Lessons From A Puerto Rican Kitchen

Parenthood certainly has its ups and its downs. I would say that the ups far outweight the downs  . . . well, most days anyway. One of the unexpected ups has been all of the wonderful friendships that we’ve formed with the parents of our ponytails’ close friends. With no family here in Toronto, this amazing group of parents has become part of our “village” as we raise our girls.

There’s one member of our village who has taught us many things: how nothing helps you win an argument like speaking Spanish; how to style long hair into the perfect bun for a ballet performance; and the secret to light and fluffy rice. I’m talking about the one and only Mercedes, our friend from Puerto Rico.

Mercedes holding a Puerto Rican caldero, with her daughter

Mercedes is known for cooking a range of authentic Puerto Rican dishes when she holds a dinner party. Apparently though, in the early days of marriage, her husband affectionately nicknamed her Adobo the Alcoholic Chef because of her tendency to add adobo spice to everything she prepared, while sipping on a glass of white wine. She’s obviously diversified her cooking skills since then, but she’s still known to enjoy a good glass of wine now and then.

According to Mercedes, adobo is one of three main ingredients that are part of quintessential Puerto Rican cooking: adobo, sofrito and achiote. Anxious to learn more about the dishes that we’ve come to enjoy at her place, I asked Mercedes to teach me how to make Arroz con Pollo and Stewed Red Beans a few months ago. Her mom also showed me how to make Tostones while visiting Toronto a few years back.

It was finally time to put all of these lessons to the test. This weekend I would try my hand at making a few traditional Puerto Rican dishes (Arroz con Pollo, Stewed Red Beans and Tostone) and then have Mercedes and her family join us for dinner. Fortunately, I was also armed with a popular cookbook authored by an award-winning Puerto Rican chef that Mercedes gave me as a gift, which helped to fill in the gaps where my memory failed me:

Puerto Rico True Flavors by Wilo Benet
Thanks for this excellent cookbook Mercedes!

It is always nerve-wracking to prepare an authentic dish for an expert, so I was pretty nervous. After tasting one bite of my Arroz con Pollo, Mercedes shook my hand and said “now I’m going to call you Sofrito, My Puerto Rican Sister”. Whew. My rice wasn’t cooked quite perfectly, but the right flavours seemed to be there. Cooking rice perfectly really is an art form – one that Mercedes has definitely mastered! Fortunately, despite this, it  wasn’t difficult to get the kids to eat their dinner.

Miss M, my oldest ponytail (right) and her longtime pal Miss G (Mercedes’ daughter).

I’ve included all of the recipes required to make this Puerto Rican meal in this post. I recommend making the sofrito, the dry adobo spice and achiote oil a few days in advance – it’ll allow you to focus on preparing the Arroz con Pollo perfectly.

This meal may seem daunting because of all of the steps involved — hopefully not, but if so, then I encourage you to at least try the dry adobo rub. You can use it as a seasoning for so many things (meats, fish and beans) and it works well as a seasoning for beef tacos as well — just add some paprika, dried cilantro and chili powder to the meat along with the adobo. Judy at Petit4chocolatier used adobo recently as part of a coating for tilapia that I can’t wait to try.

Arroz con Pollo, Stewed Red Beans and Tostones

Arroz con Pollo [Rice with Chicken]

Recipe created using tips from Mercedes and Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors

  • 1 ½ lbs skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into pieces
  • 1 batch of wet adobe paste, optional [see recipe below]
  • 3 tbsp achiote oil [see recipe below]
  • ½ onion, diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, seeds and inner white ribbings removed, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, pounded to a paste
  • 1/3 cup sofrito [see recipe below]
  • 3 tbsp tomato sauce
  • ½ cup small green olives stuffed with pimientos, sliced in half
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 3 cups long-grain rice
  • 4 ½ cups chicken stock
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup shelled green peas

Instructions

  1. Rub the wet adobe paste [see recipe below] on the chicken pieces and refrigerate covered for 2-3 hours, or overnight.
  2. In a caldero or dutch oven, warm the achiote oil [see recipe below] over high heat. Add the onion, red pepper, garlic and sofrito [see recipe below] and cook until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and olives, and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring so that the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom.
  3. Add the chicken and cook for 6 to 8 minutes. Deglaze with the wine and cook until it evaporates, about 4 minutes. Add the rice and stir well to coat with the rest of the ingredients. Pour in the chicken stock, season with the salt and stir. Bring to a full boil and cook until the water evaporates and the surface of the rice is visible with some bubbling in between the grains, about 8 minutes.
  4. Lower the heat and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice grains are loose and fluffy, about 15-20 minutes (check after 10 minutes just in case). Add the peas, cover and cook for another 3 minutes.

Sofrito [SOH-FREE-to]

From Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 12 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 cubanelle peppers, seeds and inner white ribbings removed, roughly chopped
  • 10 ajies dulces seeds removed and roughly chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro (leaves and tender stems only)
  • 30 leaves culantro (if not available, increase add extra bunch of cilantro)
  • ½ cup fresh oregano (leaves only), loosely packed

Instructions

  1. In a blender or food processor, combine the olive oil with the vegetable oils. Add the onion and garlic and process for about 30 seconds to obtain a pungent white puree.
  2. Add the cubanelle peppers and the ajies dulces, and blend for another 30 seconds to obtain a light-green puree. Add the cilantro, culantro (if using) and oregano. Pulse and then scrape the sides of the blender/food processor with a rubber spatula. Process for another 30 seconds to obtain an herbed-speckled light-green puree with a piquant taste and pungent aroma.

Can be sealed in a jar or a bag and stored in the freezer for up to one month. Because sofrito serves as a base for numerous recipes, no salt should be added to the mixture.

I didn’t make this as Mercedes gave me a bag of frozen sofrito that she brought back from Puerto Rico. It was made with culantro, so it was very authentic!

Annato seeds and achiote oil, which has been prepared from the annato seeds.

Achiote Oil [ah-chee-O-tay oil]

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2.5 tablespoons annato seeds

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat to achiote seeds and oil for 10 minutes without boiling until the oil has been coloured with the achiote. Remove heat, and steep for another 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and discard the achiote seeds. Allow the annato oil to cool then poor into a container with a tight fitting lid. (No refrigeration is necessary).

Making a wet version of adobo paste for the chicken.

Wet Adobo Paste [ah-Do-bo]

(This is an optional step when preparing this rice dish and it is my own take on the recipe. It adds another layer of flavour to the rice.)

  • 2 tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice

Smash the garlic with the salt until it forms a paste. Add the pepper, oregano, olive oil and lemon juice and combine well.

Dry Adobo Rub

Dry Adobo Rub [ah-Do-bo]

Adapted from Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors

  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp oregano
  • 2 to 3 tsp tumeric, according to taste
  • ½ tsp ground white pepper
  • 2 tbsp onion powder

Combine all ingredients in bowl and mix well. Store in a tightly sealed jar or bag.

Mercedes always uses Goya’s prepared Adobo all purpose seasoning; I’ve included this recipe since Goya’s version isn’t readily available internationally.

Stewed Red Beans

Recipe based on instructions from Mercedes

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp sofrito
  • 1 tsp adobo dry spice mix
  • 1 tsp salt
  • One 398 ml tin of tomato sauce
  • 2, 19 ounce cans of Mexican small red beans (or red kidney beans)
  • ¼ cup chicken stock
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tbsp cooked bacon, crumbled (or ¼ cup cooked ham, diced)

In medium-sized heavy bottom pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, sofrito, adobo spice and bacon/ham and cook for about 3 minutes until the onion is translucent. Stir in the tomato sauce and cook for 2 minutes. Add the beans, chicken stock and water and stir well. Lower heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Mercedes fixed my version (pictured with the rice and tostones) by adding the water and chicken stock to make it more of a sauce. The recipe above incorporates this. She also typically uses Goya’s ham flavouring, so we developed the recipe with bacon or ham as a substitute.

The bottom of my small cast iron pan worked like a charm for smashing the fried plantain pieces.

Tostones [tos-TOH-nays]

Based on instructions from Mercedes; Makes about 32

  • 4 green plantains
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Salt water or garlic salt in a bowl of water; salt for sprinkling

Instructions

  1. Peel the plantains: cut off ½ inch from both ends of the plantains. Using a sharp knife, score the skin lengthwise in three different sections Slide the tip of your knife or finger under the skin and begin to pull it away, going from top to bottom.
  2. In a frying pan, heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil until sizzling hot. Cut plantain into 1-inch pieces and add to the hot oil. Fry for about 6 minutes until they start to turn golden and are tender inside. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Using the bottom of a frying pan (or tin can bottom/mallet), smash the plantains into thick tostones. If they stick to the pounding device, release them by quickly sliding a sharp knife under the tostones.
  3. Quickly dip the tostones into a bowl of salted water (but not too long otherwise they will turn soggy). Shake excess water off and carefully return to the hot oil (careful the oil will splatter). Refry for another 5 minutes until they begin to turn golden. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

Mercedes’ mom likes to use garlic salt in place of regular salt in the salted water for dipping the tostones before frying.

Ingredients and Tools In the Puerto Rican Kitchen

Adobo [ah-DO-bo] is a widely-used all-purpose seasoning that is used to flavor and/or marinate meat, chicken, or fish. The key ingredients are garlic, oregano and black pepper. Other spices are commonly added based on regional preference. It can be made as a dry spice mix or wet rub paste. Adobo is used in Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain.

Aji dulce [ah-HEE-DUL-say] – This small pudgy pepper has a similar shape to the Scotch Bonnet, but it is sweet. It is usually green, but can range in colour from green to orange or red. It is an important ingredient in sofrito.

Annato seeds are a deep orange in colour and have a nutty flavour. They are used to make achiote oil, which gives Puerto Rican rice dishes their colour, in the same way that saffron gives colour to the Spanish dish paella.

Caldero (cal-DAY-ro] – A caldero (aluminum pot with lid) is a mainstay in the Puerto Rican kitchen. I bought this 24 centimeter caldero from Amazon.com and it works really well.

Culantro [coo-LAHN-tro] — Culantro is cilantro’s lesser known cousin and is very hard to find outside of the Carribean/Puerto Rico. It has long serated leaves and is also known as long leaf cilantro.

Plantain [plan-tane] – This tropical banana is used for cooking and is larger than an eating banana.

Sofrito [soh-free-to] – An important ingredient in Puerto Rican cooking that includes onion, garlic, peppers and culantro.

Tostonera — A tostonera is  wooden tool commonly used in Puerto Rico to flatten/smash the fried plantain pieces when making tostones, although I found that my small cast iron pan worked like a charm.

NOTES:

  • Mercedes says that the key to preparing fluffy rice is to ensure that you bring the rice and liquid to a full boil and cook (over low heat) until the water evaporates and the surface of the rice is visible with a bit of bubbling, then close the lid to finish cooking the rice for the last few minutes (also over low heat). This process helps to ensure lots of pegao — crusty rice at the bottom of the pan — which she and her family members always fight over.
  • Mercedes’ rule of thumb is 1 cup of water or chicken stock for ever 1 cup medium grain rice and 1.5 cups of water or chicken stock for every 1 cup of long grain rice. I used long grain rice for the Arroz con Pollo recipe because I couldn’t find any medium grain rice.
  • It is important to use green plantains when making the tostones. I bought my plantains at Phil’s Place at St. Lawrence Market (lower level) in Toronto.
  • I found annato seeds in the spice shop (lower level) at St. Lawrence Market, although I didn’t need to buy any as Mercedes was kind enough to give me a few packages from Puerto Rico.
  • I adapted many of these recipes from Mercedes because she likes to use a variety of Goya spices and products, such as Goya Adobo, which are readily available in Puerto Rico. Unfortuntely they are not as easy to come by internationally.
  • Another great resource for Puerto Rican cooking is an old favourite cookbook Puerto Rican Cookery. I have a copy that was kindly given to me by Mercedes’ mom several years ago (thanks again!).