The stories have already started. Burning up telephone wires and texts blowing up cell phones, my sisters, cousins and I mourn the loss of our dear, dear uncle who was my mother’s favorite brother…hands down…common knowledge…they even looked alike. Our conversations this morning began with tears, our voices cracking and trembling with barely contained grief. And all these conversations ended in joyous laughter, each recalling our adventures, disagreements and battles, peculiarities and quirks of our Panino. He was my older sister’s godfather, “padrino”. From the first time he laid eyes on her, it was love at first sight. My sister Cynthia was born in Puerto Rico, a fact I’ve always been somewhat envious of as I’ve never really felt “from here” or “from there”. I never knew my godparents as they were friends of my parents, albeit close friends, nevertheless not family…not blood and never in my life. I have no memories of them. Not one. From my earliest recollections my true godparents were my mother’s most loved brother and sister, Panino and Madrinita. I claimed them through squatter’s rights and they were both thrilled. Both gave of themselves completely but in such different ways. Panino was a daredevil…he was fierce…he was a rebel.
And what a temper that man had. Mercy! Many, many a time the man shot out of his rocking chair, stomped out of my grandparent’s house and returned to his own house down the street but not before muttering a few choice words and slamming the front gate. He would not be seen again for three or four days. All that because someone laughed out of turn or refused to spend two hours watching a fuzzy, out of focus VHS video on the Trappist monk and theologian, Thomas Merton. Or the listen to the beliefs and studies of Hindi pioneer yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda. Are you kidding me? Panino was one of the most inquisitive, unorthodox people I have ever known. His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. A voracious reader, he devoured volume after volume of the sciences, philosophy and religion in both Spanish and English. He pushed the boundaries of conventional mindsets habitually. I remember he wept with joy when I mentioned to him in passing that I had begun to practice tai chi. Like my mother, Panino was a whirlwind of mental and physical activity. Before having children he happily spent all of his free time entertaining Cynthia and me when we were visiting. Many were the trips through the mountains, hurtling up and down the hairpin curves and blind corners as Panino wildly honked the car horn not so much to alert anyone on horseback or oncoming trucks and cars as much as to jack up the frenzied excitement we already felt. The moon roof in his old Peugeot open, he encouraged us to stand on the seats, which we did, screaming and laughing with abandon, arms flailing in the wind, our broad, joyful smiles proclaiming to all our excitement, jubilation and freedom. Year after year, untold hours were spent with our Panino driving through and exploring the stunning colonial style towns which Puerto Rico is known for. We wandered through countless churches and cathedrals typically ending up in the town’s square enjoying ice cream, under the shade of mahogany trees. It was a different time. Parents watched their children splash their little hands in the enormous stone fountains in the middle of the plaza or chase and feed the pigeons always ready for an offered peanut or a leftover plantain chip. We were never allowed to touch the birds or fountain water. Good Lord, no! Bacteria. Panino gave us Puerto Rico, he showed us the heart and heart beat of the island. He loved us so. He would have lowered the moon for us to play with had he had the power. I’ll end this post with the goodbye he and I always, always shared. “Adios, Panino.” “Adios, Manima.”
This is a simple recipe. Beans are eaten everyday in Puerto Rico and through the Caribbean. It is considered a comfort food I run back to when I miss my family or the island so much I could lay down in the middle of the road and ugly cry. Stewed beans take time. This is kind of an old school recipe. Canned beans just will not do. The dried beans need to soak in water 4-6 hours and cook 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I’ll tell you, though, it’s worth every minute. This recipe is great to serve to a crowd, it is easily doubled and freezes beautifully. And, like all recipes calling for tomato products, is better the next day. It’s the perfect do-ahead! If you’re not able to find culantro, cilantro is the perfect replacement. If you’re not a fan of pumpkin, one or two peeled, cut boiling potatoes fill in just fine. The beans are delicious served over white, brown or jasmine rice.
Puerto Rican Stewed Red Beans, Habichuelas Rojas Guisadas
- 1 pound dried red kidney beans, rinsed, soaked in water, drained
- water to cover beans as they stew
- 1 small onion, peeled
- 6 tablespoons good olive oil, divided
- 1 pound calabaza (Caribbean pumpkin), peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes or 2 red boiling potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 1/2 cups sofrito
- 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
- 5 or 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 5 or 6 culantro leaves, finely chopped or a bunch of cilantro finely chopped
- salt to taste
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add the soaked beans and cover with 2 inches of water. Add the onion, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally so the beans don’t stick to the bottom of the pot..
- When the beans are still “al dente”, add remaining ingredients and stir well until the tomato paste has dissolved and all the ingredients have been mixed in well.
- Simmer, stirring occasionally, for another 30 minutes until the beans are tender. If the beans still are too firm, continue cooking until tender.
- Serve over rice.