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)
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.