Friday, May 30, 2008

Berenjena Guisada

Hey Y'alls.

Sorry I've been so absent from this blog. It seems that everytime Cuca starts cooking something noteworthy, I'm neither able nor willing to do what it takes to photographically document the process. Today was no different, except that I've gotten over the need to provide pictures for every post, and since today's recipe will be very simple, I don't feel bad about it.

Since all of you come from my other blog, you already know by now that my life has taken a turn in the vegetarian direction. At first, I thought that this would be disastrous for my relations with cocina criolla, but I'm realizing that this is not necessarily so. Of course, I'll be missing out on all the great meat dishes from the island, but there are many vegetarian possibilities in the PR cook's arsenal, and there are many dishes easily converted for vegetarians if necessary. (Thanks, Madness, for the encouragement.)

Today's recipe is one that comes traditionally in vegetarian and pescatarian form. (Is that even a word?) berenjenas guisadas are basically stewed eggplants. "Guisada/o" is a very common method of cooking in the PR kitchen, so this recipe, more or less, can serve as a template for other proteins/vegetables, and it is very easy to accomplish. Last, but not least, this is a very forgiving dish for those not necessarily crazy about eggplant. The eggplant cooks down to a thick, stew-like texture, and the heavy seasoning means that you'll be tasting recaito more than anything else.

For the berenjenas guisadas, you'll need:

Achiote oil or olive oil (see notes below)
Tomato sauce
Salt and Pepper

1. Peel and coarsely chop your eggplants. Size does not matter, as it will become one formless mass in the end anyway. To remove some of the bitterness, there are two methods: Cuca's and mine. 

Cuca: boil the eggplant chunks for a minute or two and then drain. 
Poundpapi: put the eggplant in a colander or on paper towels and salt them, allowing them to drain for as little as fifteen minutes and up to a couple of hours

2. Heat a saucepan with enough achiote/olive oil to lube errythang. Put in a proper chunk of recaito, and let that sautée for a minute or two.

3. Smell your kitchen. That is what my kitchen smelled like every day at dinnertime.

4. Add just a touch of tomato sauce- let's say a tablespoon or less. If tomato sauce is unavailable, use tomato purée, or even a splash of salsa from the fridge, in a pinch. I won't tell Cuca. DO NOT EVER USE KETCHUP IN PUERTO RICAN FOOD. (There are people who will disagree with me, but that shit is disrespectful.)

5. Toss in the eggplant, season with salt and pepper, and allow that shit to marinate. And by 'marinate' I mean simmer. When done, the pieces of eggplant should be meltingly tender to the point of formlessness. You'll see little chunks here and there, but this is sort of like a mush.

6. Serve with a starch of your choice. Traditional sides: short-grain white rice, verdura (root vegetables such as potato, cassava, yautía, and green bananas and plantains, boiled and served with a drizzle of good olive oil). Short-grain brown rice is always an acceptable substitute for white rice, in my book. (In fact, I think long-grain brown rice should be outlawed as it has nothing on its short-grained play cousin.) I'd be tempted to eat this with a good, crusty bread, as well.

7. If you want to get fancy, try the following garnishes in whatever combinations you desire: a drizzle of amazing olive oil; a squeeze of lemon; a splash of Cuca's vinagre; olives, capers and/or a few sprigs of fresh cilantro thrown into the pot after the flame has been turned off. Fanciness could also appear in the form of a splash of white wine added along with the eggplant. Go crazy, folks!


1. For eggplant success, choose smaller, rather than larger fruits, as they tend to have less seeds. Today's eggplants were of the mottled white and purple variety- Cuca likes them better.

2. Here's the link to Cuca's recipe for recaito, in case you haven't already made it.

3. Achiote is a seed that is used to add flavor and more importantly, color, to dishes. It is preferable to use it when possible, but the dish will not be ruined by its absence- it will only lack the deep red color and nutty taste imparted by the seed. Go to the market in the barrio and buy "achiote" or "annato" seeds in the spice isle. Combine one to one and a half tablespoons of seeds with one cup of olive oil in a saucepan, and put it on a medium flame. When the color from the seeds begins to leach out into the oil, you can turn off the flame, and let the oil and seeds stand in the pot until the oil cools down. You can then strain the mixture and throw it in a glass jar. It keeps in the refrigerator for quite a while. Use this oil whenever sautéeing recaito.

3. This recipe exists in another version in which bacalao is added into the mix. Bacalao is salt cod, and probably too gangsta for most of my readership, but after years of childish trepidation, I opened my heart to the joys of this funky food several years ago. It is so salty and pungent and the sweetness of the eggplant provides a heavenly foil to this supervillain of the food world. Bacalao is one of the foods I will miss as a vegetarian, but I knew that the road would be tough titty, so whatever. For those of you who are down with bacalao, I'm torn between this dish and the Puerto Rican gazpacho (not a soup, another entry) as my favorite salted cod preparation. If you find a trustworthy place to order it, do it. Better yet, come to Cuca's kitchen. 

4. As I mentioned earlier, the guisado preparation is a basic method in comida criolla. The almost daily application of this method would be habichuelas guisadas. Substitute beans of any type (pinto and navy beans are my favorite, garbanzos and gandules are also great) along with a cut up potato or piece of squash. For the meat eaters, this preparation is also used with chicken and beef.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Binagre para Bioletta

Alright, just one more PR Pantry post for now, I promise. After having posted the last recipe for the recaito, and having read Maven's comments, I realized that I left y'all high and dry: a bunch of recaito in your freezers, and nothing to do with it. So, the next posts will be about actual dishes you can make, and not just condiments and mise-en-place and shit. (Quick hint: use recaito to make great chicken soup, beans to eat with rice or flatbreads, or with ground meats in supplement to whatever you put in your taco fillings. Just sautee it first, and then add whatever you're making to the pot. You'll thank me later.)

Now, for today's recipe: vinagre. Wendell and I have had protracted exchanges about this miraculous substance recently, and since Cuca decided to re-up our stash today, it's the perfect topic for discussion. A lot of PR food n00bs are surprised to find out that our food isn't spicy hot, like that of our Mexican cousins. To that, I would say:

1. Consult a map, jerk.
2. Get out more.

Also, I would confirm that spicy chiles (ajices in PR) are not a regular feature in dishes themselves. Instead, we opt to make spicy condiments, thereby allowing each one to spice their food according to their individual tastes and wussiness. Enter vinagre.

There's this boricua chef on PBS lately, maybe you've seen her? Her name is Daisy, and while I appreciate the existence of a PR cook on TV, her recipes leave a lot to be desired. Just ask Wendell, who made Daisy's exotic recipe for vinagre - complete with pineapple rind and habaneros - and came away pretty disappointed. "There, there, my dear," I e-cooed, while e-patting Wendell on the back. I couldn't stand to see my homegrille upset, and in a moment of courage, I knew that I just had to give her Cuca's recipe. Less exotic. Way tastier.

1 6 oz. bottle pickled tabasco peppers (ajices picantes)
2 cloves of garlic
1 tsp. salt
pinch of black pepper
splash of extra virgin olive oil

Empty the contents of the bottle of pickled peppers into a 32. oz (give or take a few oz.) glass jar. Smash the garlic and toss into the peppers, along with the salt and pepper. Fill the jar reasonably full with water, and throw in the splash of oil. In about two weeks, the vinagre should be ready to use. Be careful- it will fluctuate in heat during it's lifetime- sometimes just a few drops will do, other times a teaspoon or two just right.

Keep this around for just about anything you want. Always with rice and beans, pollo guisado, pasteles, etc. I've even been known to sprinkle this on potato chips, but don't tell anyone.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bendito recaito

I'm in somewhat of a bind, gentle readers. For my first useful post, I was inclined to provide a primer on the Puerto Rican pantry. That said, I'm not sure how useful that would be in this blogaree- maybe it's just better if I introduce new ingredients and techniques as we get to them? Either way, my conundrum was solved when Cuca announced today that she would be making a fresh batch of recaito. As the basis for all things Puerto Rican (I even lotion up with the stuff) there was no postponing the inevitable: this post will be all aromatic in your ass.

Recaito. Sofrito. Especias molidas.
You'll hear it referred to by all of these names, although the correct name for today's recipe is 'recaito'. When recaito is friend in oil (or lard) as the basis of a recipe, it then becomes 'sofrito', derived from the Spanish word for sautee: sofreir. As for especias molidas, this is a term that Cuca uses, and rather inappropriately, as recaito is a blend of herbs and aromatics, with nary a spice involved.

Those of you more familiar with other Mediterranean-based cuisines will see that recaito is simply the Boricua version of Italian pestata, French mirepoix, or the Creole Trinity, etc. (As a side note, Puerto Rican cuisine is also referred to as cocina criolla, so back off N'Awlins.) Recaito then, becomes the basis of so many different dishes, and as such, you should make lots at once, and keep it in the freezer for when you need a boricua fix and I can't come over.

Three more notes before the recipe:

1. Recaito is named for the predominant element used- an herb called recao or culantro in Spanish. Not to be confused with cilantro, which is also in the recipe, recao has a flavor similar to cilantro but about ten times more potent. If you have no stores that carry produce for the Latino market, hit up your local Asian markets. Vietnamese cooks often use this herb (known to them as Ngò gai) as a garnish to my favorite soup, Phở. Other recipes will tell you that substituting cilantro will work in a pinch. I will tell you no such thing, dear readers. Either you get recao, or you won't be eating good that night.

2. Ajices dulces are the traditional pepper used in this recipe. They are very similar in appearance to habanero peppers, but do not make that painful mistake! These peppers are only faintly piquant. If you can find ajices dulces in good shape, for sure get them, otherwise, a substitution here is perfectly acceptable: the Italian or cubanelle pepper.

3. It's nearly impossible to get my mom to commit to precise measurements. Thus, my recipes will rarely be exact. Also consider that sometimes the cilantro is bangin, and sometimes it ain't. The most important thing is to get a sense of proportion. Feel free to experiment as you see fit.

Enough talking, let's get down to cooking. Er, actually, there's no cooking involved, so let's get assembling.


2 big bunches of fresh recao, fresh and pungent
2 big bunches of fresh cilantro, also fresh and pungent
1 lb. ajices dulces or 6 cubanelle peppers
4 heads of garlic
3 pounds of yellow onions

Thoroughly wash and dry the herbs. You don't want extra water in your finished product, so a salad spinner is useful here. Pick through the recao and cilantro for dead leaves, and trim the bottoms of their stems. Wash, stem and seed the peppers, and if using the cubanelles, break them into more manageable pieces, or give them a quick, rough chop. Peel the garlic (when peeling large amounts of garlic, allowing the cloves to soak in lukewarm water for an hour prior is very helpful) and onions, and cut the onions into a manageable size.

You will need to work this in batches, so divide the herbs and aromatics so that each batch gets a little bit of everything. Using a food processor, or blender, process the ingredients until the texture is within the boundaries of fine chop to coarse puree.

As for storage, you have two options. The best is to put some recaito in zippered food-storage bag, and lay it flat in your freezer until solid. Once frozen, you'll be able to snap off pieces whenever you need. Another option is to freeze the recaito in ice-cube trays and then transfer the cubes of goodness to a freezer bag, but be warned that any ice made in that tray afterwards will taste like garlic and oignons. Not a good look, if you axe me.

Now, you are ready to sail the seas of cocina criolla! Carne guisada? A snap. Arroz con gandules? Got it. Pastelillos? Whuuuuuuuut, son??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Pa' que tu lo sepas!

"Just so you know!" That's the translation of this post's title, and when preceded by "Yo soy Boricua" it forms the soundtrack at Puerto Rican Day Parades around the country. In this case, it perfectly sums up my feelings about this blog: this is real Puerto Rican food, just so you know.

Anyone growing up with a decent Boricua cook in the kitchen knows what hell it can be finding a passable pastelillo in a restaurant, or pernil that isn't dry and tasteless. In this age of the internetz, you'd think it would be easy to find good recipes for acapurrias, or even recaito, but alas, the recipes either suck, or the formatting is teh suxx0rz so much that the promise of good food isn't enough to wade through the bullshit.

About a month ago, after yet another fruitless session of surfing the net for good recipes, I realized I was part of the problem. I have a 'puter. I have a camera. I have a PR mom (whose nickname growing up was 'Cuca') who can cook. I have internetz. I can haz blog? I think so, kitty.

Here, gentle readers, are my promises to you:

1. Good recipes for Puerto Rican food that have been tested for decades by my own family of picky eaters. Most of the recipes are my mother's, but for the things she doesn't cook, I'll depend on other family members, all of whom have some area of expertise.

2. A decent visual experience, or at least as much of one as my pretty little featureless camera allows.

3. Forays into non-PR food that will be worth your time.

In summary: let's get on these hoes!