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
When I flew down to Puerto Rico 30…35 years ago to begin work with Delta Airlines nothing prepared me for the level of partying that took place on that island. The island celebrates a good 26, 26!, holidays. Both January and July have 4 public holidays! Sure, I had spent months, whole summers, vacationing with our grandparents and making the rounds to visit all the extended family members during the holidays. But as a child and even as a young adult, one has no idea the degree of seriousness taken to make merry until one is wholly independent. There were scads of Lopez family parties. All-day pig roasts were pretty common place at my Tio Enrique’s mountain farm. Being girls my sisters, cousins and I were not privy to the surreptitious sipping of rum my male cousins and uncles enjoyed while overseeing the roasting of the pig on a spit. Even the farm hand whose job was to stand all day and turn the spit enjoyed the fruit of the cane. Whenever our grandfather or any of our uncles would wander up to the house they were always so relaxed and happy… there’s a big surprise. So, after college, when I moved to Puerto Rico I completely embraced this new lifestyle of “party down”. My friends were the kids who had also been hired by Delta; all 12 local except me. We were known as “the Dirty Dozen”.
Training had been incredibly rigorous and demanding. We were often and regularly tested on airline and Delta standards and it was made perfectly clear we would not be hired if we failed. I remember one woman crying and saying she couldn’t make it…it was too hard. I tried to get across to her it was just a matter of memorization. To have been hired by Delta was quite an achievement at that time. Literally hundreds of people had applied for our 13 positions in reservations. She quit. Right in the middle of our six-week training. Her name was Sonia. I’ll never forget. Anyway, when the weekend or any holiday rolled around we were ready. We became really close, the 12 of us, and spent free time together. We had parties in clubs, in each other’s homes, at the beach, really anywhere we could. We’d dance the night away and sip on rum.
I remember one of the boys in our group went crabbing and I tasted for the first time crab cooked in tomatoes, wine, garlic, onions and fresh bay leaves. The crabs were simmered in an enormous pot in the back courtyard of someone’s house. The next day I went out and bought an equally big pot and still have it to this day. One of the dishes I was introduced to was “Pescado en Escaveche”, ceviche or pickled fish. It was eaten as an hors d’oeuvre, the sauce cold, tart and salty. The fish was sweet and tender. These tastes were most welcome on blistering, hot tropical days. Through the years I’ve changed the recipe to feature bite sized pieces of chicken which are fried then marinated. Steeped in a pot-pourri of vinegar, caramelized onions and black peppercorns, it’s one of those perfect pairings that need to be prepared in advance. Yay. I’m all for anything that can be made in advance. Just right to serve or take to a party. I usually offer this dish with whole grain wheat crackers, Triscuits, but I’ve also presented it with thin, toasted rounds of French bread. It’s fantastic and no one, NO ONE, ever shows up with it!
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1″ pieces
1/4 cup flour
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
In a large acid resistant pot or kettle simmer uncovered 1 cup olive oil, vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt, bay leaves and onions for about 1 hour. Set aside to cool.
Mix flour with remaining salt and toss chicken in it to completely coat. Discard leftover flour.
In a large frying pan heat remaining 1/2 cup olive oil with the garlic cloves. As soon as the cloves begin to brown remove from pan and discard the garlic.
Over medium heat cover bottom of pan with one layer of chicken frying in batches if necessary so as not to crowd the pan.
In a Pyrex or glass container pour half the warm onion-vinegar sauce. Add half the chicken, the remaining sauce and then the remaining chicken. Gently toss to thoroughly coat the chicken with the sauce.