Flavors of Puerto Rico
By Joan Namkoong
Advertiser Food Editor
My teacher was Patricia L. Wilson from Puerto Rico, who was in town recently teaching Nuevo Latino/New World Cuisine at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Kapi'olani Community College. Wilson is a chef and assistant professor at Johnson & Wales University in Miami.
"Tostones are a big part of Puerto Rican culture," said Wilson, who was raised in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. "We make the best tostones."
Plantains, those large cooking bananas we see in our supermarkets, are often made into tostones when they are green. "I like to serve them topped with a garlicky bean puree, salsa or fish mousse; sour cream and caviar are delicious, too," said Wilson, who was once the executive chef for Amadeus restaurant and her own Bistro Gambero, both in Old San Juan.
Those toppings are definitely new wave. The traditional accompaniment for tostones is mayo-ketchup, a mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup and garlic, once made in home kitchens but now sold in bottles, made by Heinz especially for the Puerto Rican market. This dipping sauce is not unlike what we once routinely served atop iceberg lettuce salads here in the Islands, and is just one of many food similarities one can find in these two island paradises where sugar cane once was king.
The British introduced breadfruit to the Caribbean to provide food for plantation slaves. Capt. William Bligh's crew staged its famous mutiny aboard one of the ships carrying breadfruit plants from the South Pacific. Breadfruit has been cultivated in both regions for many generations, though other starches are more prominent.
"Rice is the basic starch in Puerto Rico, always served with pink beans," said Wilson. "Rice and beans are eaten daily, even with spaghetti." Reminds you of Hawai'i's plate lunches with rice and macaroni salad, or our penchant for eating chili with rice. In Puerto Rico, arroz or rice, part of the Spanish legacy, is eaten with chicken, shrimp, lobster, land crab and sometimes beef, sliced thin and well cooked.
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"We never had a fishing culture and we would never eat fish raw," explained Wilson. But dorado or mahimahi is a popular fish. Dishes such as tripe stew, blood sausage and other organ meats figure prominently in Puerto Rico. "We like to serve fricassee of goat no curry, here with boiled bananas."
In the protein department, pork is the primary meat, spit-roasted and seasoned with garlic, cumin and salt and pepper. Lechoneras, pork is called, reminiscent of Filipino lechon. No doubt they would like kalua pig and pork katsu as much as we do.
Root vegetables called viandas are a staple of the Puerto Rican table. Cassava, batata (boniato), yautia (a taro like our dasheen), apio (similar to celeriac) and others are served with eggs, tomatoes, onions, bacalao (salt cod), all accompanied by oil and vinegar. "This was our seranata, our Friday meal," remembered Wilson, who grew up in the Catholic culture of Puerto Rico, where meat was prohibited on Fridays. "The roots are bland and starchy. When I tasted poi, I could understand it because of our viandas; I enjoyed it."
Cassava, also known as manioc and yucca, the root from which tapioca is made, becomes a table cracker in Puerto Rico. The cassava is grated, the poisonous sap squeezed out and the pulp is pressed into discs that are dried in the sun to make a crisp, flat bread.
As for green leafy vegetables, there aren't many, said Wilson. For crisp, healthful things rich in A and C, said Wilson, "we do eat lots of fruit: pineapple, mango, guava, passion fruit and quenepas, a green-skinned fruit like lychee. And of course, all kinds of bananas. We like to saute baby bananas in a little butter and sprinkle it with parmesan cheese (the kind from the green box); it's served as a side dish."
Speaking of cheese in green boxes, the Puerto Rican table shares the same reliance on canned foods as does Hawai'i. "The Americans gave us all these foods, especially the canned ones," said Wilson. "My theory is that it started with the school lunch program. Foods were supplied by the U.S. government, and the ladies who cooked in the schools had to come up with what to do with these things."
What they did is what Wilson would do: Give it a Puerto Rican flavor. Sofrito is the all-important seasoning, a cooked combination of fresh herbs, onions, garlic and peppers. Canned corned beef is combined with a sofrito, chopped onions, garlic, peppers, potato or ripe plantains and served over rice.
"Arroz con salchicha is very popular," said Wilson who holds a doctorate in art and trained in New York restaurants. "It's a dish of rice, made with red sofrito and Vienna sausages; it is considered poor-people food but it is also nostalgic food for everyone."
Salads used to be cold canned vegetables, drained and mixed with oil and vinegar, the accompaniment to viandas.
Foods wrapped and cooked in leaves like our lau lau are plentiful in the Puerto Rican repertoire. There are pasteles, of course, made with green banana and plantain, filled with pork and lots of garlic.
Piraguas is what we would call shave ice in Hawai'i. "There's a big block of ice and a metal hand grater (Mercado de la Raza, the Latin American market, sells them) and the ice is hand-shaved. Syrups of soursop, coconut and tamarind flavor these small cones of ice."
Another treat is flan, made with what else but canned milks evaporated and sweetened condensed. "I'm almost embarrassed when I share this recipe," said Wilson whose restaurant won awards for its food. "But the recipe works every time and it's really good."
Cooked bananas and flan
- 1 whole breadfruit or
- 3 green plantains
- Oil for frying
If using breadfruit, peel, remove core and seeds, and cut into 2-inch chunks.
If using plantains, remove the tough green skins by trimming off the ends, then slitting the skin through the length of each plantain. Peel skin off with your fingers. Cut plantains into 1-inch thick rounds.
In a heavy skillet or saute pan, heat about 2 inches of oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add breadfruit or plantain pieces, frying until golden brown but cooked, piercing easily with the tip of a knife. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. While still warm, press each piece with the clean flat bottom of a dish or small frying pan, flattening each one. Return flattened breadfruit or plantain to hot oil and fry until crisp around the edges and deep golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt while still hot.
Dipping sauce: Blend 4 tablespoons mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons ketchup and 1 clove finely minced garlic.
Green bananas can be cooked and served as a starch. They can accompany stews and curries, they are added to soups or grated and steamed in banana leaves.
Cooked green bananas are chewy and bland like potatoes or taro but in escabeche or a vinegar dressing, they are texturally interesting and very tasty. This salad could accompany grilled meats and can be served at room temperature.
Green Banana Escabeche Salad
- 12 green bananas
- Sea salt (or Hawaiian salt)
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup pitted green olives
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into julienne
- 1 sweet onion, cut into thin slices
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Make a slit in the skins of the banana but do not remove the skins. Place in a large pot of cold water with 3-4 tablespoons of sea salt. Bring to a boil and cook until tender. The skins will turn dark. Drain bananas, refresh under cold water, cool and peel. Slice bananas into half-inch pieces and place in a bowl.
Heat olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add pepper and onion and gently cook until just wilted. Remove from heat and strain the olive oil over the bananas, reserving pepper and onion in pan. Add olives, capers and vinegar to bananas; mix well and add salt to taste. Arrange bananas on a serving platter. Mix the thyme with the onion and pepper and mound the mixture over the bananas.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 can evaporated milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla or rum
- 4 large eggs, well beaten
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Have eight 5-ounce ramekins or custard cups ready.
Place sugar in a saucepan and melt over medium-high heat. Allow sugar to dissolve until a clear syrup forms, then bring to a gentle boil. Carefully watch the sugar as it turns golden to amber to deep amber.
When it reaches this point, remove from heat and pour a little into each ramekin, quickly tilting the ramekins so the sugar covers the bottom and part of the sides of each. Set aside.
Whisk together remaining ingredients; pour into the ramekins. Bake in a bain marie (water bath): place ramekins in a baking dish, place in oven and fill baking dish with hot water halfway up sides of the ramekins. Bake until flan has set, about 40 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Run knife blade around the edges of the flan and unmold onto plate or shallow bowl.