The traditions of Puerto Rican food bear witness to a culture that takes celebration and food very seriously.
“In Puerto Rico, rarely would you see anyone making processed food out of a box,” says Daniel Concepcion, executive chef with Eurest Dining Services at Zappos in Las Vegas. “Que rica vida; que rica la comida,” he adds, before translating to “How tasty is life; how tasty is the food.”
Throughout the Puerto Rican countryside you’ll find some of the tastiest food at lechoneras, roadside stands that slow roast whole pigs on spits and exude a party atmosphere. The pork (complete with impossibly crisp, dark mahogany-colored crackling skin) is served no-nonsense style on paper plates with side dishes like sweet plantains, pasteles (a kind of tamale) and rice and beans.
The base of many beloved Puerto Rican dishes is sofrito. Much like mirepoix in French cooking, or the trinity of Louisiana, sofrito (also called criollo) lends a signature flavor that makes a dish Puerto Rican. The two major components of sofrito are an herb called culantro (similar to cilantro, but with an even bigger, badder flavor) and ajicitos dulces (sweet peppers similar to habaneros but not spicy).
“Culantro grows all over Puerto Rico and my mother used to have me pick it fresh before we used it,” Concepcion says. “I would simply open the front door and pull it from the ground right next to the house.”
Arroz con Pollo is Authentic Puerto Rican Comfort Food
Many recipes for Arroz con Pollo (chicken and rice), like a lot of great traditional Puerto Rican recipes, are passed down by someone’s mother.
This Puerto Rican mainstay is a star dish at the café of the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, in New York City, where Valentin Abreu is associate executive chef. A Gulf War veteran, Abreu grew up in Brooklyn, cooking Puerto Rican food with his mother, and then sharpened his kitchen skills while serving in the Navy. Later, he cooked at the United Nations in Manhattan. Along the way, he’s carried the recipe with him.
“When I started here, I introduced a more authentic way of making this dish,” Abreu says. “The herbs and the local ingredients add so much to it.”
Marinating chicken thighs in adobo and sofrito and using saffron to flavor and add gorgeous color to rice are among Abreu’s tricks of the trade.
Ropa Vieja Recipe
YIELD: 6 servings
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 lbs. beef flank steak
1 cup beef broth
8 oz. tomato sauce
1 small onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 oz. tomato paste
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
1 Tbsp. jalapeño hot sauce
1. Heat vegetable oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown flank steak on each side, about 4 minutes per side.
2. Transfer beef to slow cooker. Pour in beef broth and tomato sauce, then add onion, bell pepper, garlic, tomato paste, cumin, cilantro, olive oil, hot sauce and vinegar. Stir until well blended. Cover and cook on high for 4 hours or low for up to 10 hours. When ready to serve, shred meat and serve with rice or tortillas.