For the Love of Puerto Rican Cuisine – Part 1
Here again is ace food writer Victor Ribaudo, delighting us with another of his passions–Puerto Rican cuisine. Bill Brady’s exquisite photos are featured. The irresistable empanadillas are my contribution. Just check out the following post.
I’m in love with a Puerto Rican. And although I’m a true romantic, I must admit that part of my affection stems from the fact that I simply adore Puerto Rican cuisine. My first trip to the Caribbean as a child, in fact, was to Puerto Rico. That began a love affair that till this day persists, both romantically and gastronomically.
True Puerto Rican cuisine is an art. There’s no doubt about that.And much of it begins with the sofrito. This is a mixture of lard or olive oil, achiote seeds (strained after they impart their red-yellow coloring to the fat), bell pepper, onion, garlic, cilantro, oregano and sometimes ham. The recipe actually varies from family to family – a coveted secret – and almost always serves as a base to many a boriqua (another way to say “Puerto Rican”) dish.
From Field to Table
While traveling the island – or any food market in NYC’s East Harlem district – one is immediately struck by the wide variety of fresh produce used in la cocina criolla, as the locals call it. For example, the platano, or plantain. In the banana family, it’s sold both green, or ripened to a pretty, black-spectacled yellow (these are referred to as amarillos). In its green state, it is quite starchy and used very much like a potato. The most popular examples of this are tostones. Green plantains are cubed, fried, flattened, and then refried to a crisp, golden color. They are served as appetizers or a side dish, and very often accompanied by a chopped garlic sauce called mojo. When used ripened, platanos impart a mild banana-like flavor and are often fried in cubes, and served with dishes such as arroz con pollo (chicken with rice).
Other farmer specials include yucca, a starchy root; batata, a sweet potato of sorts; yautia (or taro root, as it is known in the Pacific Islands); green bananas, which are firmer and more veggie-like than the ripened treats we enjoy with our morning cereals; okra; calabaza, or pumpkin; sugar cane; mango; papaya…the list goes on an on. And you’ll find them everywhere…steamed, fried and in stews. Always a treat!
Rice and Beans a Must
As my in-laws have taught me, rice and beans must always accompany a meal. To me, they are often the highlight of the meal. Dried habichuelas rosadas or rojas (pink or red kidney beans, respectively) are stewed – beginning with the cook’s signature sofrito, of course – with bits of ham, and often diced pumpkin. They are then served with perfectly cooked white rice, usually on the side, so you’re free to ladle your bean stew on the rice as you see fit.
Speaking of rice, Puerto Ricans are simply fanatical about its preparation. Again, the cooking method varies from household to household. Cover off, until the water is evaporated, then stirred quickly, and covered for 5-10 minutes until the grains separate seems to be the most popular method. And there must always be the pegau, or crisp rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan. Any good Puerto Rican cook knows that. And family members often fight for the crunchy stuff. I have to admit, I like it too.
Next week I’ll talk more about some particularly delicious Puerto Rican specialties. For now, there’s a bowl of rice and beans with my name on it. I need to get to it before it gets cold. Someone I love made it especially for me.