There’s nothing I love more than getting messages like this one:
My name is Jamie and I watched you on MasterChef and I just saw you on The Kitchen. My mom is from Puerto Rico and her mom used to make “the best” rice and beans. She doesn’t know how to make it, she’s not a good cook and she’s been in America for a very long time. Do you happen to have a good traditional recipe for rice and beans? It seems simple but I wouldn’t know where to start with seasonings.
Jaime, one of the biggest reasons I focus on Puerto Rican flavors is that they take me back to a time and place. I’m sure your mom is the same way. A plate of traditional rice and red beans ushers me straight to my Abuela Alicia’s kitchen in Rio Piedras. It was the late seventies and hers was a small tenement apartment kitchen, with just enough counter space to hold her tin of coffee, a toaster, and a cookie jar. There was a tiny refrigerator, no dishwasher, and a 4 burner electric stove. My Abuela Alicia made magic happen in the confines of that little room.
I remember sitting one late morning, watching as she made her daily rice and beans. She would always make big batches for the parade of friends and family that would stop by and visit with her around lunchtime, hungry for her consejos (advice) and a plate of her food. She washed the rice and put it in a calderón (heavy kettle) with a little oil and water. She started a saucepan with a few tablespoons of oil and a few pieces of diced jamón (ham). As soon as the ham began sizzling she picked up a piece, blew on it and placed it in my greedy outstretched hands. It resembled a ballet she’d danced for decades, the way she moved around that kitchen, chopping up peppers, garlic and an onion for sofrito, the flavor base of most Puerto Rican sauces and stews. She mumbled carajo (the Puerto Rican version of fuck) when the phone rang, and she took her wooden spoon with her as she went to answer it.
The phone cord reached all the way to the kitchen stove and she stood there tasting and stirring, the receiver cradled between her cheek and her shoulder. She was talking to one of my aunts. I tried to listen in but all I could make out was “Es una berraca!” (I still don’t know what that means.) She threw in a few spoonfuls of sofrito, a little sazón (spice blend), a can of Goya red kidney beans and a few chunks of calabaza tropical (island pumpkin). While the beans and rice cooked my grandmother tried to teach me how to pray the rosary, but all I could focus on was the heavenly smell wafting over from the kitchen.
I have tried for many years to recreate my Abuela’s recipe. It is difficult to do because state side we don’t have access to many of the ingredients available in Puerto Rico like recaito (which tastes like a concentrated, bitter cilantro), and calabaza tropical, a winter squash that grows year round on the island. I substitute cilantro for the recaito and kabocha or butternut squash for the calabaza tropical. While I am a huge fan of most Goya products, I prefer to make my own sofrito and sazón to avoid preservatives and MSG. You’ll find my recipes by clicking on the links or you can find the Goya versions at your local market in the Latino isle.
The below recipe isn’t my Abuela’s but it is inspired by hers. As I prepare it I am full of gratitude for having such an amazing, generous woman in my life. A woman who was never had much but has always given all of herself. My soundtrack for this preparation is Andres Jimenez Mama Borinquen Me Llama. Jamie, I hope you make this recipe with your mom and you get to chat about your Abuela as you cook. I hope the flavors take your mom back to her birth place and that you create a beautiful memory together. Buen Provecho!
- 3 1/2 cups boiling water
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons garlic salt
- 2 cups medium grain white rice, unwashed
- 2 tablespoons canola or corn oil (I don’t recommend olive oil as it doesn’t have a high smoke point)
- 1/4 cup smoked ham steak, medium dice
- 1/4 cup diced salt pork, medium dice
- 9 tablespoons sofrito or 3 frozen cubes
- 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 cubanelle pepper, fine dice (you can substitute with anaheim pepper)
- 1 cup kabocha pumpkin, large dice (substitute butternut squash or sweet potato
- 1 teaspoon sazón
- 2 tablespoons chopped olives
- 8 ounces tomato sauce
- 2 15.5 ounce cans of red kidney beans
- 2 tablespoons white distilled vinegar
- In a 1 quart saucepan bring the water to a boil. In a calderon or dutch oven melt the butter over low heat.
- Once the butter has started to froth mix in the garlic salt. Add the rice and mix until every grain is covered in the garlic butter.
- Add the boiling water, mix the rice well and turn the heat up to medium-high. Let the rice cook uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes until most of the water has evaporated but still bubbles out of the steam holes that should be all over the surface of the rice.
- Stir the rice. reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Cook for another 15- 20 minutes without stirring, until the rice grains are tender and separate easily when flicked with a fork.
- While rice cooks, start a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat with the canola oil. Once the oil is hot add the ham and salt pork and let fry until golden.
- Lower the heat to medium and add the sofrito, stirring occasionally until incorporated. On your cutting board, sprinkle the chopped garlic with the salt and grind into a paste with the back of your chef’s knife. Add the garlic to the saucepan.
- Add the onion, pepper, pumpkin, sazón, olives and tomato sauce. Cook for 5 minutes over medium heat.
- Add the beans (do not drain) and vinegar. Cook uncovered over medium heat for 20-30 minutes until the pumpkin has softened. If halfway through the cooking process, you notice the liquid the beans are in has reduced too much add 1/4 cup of water.