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Puerto Rican Pigeon Peas and Rice, Arroz con Gandules

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.

Tommy and Pamela back at my grandparent's house after an exhausting day of fighting, arguing and tears. With only a little over one year between them, who would have believed that 45 years later they're still best buds?!
Tommy and Pamela back at our grandparent’s house after an exhausting day of fighting, arguing and tears. With only a little over one year between them, who would have believed that 45 years later they’re still best buds?!

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!

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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!

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Arroz con Gandules or Puerto Rican Pigeon Peas and Rice

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 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)

Pork mixture:

  1. Over medium heat, pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed, medium size pot.
  2. Add the cubed pork and cook until lightly browned.
  3.  Add the diced ham, half of the onion, half of the bell pepper and half of half of the garlic.
  4. Stir well to coat all the vegetables with the oil, add salt and pepper to taste and 1 cup of water.
  5. Cover, lower the heat and simmer for 25 minutes or until the pork is tender but not falling apart.  Set aside.
  6.  In a large, heavy bottomed pot or caldero add the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and raise heat to medium/medium high.
  7. Add the rice and stir well to coat all the grains with the oil.
  8. Add the oregano and paprika and stir until well combined.
  9. Add the olives, capers and tomato paste and mix well.
  10. Pour the entire pork mixture into the rice and stir to combine making certain the tomato paste has dissolved completely.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Serve hot.

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Cilantro Rice will Save the Dinner

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Why is it every time we finish preparing dinner, eating dinner then cleaning up from dinner, it seems we have to start all over again; from deciding what to have, to making a list, assembling the meal, it seems as though the cycle just doesn’t end.  Lord knows, it’s exhausting.  To add to our woes, our families become bored and disinterested when the same meal is prepared over and over.  I know I could eat salad EVERY SINGLE NIGHT but, for some reason, my husband and son revolt on day number 2.  Precious little time and money also contribute to the problem.  As luck would have it, I ran across an article in the New York Times cooking section that brought to mind something I keep on hand, in the freezer, that I had completely forgotten about.  I puree large quantities of cilantro, fresh baby spinach, a little onion and garlic and a bit of lime zest together in the food processor and, after freezing the mixture in ice-cube trays, I transfer the frozen cubes to a plastic freezer bag for soups, stews and anything else that might need a blast of color or flavor.  I had forgotten about them because my freezer is an ice-covered disaster.  I label everything but the freezer’s small and packed…and…whatever.  I can’t go into it.  I’ll get all angry and mean.  Just believe me when I say these cilantro cubes are just the ticket to wake up a dreary, tiresome dinner.  I add five or six of these babies to a pot of rice cooking and my dinner has completely changed.  My leftover chicken thighs stand up a bit taller next to cilantro rice and sliced tomatoes.  Leftover steak and grilled shrimp or fish love cozying up to the bright and cheerful side dish.  I prepare the cilantro puree in batches, mix it all together in a large bowl then divvy it up into the ice-cube trays.  After the cubes have frozen solid I’ll put them in a labeled freezer bag, squeeze out the air and flatten the bag for easy storage in the freezer.  I add a bit less water to the pot if I’m preparing rice, maybe one or two tablespoons less per cube.  Towards the end of the rice’s cooking time I check to see if more water is needed and if the color is to my liking.  If the rice has a little too much water I’ll remove the lid of the pot and allow that excess to steam off.  I might add another cube or two or only water if that’s what’s needed.  But I find cilantro rice is a welcome change from plain white or brown, jasmine or basmati.  The spinach gives almost no flavor but deepens the rich emerald color.  The onion, garlic and lime zest takes this condiment to another savory level.  They take away the raw harshness that a strong cilantro taste can sometimes bring.  I add no salt as I can season the dish itself later.  So tuck this recipe under your bonnet and the next time you find yourself wanting to rattle around in the kitchen consider preparing this.  Keep the cubes on hand and you’ll buy yourself shortcut and a culinary hack.  Your sweet family will love you for it!

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Cilantro Cubes

  • Servings: 2 ice cube trays or 28
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 4 large bunches fresh cilantro, washed, dried and leaves roughly chopped
  • 1 8-ounce bag baby spinach leaves
  • 2 bunches flat leaf parsley, washed, dried and leaves roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • zest of two limes

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  1. Working in batches, combine all ingredients in your food processor pulsing until mixture has pureed.
  2.  Transfer mixture to ice cube trays or storage containers and freeze until ready to use.

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Herbed Rice Pilaf for a little Christmas comfort

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Christmas can be such a tough time of the year.  It’s such an emotional rollercoaster.  Tears just come out of nowhere.  You’re minding your own business, getting on with the business at hand and then out of nowhere…BAM!!!  The floodgates open.  And all is lost.  Last week I took our housekeeper to her next job, the family she takes care of after she leaves us.  I try to always take her in order to make her day shorter and easier.  That way she doesn’t have to wait for the bus nor walk the few miles down Las Olas.  I had Christmas carols playing on the radio as she got out of the car.  We had already exchanged our small gifts and mutual warm wishes for a blessed and peaceful Christmas.  As I backed out of the driveway I looked at the brilliant blue sky and marveled at how there wasn’t one single cloud.  Not one!  It was a gorgeous day.  Just as I came to the bottom of the Fiesta Way bridge I looked left and right at the stop sign.  I had the wonderful idea to go visit Mom.  A vision of her flashed in front of me…Mom smiling joyously, her hair in soft, dark curls around her face.  She was kind of flying thru the house going way too fast for anyone’s good.  Boy, did she love this time of the year!  She didn’t care WHAT Dad said she pulled out ALL stops!  Growing up in the Wattley home was pure magic at Christmas, pure magic.  And that’s when it hit me.  She’s not there.  She’s not at home.  Well, her body’s there but her mind is gone.  There’s just no response.  I have no mother.  I have NO mother.  My body suddenly felt completely hollow.  How else does one explain profound grief?  I rounded the corner onto Las Olas as my eyes flooded with tears; the palms, the water and yachts, the big, gaudy homes became wavy and wobbly and distorted.  My vision became cloudy as the tears spilled forth.  I couldn’t breathe.  I could hear myself crying and the analytical side of me thought I sounded kind of stupid.  But it was too late.  The levee had been breached.  I sobbed and sobbed, my shoulders heaved up and down uncontrollably as my nose ran all over my face and clothes.  I couldn’t go home; to be alone would be complete and total destruction; so I went to the next best place.  Publix.  I sat in the parking lot and wept and wept and wept.  After a while I called Pamela and invited her family over for dinner and told her to let Cynthia and her people know about dinner.  I carried the whole conversation in that fake happy tone.  No need to bring HER down.  Inside Publix I gathered my needed ingredients and finished up on the pasta aisle.  Oh, dear.  That’s when it hit me again.  Dolly Parton’s “A Hard Candy Christmas” came on over the store’s sound system and that’s one of the saddest songs in the world!  AND, I love me my Dolly!  I totally caved.  My basket carefully put down, I sat with my legs pulled up, my arms wrapped around them and sobbed as quietly as I could into my knees.  Thankfully, no one spoke to me or touched me.  You know when you’re sad the WORST thing is when someone is nice to you!  You just can’t control yourself when someone’s kind to you.  RayBans still on I paid and beat a hasty exit.  I cried all the way home, carrying the groceries in and continued through prepping for dinner.  Needless to say, no one was home.  Pamela and Chris had some party to go to so they wouldn’t be coming.  And I so needed my sister.  I started the marinara sauce for dinner and then proceeded to make some comfort food.  For me.  This is Latina-girl comfort food.  Rice.  Any number of ways.  But rice.  White, not brown, and steamy hot.  That’s what I wanted.  I lit some candles.  I prayed.  I prayed a lot.  And I cried.  Oh, yeah.  And I poured.  As I felt the numbing effect of my liquid anesthesia Jimmy and James came home.  Minutes later my family started arriving.  My nieces came thru the gate laughing and poking fun with each other, voices boisterous and happy.  They spilled into the house like the morning sun.  In came Christopher.  I hadn’t seen him since he came home from school.  And behind him were Pamela and Chris!  They decided they’d rather come over for pasta and caesar salad than go to some silly party.  In the middle of all the hugging and kissing and teasing and laughing in came Cynthia, Wash and Elizabeth.   It was the perfect solution for my breakdown.   I still felt profound grief.  But that’s the way life seems to be unfolding for my mother.  I say it all the time.  “THESE are the good old days.”  We don’t have yesterday.  And we SURE don’t have tomorrow.  But we have right now.  And that’s about all we have so, I, for one, am going to continue doing my best to appreciate yesterday but not dwell on it.  Yes, tomorrow’s bound to be a better day but you can’t dismiss right now BECAUSE IT’S ALL WE HAVE.  So when you’re feeling blue pour yourself a stiff drink and have a good cry.  Then put a pot on for your rice and move on.  Because THESE are the good old days.

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This is a simple but satisfying recipe for Herbed Rice Pilaf.  Not only is it great when you’re down but it pairs beautifully with fish and chicken!  It freezes well also.

Herbed Rice Pilaf

Yield: 1 big pot

  • 4 1/2 cups water or chicken broth
  • 2 1/2 cups medium grain white rice
  • 1 scant cup angel hair pasta or thin spaghetti broken into small pieces, about 1/2 inches
  • chicken bouillon cube, optional
  • 1 bunch chopped fresh dill
  • 1 bunch chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1 bunch chopped fresh mint leaves
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt to taste if not using broth or bouillon cube
  1. In a heavy medium-sized pot bring water or broth to a boil.
  2. Add all the other ingredients, cover pot and bring back up to a boil.
  3. When boiling drop temperature down to a gentle simmer.
  4. Rice is finished when all the water is absorbed and the rice is soft but still has a bit of firmness to it.  Add a bit of water is needed.  Total cooking time is between 30 to 45 minutes depending on the heat of the stove and weight of the pot.

Greek Stuffed Peppers

Jimmy was 24 years old the first time he went to Greece.  It was the 1973.  He went with his childhood friend, Peter.  Remember?  Jimmy’s mama and Mrs. Scarlatos, Peter’s mama, used to pick greens together on the side of the road in Boston?  You remember.  Anyway, Peter and Jimmy had gone to Greece together and were on the island of Paros.  There they were, with a bunch of their friends from Boston AND girls.  They were having a blast.  They hiked to ruins, then at night, would descend upon tavernas, welcomed and embraced warmly by the locals who treated them as the long, lost greek children they truly were.  They hung out on the beaches, talking, laughing, enjoying that ultimate luxury, the casual passing of time during a long, hot summer.  And GIRLS.  Jimmy tried not to think of the side trip he had to make.  While all the other kids were playing and having the times of their lives, HE had to go to Moria, his family’s ancestral village, on the island of Lesvos.  Moria.  What he knew would be a rinky-dink town, some outpost of nowhere, Mr.  Alighieri’s Fifth Hell.  Kill me now.  He was not happy.  Resigned and defeated, Jimmy left the good time on Paros, boarded the over-night ferry and arrived at the port of Mytilini the following morning.  He made the hour long trip to Moria on a tired, dilapidated, old bus and arrived mid-morning, hot and sweaty, sporting long hair, an unruly beard and an all-around generic american hippie look.  Not pretty.  Keep in mind, he’s from Boston.  Looks don’t count.  He walked through the village, trying to recognize houses and landmarks from the many years of stories told by his mother.  Outside an ordinary house, he saw an older woman bent over sweeping her courtyard, clouds of hot dust swirling about her, she oblivious to the heat, wearing the requisite long black dress and head modestly covered with a scarf.  He approached her, politely asking, “Signome…,” “Pardon…”, but before he could continue she whirled about with a fiercely protective scowl on her face and replied, “OHI!”  “NO!”  “Go away, tourist!  Go away!” and waved her broom at him, making it perfectly clear, one more step and you’ll be feeling this broom, Yankee fool.  She was not to be trifled with.  Throwing his arms up to protect his head and face he screamed, “Ohi! Ohi, Thea Vasiliki!  Paragalo!  Eimai Dimitri, o anipsios apo tyn Ameriki!” “No, no, Aunt Vasiliki!  Please!  I’m Dimitri, your nephew from America!”  WELL.  That poor woman threw her broom in the air, ran to Jimmy and flung herself on his hippie self, crying and laughing, all the while frantically making the sign of the cross, over and over.  She welcomed him into the house where he sat down.  She knelt down before him and began untying his hiking boots.  “Thea, what are you doing?  Get up.  You don’t need to do that.”  And she replied with a little more than a bit of defiance in her voice, “I took your brother Peter’s shoes off.  I took your brother George’s shoes off.  I WILL take your shoes off.”  It was a wonderful two days.  Jimmy assured her over and over that her sister, so, so far away from her family and homeland, was fine.  His cousin, Dimitri, had a motorcycle and showed Jimmy the island, up to the mountains and back down to the beaches.  Cousin Dimitri showed Hippie Dimitri the ancient, Roman aqueduct which sat on the outskirts of the family property, and the horio, the village, with all its hiding places and secret spots.  Cousin Dimitri threw out the challenge, “I hear all Americans drink ouzo with water.”  Jimmy replied, “I don’t.”  Cousin Dimitri said, “I hear all Americans drink ouzo with ice.”  “I don’t”, again Jimmy answered.  Challenge met, they became the best of friends, the best of brothers.  Together they tried  the different kinds of ouzo, all the while, Thea Vasiliki cooked and baked her heart out.  I can’t say this enough, but it’s ALL about family.

This was one of the dishes prepared by Thea Vasiliki, typically Greek, unpretentious and incredibly savory.  Yemistes, stuffed vegetables.  It is an extremely easy and forgiving dish.  You can stuff tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, squash, onions…anything that will hold stuffing.  And you can stuff as many or as few as you’d like.  The filling is also extremely versatile.  Brown or white rice can be used.  Ground lamb or ground beef, or no meat.  It’s all good.  I add shredded zucchini  sometimes or use zucchini wedges in between the vegetables to keep them from toppling on their sides.  Typically, potato wedges are used to keep the stuffed vegetables upright, but as I’m desperately trying to hang on to the last vestiges of my girlish figure I have to stick a lower carb leveling utensil.  The herbs used in the stuffing, again, may be substituted to fit your tastes or mood.  Fresh dill, mint and flat-leafed parsley are usually my choice but fresh thyme, rosemary or marjoram are also wonderful.  If you find fresh marjoram and have never tried it, pick it up.  Try it.  It tastes like perfume in an herb.  I’m crazy about it.  Today I used a small package of ground lamb.  Lamb is great, because it’s so flavorful you don’t need much to get that “meat heft” and flavor in your dish.  Oh, and a great way to stretch this is to buy large vegetables and cut them in half lengthwise to stuff.  The Greeks are crazy about these stainless steel round baking dishes, shown in the photograph above.  They come in varying diameters but the height is typically 2 1/2 inches high.  They’re used not only for yemiste, stuffed vegetables, but also spinach pie, baklava, and most dishes requiring phyllo dough.  Jimmy always gets irritated with me when we go to the Greek market because I always want to buy another one.  I have two now.  One medium in size and the other monstrous.  Great for parties.  But I feel you can never have too many.  I’ll let you know when he springs for another.

 

 

Greek Stuffed Vegetables

  • Servings: 4 large peppers and 8 tomatoes
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 1 pound ground lamb, browned and drained
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 large bunch mint, leaves chopped
  • 1 large bunch dill, chopped
  • 1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves chopped
  • 4 cups short grain, brown rice, or rice of your choice, cooked
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 large peppers or as many as you’d like
  • 8 tomatoes or as many as you’d like
  • 3 or 4 zucchini cut into wedges or 1 or 2 potatoes if you’d rather, none it your vegetables fit snugly into their baking dish

Cousin Dimitri with Hippie Dimitri, still drinking ouzo!

  1. Preheat oven to 375°.
  2. Add onion to same pan as cooked, drained ground lamb, stirring, cook onion until clear.
  3. Add garlic and herbs, stirring all the while.
  4. When herbs have wilted, add rice and salt and pepper. Mix well and set aside.
  5. Cut tops off of peppers, set aside, and cut ribs and seeds and discard.
  6. Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set aside.  With a thin spoon, I use a soup spoon, scoop out insides of tomatoes being careful not to poke a hole through the flesh.  Set the innards aside and if it looks as though you won’t have sufficient filling, chop up the tomato cores and add to stuffing to stretch it out.  Just see how it goes.
  7. Spray non-stick spray to baking dish and spoon filling into vegetables, placing upright in baking dish.  Now’s the time for the zucchini or potato wedges.  Tuck them where needed to keep your fruits of labor from toppling over and spilling their filling.
  8. For tomatoes and peppers, add the tops previously cut off.
  9. Carefully, add water to bottom of baking dish, maybe 1/2 to 1 inch.
  10. Cover tightly with tin foil and bake for a good hour, hour and a half.  Drop temperature to 350° if your oven is too hot.  Vegetables are done when tender.

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Perfect Rice

In all fairness to my older sister, we really do have a great relationship.  There are only two years between us, so as little girls, we were best of friends for the longest time. All our relatives in Puerto Rico were extremely over protective, so in our grandparents house we only had each other. There were no play dates.  No little girls were coming over. We weren’t often allowed to play outside.  We could get kidnapped or, maybe worse, we could get sun.  We didn’t care.  We had each other.  When we were about six and eight the day fianlly came when we were allowed to walk unescorted the one block to one of our favorite haunts…”la farmacia”,  the pharmacy.  Hand in hand we slowly walked on the sidewalk away from our house knowing there were six to seven sets of eyes fixed on us from the second floor front balcony.  It’s pretty safe to say there were probably lots of prayers flying about and maybe a novena or two.  Our grandparents lived on a beautiful street named “Avenida Flamboyanes”,  Royal Poinciana Avenue.  The street was lined on both sides with lovely, graceful royal poinciana trees, their tiny leaves constantly fluttering in a downward spiral.  The tree has a gorgeous, fiery red flower, but, even better, was when it produced its dark brown, foot-long seed pods.  We’d gather them up, they were all over the ground, and then carefully split open each pod to find a great big seed, larger than a big watermelon seed.  All the seeds went into our pockets and then the two little girls played a rousing game of “War”.   How we hurled those seeds at each other, shrieking and laughing, they’d sting when they made contact but that just made it better.  And for all that racket we made, day after day, summer after summer, year after year no one came out of their homes to scold us,  tell us to quiet down or take it somewhere else.  It was great.  Our favorite “flamboyan” tree was at the front of a house where the family living there had an exotic green parrot by the name of Paco.  Paco lived in a black, wrought iron cage hanging in a demi-lune tiled balcony.  Nice.  Really nice.  Over 50 years later it remains our favorite house.  Right around the corner from it is “la farmacia”.  It was as though we had entered another world.  Oh, the treasures to be had inside the drugstore.  Perhaps today would be the day the new Archie comic books would arrive.  If we weren’t allowed comic books at home, how the heck could it be allowable here, we wondered.  And the candy.   Oh, the candy!  Easter egg colored, candy covered almonds sat along side pastel, melt-in-your-mouth sugar dots.  There were rock hard, pyramid-shaped all day suckers in the flavors of the island, guava, and mango as well as the soft sweet potato, sesame and coconut candies typical of the island.  And Barbie coloring books.  Another taboo figure in our stateside home.  Mama was NOT a big fan of Barbie.   At home, Cynthia and I each had one Barbie and a few outfits but that’s it.  No trunks of fashions nor Barbie Dreamhouse  were part of our childhood.  We held dance contests with our Barbies  dancing to Van Cliburn albums playing on the family stereo, known back then as the “hi-fi”.  Back at the farmacia, we slowly walked back home with our purchases in hand, or not, if we had already blown our bank on previous excursions.  It was a wonderful world for the two little girls.  Come what may we had our constants, unconditional love, unending heat, 4:oo p.m. cartoons and rice and beans…every single day.

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Perfect rice is truly easy.  First, let’s talk grains.  I use certain grains for certain dishes.  My favorite is a medium grain.  Soft, like a short grain, but holds its shape like a long grain.  I use medium grain rice for mostly all dishes except the following.  Dolmades, Greek stuffed grape leaves, require a short grain rice, arborio or valencia.  Rice pilaf is best with a long grain.  But other than that, I’m a medium grain girl.  I use the same measuring method for rice to water ratio for white rice or brown rice.  I use two large beverage glasses identical in size and shape.   Each glass holds exactly two cups.  My ratio for medium grain white is 1 1/2 glasses of water for every one glass of rice.  Brown rice, and I like short grain organic, is 1 2/3 glasses of water to one glass of rice. I buy large bags of rice and always have it on hand. I salt my water well because, like grits, if you salt them after they’re cooked they never have any flavor.  Grits and rice will stay tasting flat and disappointing.  After cooking, rice freezes really well.  For a good stir fry you want dry, day old rice, not freshly made, otherwise it will stick together and clump up.  So pay attention to measurements and your rice will turn out great.  You’ll be all over it like white on rice!

Perfect Rice

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 2 identical iced tea or water glasses, one filled to the rim with medium grain white rice
  • Fill the other glass with room temperature water and pour into a medium size heavy pot.  Add half a glass more water and pour into pot.
  • Add 2 tablespoons  olive oil to pot.
  • Add 1 teaspoon salt to pot and bring to a rolling boil.
  • Add rice, stir well, cover tightly and drop heat to low.
  • Simmer 30-45 minutes and taste for doneness.  If not quite done and dry, add 2 tablespoons water, cover and cook for another 5 minutes.
  • Serve warm.

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Arroz con Pollo (Puerto Rican chicken with 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!

Arroz con Pollo, Puerto Rican Chicken and Rice

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 medium to large onions, finely chopped
  • 6-7 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 2-3 tablespoons capers, well-drained
  • 3-4 good tablespoons green olives with pits
  • 1 6 oz. can tomato paste
  • 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

 

  1. In a heavy Dutch oven or large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat.  Add chopped onions and cook until almost clear, stirring often.
  2. Add garlic, oregano and bell peppers and cook until almost cooked through, still stirring.
  3. Add capers, green olives, tomato paste and culantro.  Stir well.
  4. Add chicken pieces, cook just to brown outside.
  5. Add rice, stir well to coat the rice grains with other ingredients, add water and salt.
  6. Stir so rice is equally distributed, tomato paste broken up and dissolved etc.
  7. Bring water to a boil, cover pot and drop heat to simmer.
  8. 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.

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