Tuesday, February 12, 2008

For Suki's Puerto Rican-Themed Valentine Dinner LoveFest

I was very blessed to have a dear friend introduce me to the glory of Puerto Rican cuisine years ago. Cuban food seems to have more cache but I find the food to be a little bland; the base for a lot of Puerto Rican food is an herb called recao. It is also used in Vietnamese cooking and provides a punch that can't be beat. You could substitute cilantro but it really isn't the same. Recao is used to make recaito, which is made of onions, peppers, garlic and of course, recao. If you cook this mixture with lard or pork, it then becomes sofrito.

Anyway, since my formative years, I have been on a quest to perfect the dishes in my Puerto Rican repertoire including but not limited to rice and beans, tostones, pastelillos, flan, pernil, relleno de papas etc etc. This has earned me favorable status among my friends and just yesterday my friend Suki requested my rice and beans recipe to make for her Valentine's dinner, along with PR-style roast pork. Rice and beans may sound like a simple dish but can really be quite complex. Sometimes I make the rice (white, medium grain) and beans separate because it can be awfully finicky to get the right balance of ingredients for the perfect arroz con gandules. Sometimes there is too much moisture and the rice is soggy and lacking in flavor. On the flip side, not enough moisture yields dry and often burnt rice. The perfect rice is fluffy and flavorful, each grain separate from the next and the bottom of the pot creates a well-cooked, chewy bottom known as el pegao. Some people consider this the best part. In any case, I will give my recipe for white rice and beans (easy) and then my recipe for yellow rice (more tenuous). As far as I'm concerned, yellow rice isn't necessarily better. I quite like the white rice and beans separate because I prefer less rice and more beans, the flavor is more concentrated that way. However, yellow rice seems to be the more popular. I almost said more traditional but I had both styles many times in Puerto Rico so go figure. Before you begin, heed these warnings:

1. DO NOT USE BROWN RICE! I like brown rice too but it is totally inappropriate in this dish and will compete with the flavor of the beans.
2. DO NOT USE LONG GRAIN, JASMINE OR BASMATI RICE! Go to the Hispanic section of your market and buy whatever short-medium grain white rice there. I prefer Sello Rojo but that is hard to find so try Goya or Camellia.
2. DO NOT USE BLACK BEANS IF MAKING THE RICE AND BEANS TOGETHER! If you are doing them separate, no problem. But black beans are too moist and will mess up the balance of the rice.
3. RINSE THE RICE! This is not to be picky but you have to wash the starch off the rice or the texture will be gummy.
4. DON'T USE STORE-BOUGHT RECAITO OR SOFRITO! Goya makes this, ready to go from the supermercado. It tastes like nothing. Please take the extra time to make your own or just ask me for some. I've always got some in the freezer.

2 c. Sello Rojo rice, soaked, rinsed and picked over for any grit

3 T. olive oil
1/3 recaito or sofrito*
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 packet Sazon
1 T. Adobo
6-10 green olives and their brine
1/3 can tomato sauce (from the small, 6 oz can. Save the rest to make a dipping sauce for your tostones!)
1 can beans, I like pinto but whatever
3 c. chicken stock

Cook the rice as you usually do.

For the beans, heat oil in a pot and add sofrito/recaito. Cook for a couple of minutes on medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and garlic. Cook for a few more minutes. Add the Sazon and Adobo and stir thoroughly. Deglaze the pot with some of the olive brine and then add the olives. Add tomato sauce and beans and cook about one minute. Finally, add the chicken stock and let the whole thing come to a simmer. Turn the heat down to medium low and let cook for about 45 minutes. You can skimp on the cooking time but then add less stock so the beans aren't too watery. Me though, I like a sauce that has been simmered for a while. I also like to smash some of the beans on the side of the pot and then stir back in to create a sauce with more body. Sometimes I even add an extra half can of beans for that purpose.

Notes: I suppose I am beholden to say that if you use sofrito/recaito, you don't need to add extra peppers, onions and garlic, as that is basically what recaito is. But I don't recommend it. I'm operating under the "more is better" theorem here. I know a lot of people who don't like olives but still put them in the rice for the briny punch they add. Please do this even if you pick them out when it is time to eat. This is also great as a soup, just add more stock. I love the beans so much that even if I make yellow rice, I have to make my beans anyway. Yes, yellow rice with more beans scooped on top. What can I say, me likes fiber.

Yellow Rice with Pigeon Peas or Arroz con Gandules

The only adjustments to make here (ingredient-wise) are:

1. Reduce rice from 2 c. to 1 1/2 c.
2. Reduce water from 3 c. to 2 1/2 c.
3. Use pigeon peas/gandules for your bean selection to be really traditional. If you don't care, neither do I, just no black beans!

The process is the same too, just add the rice to the pot before the stock. OK, here is where everything gets crazy. I always learned with rice that you bring it to a boil, shut the heat to low, cover and don't bother it. This dish challenged everything I know about rice. Stock should cover the rice by about 1 finger knuckle (Yep, it makes no sense but that's how I was taught). Let the stock cook down to level with the rice, about 15 minutes. At that point, turn the rice over so what was on the bottom is now on the top etc. NOW, turn down the heat and cover. Cook for another 10-15 minutes. This really is persnickety, it's best to be with someone in the know with you while doing this. Or just make it separate. I often prefer that anyway.


1 bunch recao-in Hispanic/Asian markets
3 onions
2 green peppers
2 heads garlic

Whiz this up in a food processor and freeze in small containers. This is a good base for a lot of Puerto Rican dishes. If you don't think you'll be making lots of PR food, this is a great start for chicken soup.


Sukirules said...

You are amazing! I can't wait to try it, and I'm sure Buckley will be pleased if he finds out Puerto Rican food doesn't require a trip to the west side (and far less salty than some of the restaurants around these here parts!)


HLP- other half said...

like, WOAH! i always wanted this recipe and am now scared off after reading.. i had no idea how complicated this was- goodness, i dont even feel very adept with cooking rice (hence my rice cooker purchase several years ago...) whoops, gotta go, i just heard them announce "sandra lee's semi-homemade" i think that may be more my speed... he he!