Sunday, June 03, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Puerto Rico I - A few boricua staples in one!

Before heading up the 95 to the smallest state in the Union, I wanted to give a nod to the largest of US territories, a Caribbean island that has had much influence on the New York and nuyorican culinary landscape, as well as the American food frontier in general.

Official Name: Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Spanish: Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico)
Is it a state? Nope, it's a territory - the largest one in the United States
Official Languages: Spanish and English, with Spanish as the more widely spoken language
Territorial Nicknames: La Isla del Encanto (The Island of Enchantment); Borinquen (from the original Taíno name for the island, Borikén)
Cession to the US: December 10, 1898 (after winning autonomy from Spain on November 25, 1897)
Capital: San Juan (largest)
Other Important Cities: Bayamón (2nd largest), Carolina (3rd largest), Ponce (4th largest)
Region: Caribbean; South Atlantic (US Census)
Bordered by: the Caribbean Sea (all sides)
Closest land mass: Dominican Republic, a little more than 50 miles to the west
Official Territorial Foods and Edible Things: none
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Puerto Rican food (duh) - a mixture of Taíno, West African and Spanish influences, including: sofrito, tostones, arroz con habichuleas (con gandules around Christmas), mofongo, tembleque; ají dulce (sweet peppers indigenous to Puerto Rico); piña colada

Puerto Rico is, of course, not the only territory of the United States: the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas Islands also merit attention.  But Puerto Rico is the largest, the closest, and has the most citizens making regular trips back and forth to the mainland.  As such, it has has lots of influence on the American culinary landscape - specifically the Northeastern one, as New York City has the country's largest Puerto Rican population outside of, well, Puerto Rico itself. (NB: this is not meant to ignore other prominent Puerto Rican communities in the US, specifically in South Florida).

Puerto Rican cuisine's prominence on the New York culinary landscape is part of the larger Nuyorican community.  My guide book has been Puerto Rican Cuisine in America [2002] by Oswald Rivera, who writes certainly not the first Puerto Rican cookbook (perhaps the first Nuyorican one), but a very comprehensive one nonetheless.  Rivera helps to define Nuyorican culture and identity for his readers, including in food terms:
[A Nuyorican] partakes of a culture and enjoys a cuisine that combines elements of traditional Puerto Rican cooking with infusions of new ideas and new ways of doing things inspired by the new urban environment of New York. [Rivera 2002:ix]
In doing these next few Puerto Rico posts, I realize that they are not only an exploration of some of the isla del encanto's standard foods, but also a token nod back to New York and the Big Apple, which I already thoroughly covered a few months back.  Not to give all this extra attention to New York over and above all the other states here, but ignoring these strong Nuyorican elements makes little sense.

Whether the cuisine is puertorriqueño or neoyorquino, Rivera says there is no definitive way to describe it [2002:x].  "Our cuisine is a potpourri of various elements...[drawing] heavily on Spanish, native Caribbean and African influences.  It's heavy on spices, though Nuyorican cuisine has gotten somewhat milder..." [2002:x].  Among some of the most prominent features include fresh ingredients, pork and beef, and beans and rice - lots of beans and rice.  Of course, this last part is a staple throughout Latin America and the Caribbean: in Mexico it's arroz con frijoles, in Cuba it's either that or congri (if cooked together), in Peru it's fried like a pancake - this is called tacu tacu , and in Portuguese-speaking Brazil it's arroz com feijão.  It's important outside of Latin America too, whether it's Haiti's diri kole ak pwa or Louisiana's Cajun beans and rice (in the US, the beans come first for some reason; everywhere else, it's the rice that gets top billing).

In Puerto Rico and the Nuyorican world it's arroz con habichuelas - rice with red beans.  Rivera points out that during the holidays the beans may be pigeon peas instead (arroz con gandules), but rice with red kidney beans is the standard, and for this you typically prep the kidney beans first, in that other very important Puerto Rican ingredient, sofrito.  The sofrito is somewhat like the Cajun three sisters of onion, celery and green pepper: it is ubiquitous in many dishes.  Sofrito has more ingredients, but according to Rivera [2002:xii] it typically includes cilantro (often called culantro), green bell pepper, garlic, onion, recao and ají dulce.  These last two are probably quite easy to find in both Puerto Rico and New York.  They are not, however, so easy to find in Baltimore, so I had to find semi-reasonable substitutes.  Mind you: you can easily find Goya brand recaito and sofrito in a jar.  But to make the stuff from scratch you have to track down the originals.  Most of the Latin American groceries I've been to in Baltimore mostly carry Mexican and Central American ingredients.  I may be dense, but I haven't been able to locate Puerto Rican ají dulce, that small, sweet pepper common in Puerto Rican cooking.  Instead I opted for red bell pepper - not the same, but still a sweet pepper.  As far as recao, even Rivera suggests this is optional, and his uncle prefers to use regular old parsley (which is what I did).

The recipe: Arroz con habichuelas

There are a few steps here.  First I made the sofrito, then the habichuelas and finally the arroz con...

For the sofrito you will either need the jarred stuff - easier, probably not as good, but will more likely have the right ingredients in it - or if you do it from scratch (I did using the sofrito recipe on pages xii and xiii - it's that important - of Rivera's Puerto Rican Cuisine in America):
*cilantro (not difficult to find.  I had some left over from that Thai food truck recipe from Oregon)
* parsley (no recao on hand, but I have this on my porch)
* garlic (had it)
* yellow onion (same)
* green bell pepper (about $2 per lb, or about $1 for this one)
ají dulce (as noted above, I had a bit of trouble tracking this down.  I substituted red bell pepper)

Most cooks also add tomato sauce, but usually hold off until the sofrito is in the pot with whatever it is cooking with.

For the beans (recipe on pages 201 and 202 of Rivera's book - I did use the sofrito method), you will need the sofrito along with:
* kidney beans (duh - beans are not as cheap as they used to be, but still at $1.50 for a pound they still aren't going to break me)
* tomato sauce ($1 for a can)
* oregano (had it, need more)
* salt (same)
* beef bouillon (yup, same)
* olive oil (again, had it)
* one potato (forgot to put it in the photo, but it is in the final product)

For the arroz con habichuelas (on pages 184 and 185 of Rivera's book) you will need the above red beans recipe along with some other ingredients I forgot to put in the above photo - not just more onion and green bell pepper, but also salt, pepper, oregano, olive oil and the following two important ingredients:

* rice (this really is becoming pricier.  I ended up buying the cheap 1 lb bag for about $1 at Wegman's)

* salt pork (the brand I typically buy has vanished from the supermarket shelves for some reason, so I bought Virginia fatback for about $2.30 per lb at Giant)

Start your prep the night before, rinsing the beans in a colander...

...and soaking them in cold water overnight.

The sofrito is not difficult to make: just chop up everything and throw it in your blender.

It will come out like this.

The next day, set your beans a boiling.

Add the sofrito, oregano, potato (peeled and cubed), bouillon, salt and pepper, and tomato sauce.

The author's mother also adds a little red wine - a tip from a Cuban friend of hers.  I went ahead and did this as well.  Boil (will take about 5 minutes), lower heat, cover and simmer for half an hour until thickened.

To continue with the arroz con habichuelas, reserve a few cups of the liquid from the beans to add to the rice.

Drain the rest and set aside.

Rinse the rice and set aside.

Render the salt pork with a little olive oil (I should have spent more time rendering, or just used bacon which renders much more quickly.  Also note: cubing fatback takes more effort than I realized).

Add the vegetables and saute for a few minutes, and then add the liquid, rice, beans and other ingredients.

Boil for five minutes until liquid is absorbed, then cover and simmer over low heat for another half an hour.  Again, it was starting to burn to the bottom at this point so I had to add more liquid (This always happens with this pot, no matter how faithfully I follow the recipe.  Note to self: maybe consider getting a new pot.)

In the end you will get this.  Yes, I added a red chile pepper for a little spice.

Here we are, a staple in lean times and good times.  The taste of the sofrito doesn't jump out at you - it's mild and it permeates the rice and beans.  This is filling, flavorful and just good.  And despite all the steps you have to take it really isn't that difficult to do.  Now this is going to inspire me to try rice with beans from other areas of Latin America.


Deane, Zain.  "Mofongo".  Go Puerto Rico (, date unknown.  Copyright 2012,, All rights reserved.

El Boricua (  "Mofongo".  Date unknown.  Coyright 2012, El Boricua, All rights reserved.

Gill, Nicholas.  "The History of the Piña Colada".  New World Review, 2009.  Copyright 2009, New World Review, All rights reserved.

Goya.  "Piña Colada: How to Make Piña Colada".  Date unknown.  Copyright 2012 Goya Foods, Inc., All rights reserved.

Goya.  "Tembleque - Coconut Pudding: Quick, Coconut Gelatin".  Date unknown.  Copyright 2012 Goya Foods, Inc., All rights reserved.

International Bartender Association. "Piña Colada".  Last accessed 2010 (archived by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine,

Rivera, Oswald.  Puerto Rican Cuisine in America: Nuyorican and Bodega Recipes.  Second edition.  Four Walls Eight Windows: New York, 2002.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Puerto Rico" and "Puerto Rican cuisine" pages and other pages.