Lately my mind has been on Puerto Rico. Sounds, smells, random memories float in and out of mind with no rhyme or reason. It seems like so many years have passed since I actually lived and worked there. I miss the musical background of Spanish conversations spoken with Puerto Rican accents. I long to walk past houses whose gates have been left slightly open allowing passersby a peek into cool, brick courtyards with burbling fountains and tropical orchids growing on trees. When on foot it’s not uncommon to hear music spilling out from second floor balconies as students practice their guitars, cellos and violins. Midday used to be the main meal of the day so, starting at about 11:00 a.m., the heady aromas of onion, garlic and culantro cooking filled the neighborhood. Culantro is the stronger, heartier cousin of cilantro and adds a flavor to dishes that makes every Puerto Rican melt with happiness. Before the days of big box supermarkets and Costcos, vegetables, fruit and eggs were sold from small trucks. As the driver slowly made his way down the street, he sang his own song of wares into a microphone. With a speaker mounted to the top of his truck everyone knew who was coming down the street. I loved the low, deep song of the egg man…”hueVOS! hueVOS!’ Women came seemingly out of nowhere to buy the farm-fresh produce.
Today, as it is here stateside, eggs, milk and produce are typically purchased at completely enclosed, air-conditioned supermarkets. However! There are still a few open air markets both here in south Florida and on the island. And all those typically Hispanic products can be had at many grocery and super stores. I’ll give you a quick tour of some of my favorites fruits and vegetables in the hope you make it a point to try some of them. Starting at the very top of the photo below and following a clockwise direction you’ll see cilantro, a lacy and delicate herb which can be used fresh, (as in salsa for chips and salsa), and also cooked in soups, stews and beans. The big, yellow thing jutting out of the photo is a ripe papaya. We eat masses of it cold for breakfast with our cups of cafe con leche and crackers with butter. Papaya is featured in many a smoothie as its flesh is smooth and creamy, it almost melts in your mouth and has kind of a melon taste but not quite as sweet. I put the recipe for a dynamite tropical salad with papaya dressing on the blog last week. Check it out. You’ll be amazed. Next to the papaya is a bell pepper which everyone is familiar with and under the pepper sits a ripe avocado also familiar to all. That slender, brown vegetable is a waxed yuca… as in yuca fries. Yum! Yuca is always waxed in order to preserve it and keep it fresh. Maybe you know it in another form, that of tapioca which is made from yuca. This root vegetable must be peeled and can be easily with either a sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler. All spots must be removed as well. Alongside the yuca you’ll see a reddish tuber called boniato. It’s similar to sweet potatoes but has more flavor and is not quite as sweet. Boniato is fabulous mashed smooth with roasted garlic then mixed with cream, butter, salt and pepper. Served with grilled fish on top, you will have one special meal! Try to find boniato without any soft spots or bruises. Those hairy, brown things next to the boniato are malanga, also know as yautia, and they might be my #1 favorite. You want to choose malanga without soft spots or cut ends that feel mushy. They offer a somewhat nutty, earthy taste. I serve them often with a dried cod dish called “serenata”, or serenade, as all the flavors in the dish marry as beautifully as the voices and instruments do in an actual serenade. Tucked into the photo is a grapefruit, lime, a head of garlic and a small dish of dried red beans. In Puerto Rico red beans are super popular served with rice…white rice. Mercy, I could eat that everyday. Oh, wait! I did. Under the beans sits a fat wedge of pumpkin, calabasa, which is peeled, cut into big chunks and added, you guessed it, to everything. Bean, soups, stews, there’s a good chance you’ll find it in and on your dish. And last, at the top of the photo resting on the bunch of cilantro, is a green plantain. Hmmmm, I really like them, too. There are a plethora of ways to prepare plantains. Green ones are boiled, fried, fried and mashed and they, too, are everywhere. As the plantain ripens it turns yellow and sweet. When the peel develops black spots the plantain can be sliced and baked with butter, brown sugar and a splash of rum. It tastes like heaven on earth. That’s it for today’s lesson on island delicacies. I really hope you’ll try some of these fruits and vegetables you’re not familiar with. You’ll not be disappointed!
The following is my recipe for a Puerto Rican stew called sancocho. Sancocho is found all through the Hispanic Caribbean, Central and South America. Although every household seems to have its own version I have NEVER met a sancocho I didn’t love. It calls for a variety of root vegetables among other ingredients and can be prepared with beef, pork, chicken, fish or a combination of the before mentioned. Sancocho is hearty, comfort food at its best. In Puerto Rico it is served with a side of perfectly prepared rice and three or four slices of fresh avocado. If you prefer a thick stew, remove a few chunks of vegetables from the pot, give them a quick mash and throw them back into the pot. For a soupier end product, add more broth. Please note this recipe reflects a thicker version as that is my preference.
Puerto Rican Stew, Sancocho
- 2 1/2 pounds beef, chicken or pork, cut into chunks
- 2 limes, juiced
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 bell pepper, chopped
- 7-10 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 2 quarts beef or chicken broth, divided
- 1 bunch cilantro, washed and dried, leaves chopped, stems discarded
- 5 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
- 2 pounds malanga, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 pounds yuca, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 ears fresh corn, shucked and cut into 2-inch pieces
- warm, cooked rice, serve on the side
- avocado, slice just before serving
- Put meat in a medium bowl. Add lime juice, garlic powder, oregano, salt and pepper and toss well until the meat is completely with the seasonings. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- To a dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot add 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat.
- Drain meat of excess juice and brown 1/2 of meat on all sides. Remove from pot, add remaining oil and remaining meat and cook until all sides are browned.
- Return meat which was first browned back to the pot, give a quick stir and add onion, bell pepper, garlic and bay leaves. Cook 4-5 minutes until vegetables soften, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.
- Add enough broth to cover meat and adjust heat so the pot simmers but does not boil. If the meat boils it will dry out. Cover and simmer for 30-45 minutes until meat is not quite fork tender.
- Add remaining broth, cilantro, carrots, malanga, yuca and taste for any needed salt or pepper. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until meat and vegetables are fork tender.
- Serve in bowls with hot, cooked rice and just sliced avocados.