I know I’ve written of Christmas in Puerto Rico but, truly, it is a thing to behold. The breezes were balmy and cool especially in the mountains where we spent a considerable amount of time during the Christmas holidays. My sinfully handsome uncle, Tio Enrique, had serious parties on his farm, the entire family coming from all corners of the island. Often Mama’s second cousins and their families would come and make merry because, as on any island, everyone is family. The house was big and airy, several balconies had hammocks strung up. Set back off the main road and nestled within undulating hills, we looked forward all year to the celebrations at Villa Josefina, the farm named after one of Tio Enrique’s sisters, an aunt who died young before I was born. My parents gave me a second middle name which I share with Josefina. Villa Josefina was a favorite destination for all of us when on holiday whether we were little ones, during the gawky, awkward preteen years or sophisticated, cigarette smoking, makeup wearing high schoolers. My uncle gave us free rein and let us take his horses out for a ride whenever we wanted, without even asking. You want to chew on a stalk of sugar cane? Go get a machete and cut it down…go on! You know how to do it! He didn’t care if we sneaked a smoke behind one of the massive royal poinsiana trees, its fiery flowers blanketing the ground. On the contrary, he’d bum cigarettes off us. No. We were left to do what we like with the only caveat being we had to stay on the property regardless if the iron gates were locked or had been left open. To pass unsupervised and without permission through those gates was tantamount to that of jumping off a cliff. We knew without a doubt we were secure and protected from any harm while behind the lovely iron portal. Well, except one time. My little brother and sister, Tommy and Pamela, and Tio Enrique’s sons, Quico and Tommy, were careening down a hill in a wobbly wagon which happened to deposit them right in front of the open gates. Pamela told me she was miserable and frustrated being excluded just because she was a girl. The more she tried to be part of the fun and excitement, the more they shut her out. None of the kid’s were aware of any commotion around them; Tio Enrique shouting and running toward them, frantically gesticulating, fell on deaf and uninterested ears. He was the cool uncle, nothing he did surprised us. The boys were occupied with an out of control ride as well as thoroughly enjoying a bothered, angry Pamela so all their attentions were focused on that merriment. Two of my uncle’s workers ran behind him as fast as their legs could carry them.
When Pamela turned to look where they were excitedly pointing she turned pale at the site of a monstrous, runaway bull charging down the country road straight at them. A posse of men followed behind the beast futilely attempting the animal’s capture. The children froze, eyes as big as dinner plates, while the sound of the thundering hooves rained on their ears. My uncle and his workers slammed the heavy gates shut with barely a moment to spare, the bull swerved, surprisingly agile for such an enormous creature, and continued down the road. When relief replaced the fear in Tio Enrique he proceeded to give the young boys a blistering tongue lashing. I watched them hang their heads with embarrassment as he verbally took them to the woodshed. Pamela relished every moment. “Your beautiful cousin could have been killed while you played with your wagon!!!” But she wasn’t and minutes later we were all laughing and teasing each other, some were dancing, some were eating, all were drinking. Feliz Navidad!
This dish of arroz con gandules is a traditional Christmas treat in Puerto Rico, rich with pigeon peas, pork, olives and capers. It is typically served with pasteles, lechon asado or roasted pig, salads and root vegetables. Rum and wine cut beautifully through the richness of these foods so feel free to let the alcohol flow. Arroz con gandules can be prepared with or without pork so if you’d rather not include it just leave out the steps preparing the meat. And last, when I prepare white rice it’s almost always medium grain. Short grain can be too sticky or gummy and long grain is just….I don’t know….wrong. Oh, and this recipe will feed a crowd, too. So go tropical. You’ll love it!
Arroz con Gandules or Puerto Rican Pigeon Peas and Rice
- 7 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 1/2 pounds lean pork, in 1/2″ cubes
- 8 ounces diced ham, I use Smithfield Ham in cryovac pack
- 2 cups onion, chopped, divided
- 2 large bell peppers, chopped, divided
- 1 large bunch cilantro, rough chopped, divided
- 1 head garlic, minced, divided
- 5 cups water, divided
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 cups medium grain white rice
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2-3 tablespoons paprika
- 1 21/4-ounce bottle green olives, drained
- 1 heaping soup spoon of capers
- 2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 13-ounce can green pigeon peas, rinsed and drained
- 5-6 culantro leaves, optional (if your store carries them)
- Over medium heat, pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed, medium size pot.
- Add the cubed pork and cook until lightly browned.
- Add the diced ham, half of the onion, half of the bell pepper and half of half of the garlic.
- Stir well to coat all the vegetables with the oil, add salt and pepper to taste and 1 cup of water.
- Cover, lower the heat and simmer for 25 minutes or until the pork is tender but not falling apart. Set aside.
- In a large, heavy bottomed pot or caldero add the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and raise heat to medium/medium high.
- Add the rice and stir well to coat all the grains with the oil.
- Add the oregano and paprika and stir until well combined.
- Add the olives, capers and tomato paste and mix well.
- Pour the entire pork mixture into the rice and stir to combine making certain the tomato paste has dissolved completely.
- Add the pigeon peas and culantro leaves if using, the remaining 4 cups of water and salt and pepper to taste. Stir well. Remember, rice needs salt or it comes out bland.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 25 minutes or until all the moisture has been absorbed and the rice is tender and fluffy.
- Serve hot.