avocado
*Aji dulce, a small sweet chili pepper
**A homemade beef stock is best, but if purchased, look for low sodium as broth will become saltier as it reduces. You can also use chicken broth or even water since the ingredients and long cooking will exude flavor.