For the Love of Puerto Rican Cuisine – Part 1

I’m in love with a Puerto Rican. And although I’m a true romantic, I must admit that part of my affection stems from the fact that I simply adore Puerto Rican cuisine. My first trip to the Caribbean as a child, in fact, was to Puerto Rico. That began a love affair that till this day persists, both romantically and gastronomically.


True Puerto Rican cuisine is an art. There’s no doubt about that. And much of it begins with the sofrito. This is a mixture of lard or olive oil, achiote seeds (strained after they impart their red-yellow coloring to the fat), bell pepper, onion, garlic, culantro, oregano and sometimes ham. The recipe actually varies from family to family – a coveted secret – and almost always serves as a base to many a boriqua (another way to say “Puerto Rican”) dish.

From Field to Table
While traveling the island – or any food market in NYC’s East Harlem district – one is immediately struck by the wide variety of fresh produce used in la cocina criolla, as the locals call it. For example, the platano, or plantain. In the banana family, it’s sold both green, or ripened to a pretty, black-spectacled yellow (these are referred to as amarillos). In its green state, it is quite starchy and used very much like a potato. The most popular examples of this are tostones. Green plantains are cubed, fried, flattened, and then refried to a crisp, golden color. They are served as appetizers or a side dish, and very often accompanied by a chopped garlic sauce called mojo. When used ripened, platanos impart a mild banana-like flavor and are often fried in cubes, and served with dishes such as arroz con pollo (chicken with rice).

Other farmer specials include yucca, a starchy root; batata, a sweet potato of sorts; yautia (or taro root, as it is known in the Pacific Islands); green bananas, which are firmer and more veggie-like than the ripened treats we enjoy with our morning cereals; okra; calabaza, or pumpkin; sugar cane; mango; papaya…the list goes on an on. And you’ll find them everywhere…steamed, fried and in stews. Always a treat!
Rice and Beans a Must
As my in-laws have taught me, rice and beans must always accompany a meal. To me, they are often the highlight of the meal. Dried habichuelas rosadas or rojas (pink or red kidney beans, respectively) are stewed – beginning with the cook’s signature sofrito, of course – with bits of ham, and often diced pumpkin. They are then served with perfectly cooked white rice, usually on the side, so you’re free to ladle your bean stew on the rice as you see fit.
Speaking of rice, Puerto Ricans are simply fanatical about its preparation. Again, the cooking method varies from household to household. Cover off, until the water is evaporated, then stirred quickly, and covered for 5-10 minutes until the grains separate seems to be the most popular method. And there must always be the pegau, or crisp rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan. Any good Puerto Rican cook knows that. And family members often fight for the crunchy stuff. I have to admit, I like it too.
Next week I’ll talk more about some particularly delicious Puerto Rican specialties. For now, there’s a bowl of rice and beans with my name on it. I need to get to it before it gets cold. Someone I love made it especially for me.
Victor Ribaudo

Next week…Part 2 of “For the Love of Puerto Rican Cuisine.”

Puerto Rican Empanadillas

Empanadillas are the Puerto Rican version of empanadas, a stuffed pastry popular in Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Philippines. They are made by folding a thin circular-shaped dough patty over filling creating the typical semicircular shape. Fillings might include beef, ham, chicken, fish, cheese or fruit. They can be baked or fried.

The name empanada, comes from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to wrap or coat in bread. They are served as an appetizer/tapas, side dish or dessert. In any form, they’re crisp and delicious.

(Liberally adapted from recipes by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli and Yasmin Hernandez)


Dough: (Makes 12 empanadillas)

3 cups all purpose flour

½ t baking soda

½ t baking powder

1 t salt

¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil

1 cup warm water

½ t achiotina* (optional for color)


2 T olive oil

1 lb ground beef

½ medium onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

½ small jalapeno, minced

½ sweet pepper, diced

1/8 cup pimiento stuffed green olives, sliced

2 T sofrito**

1/8 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 T tomato paste

1 pkg. Goya Sazon with annatto

½ t salt

¼ t freshly ground black pepper

Cooking: 4 cups vegetable or peanut oil for deep frying

Procedure (for dough)

Combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor with a metal blade. Pulse briefly. Add vegetable oil and up to 1 cup water until the dough comes together. Remove dough and knead for 2-3 minutes. Let rest in a bowl covered with plastic wrap for 15 minutes. Divide into 12 pieces and then roll into 4-inch round disks.

Filling: Brown ground beef in olive oil. Drain off excess fat. Add remainder of ingredients and cook for10 minutes over medium heat stirring from time to time. Let cool. Place 2 tablespoons of filling in each round of dough, fold over and crimp with the tines of a fork to seal tightly.

Deep frying: Heat vegetable oil in a deep skillet to 350 degrees. Deep fry a few at a time until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on brown paper or paper towels. Drain on both sides. Be sure to bring temperature of oil back up to 350 degrees before adding another batch of empanadillas. Enjoy your special treat!

*achiotina is lard in which a few annatto seeds have been fried and then strained out.

**Basic Sofrito

1 t olive oil

1 garlic clove, chopped

¼ cup chopped tomato

¼ cup chopped onion

3-4 stem and leaves cilantro

1/8 cup chopped green bell pepper

1/8 cup chopped red bell pepper

Grind and pound ingredients in a pilon (mortar and pestle)

(Leftover sofrito can be stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator).

Photographer Bill Brady
Written by Victor Ribaudo
Food Stylist Brian Preston Campbell
Food Stylist Bill Brady
Recipe Provided by Phyllis Kirigin, aka sweetpaprika
Blog syndicated at the