Thursday, August 23, 2012

Week 33: A Journey to Puerto Rico

My plans for a week of Puerto Rican food evolved from more than a desire to learn more about this cuisine.  I’ve traveled there several times since moving to south Florida, and thanks to my friend, Carlos Quinones, every trip has been filled with incredible culinary journeys.  Carlos grew up in Puerto Rico, and when I planned my first vacation there, he sent me a full travel itinerary for exploring the island.  He and I have shared recipes and experiences for years, so I knew that my plans for cooking Puerto Rican cuisine would be fully influenced by his recommendations and family traditions.  Instead of turning to the internet or my vast collection of cookbooks, I scheduled a date with Carlos for a lesson in Puerto Rican cuisine.

He arrived for our date with cookbooks in tow.  On his last trip to Puerto Rico, he purchased a cookbook for me called Puerto Rico True Flavors by Wilo Benet.  Over drinks at the bar, we leafed through every page of this cookbook discussing each dish…what made it special, its origins, when his family served it, how his mother made it.  For instance, he explained how his grandmother and all of the tias would get together during the holidays and form an assembly line to make pasteles, a dish similar to tamales but made with green bananas or tubers, instead of cornmeal, and steamed in banana leaves, instead of corn husks.  He described ingredients that are uncommon in the US, but specific to Puerto Rican cuisine, such as breadfruit, chayote, and aji dulce.  (He also brought me an aji dulce plant that is now growing in my yard.  He said that it will produce prolifically and that the peppers can be preserved in vinegar for months.  I can’t wait for our first fruit.)  Carlos loaned me his copy of an out of print cookbook by Dora Romano, Rice and Beans and Tasty Things.  He shared with me that his dad sent it to him many years ago, and although this book may not have glossy photos, the text presents a full interpretation of Puerto Rican cuisine.  To say the least, he provided me with more information, recipes, and ideas than I could ever tackle in one week, but I did my best to celebrate the highlights.

mallorcas fresh
from the oven
On my first trip to Puerto Rico, Carlos insisted that I visit La Bombonera in old San Juan to try their mallorcas for breakfast, and we loved it so much that we never missed an opportunity to eat there on any future trips.  Unfortunately, after more than one hundred years in business, this wonderful little café closed its doors in April.  I decided to take on the challenge of recreating our breakfasts there and selected a recipe posted on the Always Order Dessert blog.   Pan de mallorca is an eggy, flaky pastry that is slightly sweetened.  My biggest concern was not overworking the dough, because the key to a beautiful mallorca is to keep it light and fluffy, similar to a brioche.  I knew as I slipped the first sheet of pastries into the oven that I had successfully conquered this dish, and I was right!  When the first batch came out of the oven, I couldn’t wait to stuff and griddle them. 
mallorca stuffed with
egg, ham, and cheese
Mallorcas are usually served with a dusting of powdered sugar, and sometimes they are stuffed with eggs, cheese, and/or meat.  At La Bombonera, they split them in half, slathered them in butter, pressed them on a griddle, and dusted them with powdered sugar.  I followed suit and prepared them the same way….pure unadulterated heaven!  Just as we would order at La Bombonera, we started with the stuffed version:  egg, ham, and cheese.  Then, we followed it with a basic mallorca buttered, griddled, and dusted in powdered sugar for dessert.  I am so proud of myself for recreating this dish.  We are already making plans for the next weekend we will splurge and enjoy homemade mallorcas.

Fritters are such an essential part of Puerto Rican cuisine that Wilo Benet’s cookbook includes an entire chapter dedicated to them.  One of my favorite places to visit in Puerto Rico is an area near Luquillo Beach referred to as “the huts” which is a long row of over fifty kiosks, each known by its number, lined up down the highway for what seems like over a mile.  For me, a trip to the huts means starting on one end and working my way down the line ordering a different fritter and an ice cold 8 oz can of beer at each kiosk until I can’t eat or drink anymore.  Such fun!

I chose to make two fritters for this week’s project:  almojabanas and alcapurrios de jueyes.

alcapurrios de jueyes
Before my first trip to the huts, Carlos gave me a cheat sheet list of his favorite fritters there, and one that he recommended, much to my delight, was a crab filled fritter called alcapurrios de jueyes.  The dough is generally made with yautia (taro) and the filling includes crab meat, olives, capers, and a touch of tomato paste.  I could not find yautia, so I substituted malanga for it in my fritters, and they still tasted great.  We topped them with hot sauce, which made them even better.

Carlos mentioned to me that his grandmother often made almojabanas as a special treat for him when he was growing up.  This fritter is a simple combination of rice flour, milk, egg, and crumbled queso fresco. The texture reminded me of mashed potatoes, and the cheese provided a subtle, saltiness.  It is common to drizzle these fritters in honey or dip them in chocolate, and I can see how that would be a great combination because their flavor profile is neutral enough that they could easily be complemented by savory or sweet elements.  We simply ate them warm from the fryer and found them delicious.

Roasted Pork, Stewed Pigeon Peas with Plantain Dumplings, Rice, and Tembleque
One of these days, I am going to make it over to the lechoneras of the infamous “pork highway” for a day of gluttony.  Until I do, I will dream of the Roast Pork we made at home for our weekend of Puerto Rican fare, because it was awesome!

From time to time during the project, I specifically select dishes that the hubs will enjoy, because he is always such a great sport about my transitioning weekly menus.  For sure, any smoked and/or roasted pork dish is always at the top of his favorites list, and I knew he would be excited to try out a new variation.  In Steven Raichlen’s Planet BBQ, he only features one Puerto Rican recipe, Lechon Asado, and really, that’s all he needed to include…it’s amazing!  The technique he offers for treating the skin produces the most incredible chicharron with a smoky flavor and crispy skin atop a thin layer of unctuous fat.  Here’s to make it:
    Start with a bone-in, skin-on pork shoulder.
  • Slice the skin off the shoulder in one large piece and set aside.
  • Poke holes in the roast and fill them with garlic cloves and fresh sprigs of oregano.
  • Rub the shoulder with an adobo spice blend (salt, dried oregano, dried sage, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper).
  • Drizzle the pork with two tbsp of olive oil and rub it into the spices and the shoulder.
  • Tie the skin back onto the pork with butcher’s string.
  • Roast the pork (skin facing up) using indirect heat on a charcoal grill.  We added applewood chunks to the coals every hour.  Every thirty minutes, baste the pork with annatto oil, and roast until it reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees F.  (For our nine pound shoulder, the roasting time was about four hours.)
pork shoulder
& chicharrons
The flavor imparted from these seasonings and the technique of cutting off the skin and tying it back onto the pork elevated this pork to BEST EVER status for pork we have cooked at home on the grill.  After it rested for about fifteen minutes, we untied the skin from the shoulder and cut it into squares.  We served the chicharron alongside the shoulder.  No sauce.  Who needs sauce with such an amazing pork shoulder?  Seriously, it was so good!  There were at least three times during dinner that the hubs pulled a big hunk off the shoulder and said, “You want a really good bite?  I can tell this one is going to be great.  Look how moist it is, and the bark on the outside has so much flavor.”  I responded each time with, “No honey.  You can have it.  They are all great bites, and I’m going to eat all of this chicharron if you don’t hurry up and eat some yourself.”

gandules con
bolitas de platano
As if the pork wasn’t already amazing, we also had some delicious stewed pigeon peas to accompany it.  When Carlos and I were discussing the dishes in Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors, he pointed to the recipe for Gandules con Bolitas de Platano (Stewed Pigeon Peas with Plantain Dumplings) and told me it was a must.  He shared with me that while his family had “rice and beans” for almost every meal, as is customary, his mom transitioned between brown beans, pink beans, and pigeon peas so that it never felt like the same thing for dinner every night.  Benet’s recipe for stewed pigeon peas turned out to be another gem of a dish.  The stew’s flavors came from onion, diced ham, sofrito (homemade with onion, garlic, cubanelle peppers, sweet peppers, cilantro, culantro, oregano), tomato sauce, and pumpkin.  The plantain fritters had an interesting flavor, but I found them to be a bit heavy.  Overall, the dish was a great addition to a dinner of roast pork and rice.

Carlos told me that tembleque was a dessert that I absolutely had to make.  Most simply, it is defined as coconut pudding, but its texture was actually a little firmer than flan, so I’m not sure “pudding” is the best description.  The dish surprised me.  It’s simply sweetened coconut milk thickened with a cornstarch slurry, but the end result is delectable.  In my research, I found that some people pour it into special molds or dishes to present it, but I found the straightforward presentation of squares dusted with ground cinnamon to be quite elegant.  The dusting of cinnamon is a must for presentation, as well as for flavor.  It brings out the sweetness of the coconut. 

mofongo and
stewed pigeon peas
I would be remiss if I did not include mofongo in a week of Puerto Rican cuisine.  Mofongo is fried green plantains mashed with garlic, salt, pork cracklings, olive oil, and broth.  Sometimes, the dish is made with either ripe plantains or yucca, instead of the green plantains.  In an interesting twist, a friend who was recently in Puerto Rico for vacation told me he had a dish called trifongo which incorporated all three ingredients (green plantains, ripe plantains, and yucca).  In previous trips to Puerto Rico, I have ordered mofongo and while I never disliked, I generally found it to be very heavy and flavorless.  However, when I made it for this week’s project, I suddenly understood why people love it so much.  As with everything, the key difference in my mofongo and what I had tasted during my travels was nothing more than simple seasoning.  I followed Wilo Benet’s recipe, and I have never enjoyed mofongo so much.  I am confident that the difference was the fresh garlic.  The dish had such a brightness to it, and when I paired it with leftover stewed pigeon peas from the night before, it was the perfect combination for a Monday night “comfort food” dinner.

To say the least, we ate well during Project Puerto Rico, even better than I expected.  In addition to fabulous food, I enjoyed spending time with Carlos and listening to his stories about growing up in Puerto Rico.  All in all, a week that I will cherish and remember fondly.

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