The base of all the best Puerto Rican dishes is sofrito, a brilliant blend of onion, pepper, garlic, cilantro and culantro. I can’t believe in the five years I’ve been writing this blog I haven’t posted it yet. I’ve searched high and low for the post but it ain’t there so here goes. Sofrito is what makes Puerto Rican food dance in your mouth. Simple and inexpensive to make, this is a Hispanic kitchen staple and should always be in your kitchen as well. Typically it’s prepared in large amounts then frozen in individual portions to be taken out of the freezer and used as needed. You will taste sofrito in almost all of our chicken, bean and rice dishes. Oh, and in soups and stews. It is loved and used in Latin American, Spanish, Italian and Portugese cooking. Every country, every town and every household has its own recipe. Some use tomatoes, some don’t. Some use bell peppers and cubanelles in addition to local sweet peppers. In Puerto Rico a small sweet pepper called “aji dulce” is always used but as I’m unable to find them here in Fort Lauderdale I just stick with the cubanelles.
Sofrito to Puerto Ricans is like oxygen to human beings. The minute it hits the hot oil the onions, garlic and herbs open up. There is always a head jerk reaction when a Hispanic smells this blend cooking! It will perfume your home like nothing else. As with most recipes this fragrant condiment is best homemade although it can be found jarred in most grocery stores in the international section. If you try this recipe I’m pretty sure you’ll be adding it to many of your dishes. Enjoy!
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
It seems as though every culture has its own version of Chicken and Rice and Puerto Rico is no different. As a child, my older sister and I spent whole summers, Christmas breaks and Easters with my mother’s family. Our father spent a huge amount of time up and down the Amazon working on the genetics of a certain tropical fish in order to create his own strain. So as the weeks before he departed loomed before us my mother would start making noises to the effect of “I’m not staying here. Girls, what do you think if we go to Puerto Rico? Jackson, (that’s what she called my father), vamos a Puerto Rico. Girls? GIRLS! I want you to check your gloves and make sure they all match. Alicia, make sure yours are clean.” And off we went. We loved Pan American! The flight attendants were so glamorous and they would give us hot chocolate. Until my younger brother and sister came along, we were the only children in my grandparents house. And, boy, did we love it. Aunts and uncles spoiled us so we always had crayons and coloring books, china tea sets, wonderful dolls and books. Oh, the books! A few days after we arrived, for every visit, my aunt, the one who adored my older sister and looked upon me as though I was the ultimate bad seed, would take us to “our” bookstore in old San Juan. Libreria Campos was three stories of gorgeous books with glossy hardwood floors and an old-fashioned elevator. There, a gloved elevator attendant closed the solid brass door to the elevator before we lumbered up to our desired floor. I remember I would be left alone in the young reader/children’s section as my sister and aunt went off whispering, arm in arm… 1960’s style bff’s. After we had chosen our heart’s desire, the transaction would be finalized at the massive, dark polished wooden counter. Our books would be wrapped in their signature green paper then tied neatly with twine. They were beautiful. Every trip back to the house left me feeling a little as though I had somehow been tricked. In the taxi cab I’d be well into my one, single Nancy Drew thriller when I’d look over and there would be my sister sitting smugly with something like the entire collection of Anne of Green Gables. I received one book, she got eight. It just smacked of wrong. Oh, well. Afternoons found the two of us having tea parties with our dolls beneath our grandparent’s tall, dark, mahogany beds where we sat up straight while pretending to be aristocratic ladies. Chicken was the star of most of our meals and they, too, were a ritual. Our dinners were somewhat dressy affairs. At 5:00 p.m. sharp we were given baths, changed into little dresses and hair was neatly combed. We were allowed to watch a few episodes of Felix the Cat in Spanish and then we dined… alone. The grownups never dined with the children. And that’s where the chicken and rice comes in. Always perfectly seasoned, aromatic and glistening with olive oil coated capers, olives and peppers. It was just heaven. The traditional Puerto Rican accompaniment was, and is, red beans and pumpkin, either in the beans or steamed separately. Nothing makes Puerto Rican adults happier than children asking for more. And there was always, always more!
6-7 fresh culantro leaves (Here in South Florida they can be had at all leading grocery stores. If unavailable, cilantro makes a suitable replacement.)
1 whole cut-up chicken or which ever chicken parts suit your fancy, 6-8 pieces. I always cut off all fat and the skin. But that’s just me.
1 16 oz. bag white rice, I always use medium grain but if you like long grain, have at it.
2 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt or more to taste
In a heavy Dutch oven or large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add chopped onions and cook until almost clear, stirring often.
Add garlic, oregano and bell peppers and cook until almost cooked through, still stirring.
Add capers, green olives, tomato paste and culantro. Stir well.
Add chicken pieces, cook just to brown outside.
Add rice, stir well to coat the rice grains with other ingredients, add water and salt.
Stir so rice is equally distributed, tomato paste broken up and dissolved etc.
Bring water to a boil, cover pot and drop heat to simmer.
Cooking time varies depending on size of chicken pieces and whether they’re boned or bone-in. Just keep your eye on it and check the pieces to see if they’re done from time to time. Small pieces of boned chicken may take 45-60 minutes. Large pieces with bone make take 1 1/2-2 hours until the chicken is tender and almost falling off the bone.