Von Diaz’s essential Puerto Rican recipes

Pescado Frito, a red snapper, simply marinated in adobo and fried, in New York on March 9, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
Intensely green, verging on chartreuse, plantains hang like chandeliers from tall broad-leafed plants across the Caribbean. The botanical name is Musa paradisiaca, the second word meaning “of paradise.”اضافة اعلان

The plátano is generous, and can be eaten in all stages of ripeness. In Puerto Rico, the greenest ones can be fried, smashed and blended with garlic, olive oil and chicharrónes — pork cracklins — to make mofongo, one of the island’s best-known dishes. When their peels turn bright yellow, speckled with dark spots, plátanos can be fried and served alongside rice and beans for that signature agridulce flavor, sweet and salty. And when they finally become black and squishy, seemingly past their prime, their flesh can be boiled, then blended with butter, and then pressed into a pan to make pastelón, a casserole layered with sofrito-laced beef.

I was born in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, but raised in the suburbs outside Atlanta. My family traveled back to Puerto Rico often — not always the case for those of us on the US mainland — and I was fascinated by those plantain chandeliers. I lived in two worlds in my mind: a lush, loud, exciting tropical wonderland, and a seemingly cultureless, strip mall-laden labyrinth of subdivisions.

The Times asked me to write about some of Puerto Rico’s essential dishes, to choose and share 10 that both resonate with me and reflect the island’s people. It’s challenging, even audacious, to distill a cuisine to any number of recipes, and, because of Puerto Rico’s complex colonial history, it’s particularly difficult to describe its food in simple terms. And so I chose to look closely at dishes that express the innate hybridity of the culture, and celebrate the foundational techniques and ingredients that make its food so compelling, and satisfying.

The cuisine is a culinary mejunje, or mix, of Indigenous, African, Spanish and American ingredients and techniques. In “Eating Puerto Rico,” food historian Cruz Miguel Ortíz explores how Indigenous herbs and root vegetables; African plantains and coconuts; Spanish olive oil, pork and tomatoes; and American canned foods form the mestizo or Creole cuisine exemplified on the island. And the culinary bricolage of the island continues to expand as a younger generation of farmers and chefs insist on modernizing the cuisine.

“Porque es vivo,” Ortiz said. “Y simple.” The cuisine is alive, in flux, he said, yet simple and intensely flavored. Its foundation is sofrito — a blend of garlic, onions, peppers, and recao or culantro (cilantro’s earthy cousin, which thrives on the island). Even in the darkest times, the smell of sofrito sizzling in olive oil is a balm; blended with tomato sauce and rice, its flavor conjures comfort.

Sofrito, for me, is essential. But what is “essential” is subjective, so I believe it’s about what fulfills a need. For some of us, that need is nostalgia. A dish may be essential because it fills your heart with joyful memories, of smells and flavors, of your grandmother loudly playing Juan Luis Guerra, teaching you to dance, her hair still in rollers. For others, essential might mean nourishing to the body, or a meal that fills you ahead of a long day of work.

The dishes below are essential to me because of the stories they tell, the ways they embody my people’s strength and creativity, and how cooking them has helped me make sense of the brutality of my island. As Jessica B. Harris wrote of African enslavement in her 2011 book “High on the Hog”: “It must be looked at in all its horror and degradation, complicity and confusion, for it tells us where and what we have come from.”

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. Fritters such as alcapurrias de jueyes — a blend of green banana and yautia, stuffed with delicate crab — hark back to Loíza, a town on the northeastern coast with rich African ancestry.

And then there are completely modern dishes that reference what has always grown on the island. In pastelillos de guayaba, guava — the epitome of tropical flavor — is balanced by crumbly, salty queso en hoja, fresh cheese, which is baked into a beignet and delightfully dusted with powdered sugar. Nothing ancestral here; it’s just extremely delicious, and makes use of the island’s bounty of fruit.
Above all, these dishes exemplify a deeply creative people, who make food that is flavorful and soul-nourishing.

What I want to suggest here is that, instead of holding European foods and cooking techniques as the highest standards, 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.

As you explore and prepare these recipes, I encourage you to consider the blends of flavors. That combination of yautia and green banana with the sofrito and crab in alcapurrias is unmistakably earthy and robust, salty crispness balanced by delicate seafood. The richness of the chicken thighs in pollo en fricasé, simmered in tangy tomato and white wine, punctuated by briny olives, immediately conjures Mami’s kitchen for many Puerto Ricans, just as the smell of pernil roasting in the oven transports us to every family Christmas and Thanksgiving we ever attended.

You may notice there aren’t many vegetables in this collection. That is not a reflection of how most Puerto Ricans eat today. On my last trip to the island, just as COVID-19 was setting in, I ate whole ají dulce peppers, flash-fried tempura style, at chef Natalia Vallejo’s restaurant Cocina al Fondo, which will soon reopen. At Vianda, I had locally sourced radishes with grapefruit and XO sauce. At Bacoa Finca + Fogón, I was enthralled by a spread made from local beets.

But growing up, and in the cafeteria-style Puerto Rican joints I’ve frequented here on the mainland, the most common vegetable accompaniment to our food is a simple side salad. Oftentimes it’s forgettable: limp iceberg lettuce with tomatoes, canned green beans or peas, dressed with olive oil and vinegar. But salads are the perfect pairing for Puerto Rican dishes — they balance the richness with roughage — so I often pair these recipes with a simple salad of mixed greens, avocado, tomatoes and hearts of palm in a cilantro vinaigrette.

The dishes I present here were foundational to my understanding of flavor, and everything I cook springs from them. In my conversations with fellow Boricuas of all ages and walks of life, both here and on the island, these were all mentioned. Above all, I love each one of these dishes, and I hope you will enjoy making them too.