Puerto Rico’s Essential Dishes

The New York Times brings us news, but also cultural content like recipes and food history.

Von Diaz’s Essential Puerto Rican Recipes begins with sofrito, a mix of garlic, onions, peppers, and a local variant on cilantro. This mixture provides basic flavor for many dishes,and for Diaz, it provides smell of nostalgia.

Diaz, a journalist and professor food science, was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Atlanta. She cooks traditional Puerto Rican food, valuing the richness of its traditions, including Taino, Spanish, African, and American influences.

Along with sofrito, she shares Sancocho, a stew also shared by one of the first U.S. visitors to Puerto Rico when the Island had just become a possession of the United States, This visitor, also writing in the New York Times, listed the ingredients of Sancocho: “beef, ham, salt pork, chicken, sausage, potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips, cabbage, garbanzos, green and ripe plantains,onions, garlic, yucca, celery, and various kinds of peppers. ‘The question is not so much what they put in,’ the traveler joked, ‘but rather what they do not put in.’”

Pernil, or pork roast, is another of Diaz’s essentials, and she demonstrates it in the video above.

“Take pernil, the coveted garlic-and-herb-marinated pork shoulder that is traditionally slow-roasted whole over coals. On the island, there’s an entire stretch of highway through densely forested Guavate — La Ruta del Lechón — dedicated to pork made with precision by families committed to the craft,” says Diaz. “These dishes celebrate the contributions of the tens of thousands of Africans taken to the island in bondage, who introduced processes like deep frying, among many other things, and who are credited with cultivating rice, the cornerstone of the Puerto Rican diet to this day. ”

Inspiration against all odds

Diaz wants her readers to stop thinking of European food as the pinnacle of cooking. “We look to the cuisines of islands, of places that have struggled, to gain inspiration from how they managed to make things taste so good against all odds. This is old, deep knowledge, and we can all learn from it, regardless of background, and find ways to integrate this way of thinking into the way we cook.”

In recent years, Puerto Rico has suffered a string of disasters, and responded with grace and creativity. This is the attitude Diaz admires in Puerto Rico cooking.

Arroz Mamposteao, another of her essentials, is a dish designed for leftovers. You can use fresh rice and beans, she says, but she doesn’t recommend it. It usually includes some pork and perhaps vegetables, and some cooks include plantains, more evidence of the adaptability and versatility of the Island cuisine.

Storytelling

Diaz is a cookbook author, radio producer, and documentarian. But she describes herself first as a storyteller. Her essential foods come with stories.

Pastelillos de Guayaba, a guava-filled pastry, were to Diaz “a portal between the island and my new home” when she found them in a stateside bakery.

Gandules con Bolitas de Plátano bring her extra pleasure when she thinks of the pleasure with which a Muslim friend received the vegetarian dish when she shared it.

All the recipes are linked from the article.

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