Buela’s Spaghetti

Spaghetti made in dutch oven

There’s something special about comfort food. There’s also something special about experienced family cooks. Combine both and you have a memorable, tasty, and hopefully saucy moment. At least, my grandmother’s spaghetti is.

As a child and early adolescent, my grandmother, V, moved around a lot. Her mother had five children to different men, and well, times were tough. Smack in the middle of the ‘60s, my great-grandmother traveled from Brooklyn to Chicago and back. Eventually, she settled in Puerto Rico and at a very early age her eldest daughter met, fell in love and married my grandfather. This year they celebrate their 50th anniversary – phew! Just thinking about it gives me the chills. Chills of admiration, of course ;-).

Spaghetti dutch oven

Yet, admiration falls short in the attempt of describing or determining my grandmother’s cooking style. You see, my grandfather is very fond of Puerto Rican cuisine. More accurately, he loves the rural, home-grown beans, root vegetables, meat and most of the traditional dishes over here. On the other hand, my grandmother embraced the industrial age of food at US, plus all the culinary diversity of having lived in the busiest cities. Now, how can someone so enthusiastic about exploring food, satisfy the classic-rural palate of a husband, while giving the kids a taste of different places? The answer came to grandma in a simple manner: Puerto Ricanize  – yes, I just made that up – signature dishes from different cultures. Hence, spaghetti criollo was born. I bet something about that combination really appealed to grandpa. I mean, they’ve been married for 50 years, so food (with love) definitely played a part here.

Spaghetti Saucepan 1

The way this sauce deviates from typical marinara is that it requires no fresh tomatoes (industrial America kicking-in), you start off with sofrito and swap basil with cilantro. Part of the awesomeness of this recipe is it’s simplicity and versatility in terms of ingredients. Timing, however, is key. After a couple of conversations with grandma over the phone, I realized that timing was important because it allowed the flavors to blend together particularly well at low heat. Being a fast-forward, impatient, and ever-hungry cook, I hat to struggle with it, but the end product is worth the wait. Enough chit-chat, let’s get saucy.

Serves: 4 – 6

Spaghetti Add-ins dutch oven

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp Extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp Sofrito

-OR-

3 Cloves of garlic, minced

1 8 oz Can of tomato sauce*

1 6 oz Can of tomato paste*

1 C Water

2 Tsp Italian seasoning

-OR-

1/2 Tsp Dried thyme

1/2 Tsp Dried oregano

1/2 Tsp Dried parsley

1/4 Tsp Dried basil

1/4 Tsp Dried sage

1/4 Tsp Paprika

1/4 lb Mushrooms, sliced. Use ones you like.

1/2 Lg White onion, thinly sliced

1/2 Yellow bell pepper, sliced

1/4 C Fresh cilantro, finely chopped

12oz Spaghetti (#8 is preferable)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cilantro

The results of cooking this pasta, as with all other recipes, depends on the cookware. Interestingly, the differences in moisture are evident. If this dish is done in a deep pan, like a dutch oven, the sauce will be really moist, runny, even. If a shallow saucepan is used, the results are slightly dryer and the sauce tends to stick better to the noodles. In fact, it was this difference that drove eluded me for quite some time in trying to replicate grandma’s recipe. She used a shallow saucepan.

  1. In the cookware of your preference (see note above), sauté the sofrito in the olive oil at medium heat, until it turns light yellow and has absorbed some of the oil. Be careful not to burn it.
  2. Add the tomato sauce, tomato paste and water. Mix thoroughly.
  3. Add the Italian seasoning or spice mix and lower the heat to medium low. Let the sauce simmer at medium low for at least 45 minutes – this is crucial.
  4. Taste the sauce! Dried spices vary in intensity, so it’s important to taste every step as possible. Add additional seasonings if necessary.
  5. In a large pot, bring water to a boil with the lid on. While the water heats up, add the goodies to the sauce.
  6. Stir-in the mushrooms. Cook for 15 minutes, without the lid.
  7. Add the onions and peppers. Cook for 10 minutes. Now’s a good time to add the spaghetti and cook for about or a little under the same time.
  8. Strain the spaghetti and immediately add to the sauce. Mix and set the saucepan on low heat, no lid.
  9. Add the cilantro and toss until completely mixed. Have some extra cilantro around to serve with. Enjoy.

Spaghetti Final 1

Stuffed Plantains

Sometimes it just hits you. Not with the lomographic or vintage effect movies use, but real-color, bright, and emotional: a memory. If you are lucky, you can smell and taste it too. That happened to me recently, as I was driving by the neighborhood I grew up in. Our old house still stands out among the others: unpretentious, small, yet isolated and conspicuous, thanks to the garden. A beautiful garden my mother worked on for months. It started with tiny, flowerless plants, but over the years we’ve seen what mom really envisioned: a whimsical array of colors, textures and light. This effect is particularly evident in a 12-foot walkway that connects the front porch with the garage. Small terra-cotta tiles and worn, mossy cement make the cool walkway, while dark green bushes line both sides. Fine-leafed, skinny trees tower along the sides of the bushes, letting light play through as winds push and pull the branches. It was in one of these moments, long ago, that a wind buffeted my face with the smell of mouthwatering stuffed plantains coming from the kitchen window.

Stuffed plantains are the Puerto Rican equivalent of stuffed potato skins. They can be served stuffed as appetizers or empty as sides. Instead of cheese and/or sour cream studded with bacon, the fried plantain vessel is stuffed with pulled, often stewed meat. That means stuffed plantains are best served as soon as they’re made. Otherwise the bottom gets dense and soggy. Perfectly prepared, the vessel should be thick enough to carry some of the juices in the stuffing without immediately absorbing them. The overall size of the stuffed plantain should be such that one could eat it in two to three bites. One bite is not enough to enjoy the flavors and textures, but too many bites can make the process messy with stuffing going all over the place.

My rendition switches the hot’n runny filling for a fresh, crisp’n sweet-savory black bean salad. Colorful, vibrant, and fragrant of lemon-cilantro, these stuffed plantains appeal to the eye, as well as the nose.

Yields: 8 stuffed plantain mini cups + plenty of black bean salad for more goodness.

Tools and Equipment

Mixing bowls

Mortar and pestle (small, see images)

Knives

Cutting board

Frying pan/pot

Kitchen towels

Cooking thermometer (optional)

Ingredients

2 Large green plantains

Plenty Vegetable oil

Plenty Water

1 1/2 C Black beans, cooked and drained

1/3 C Corn, cooked and strained

1/3 C Green pepper, chopped

1/3 C Red pepper, chopped

1/3 C Yellow pepper, chopped

1/3 C Orange pepper, chopped

1/4 C Red onion, finely chopped

1/4 C Shallot, finely chopped

1/4 C Fresh cilantro, finely chopped

1 Tbsp Olive oil, fruity and flavorful

1 Tsp Lemon or lime juice

Salt to taste

Black pepper or pepper medley to taste

Black Bean Salad

  1. To prepare the black bean salad, combine all the veggies in a nonreactive bowl (avoid metal or weak plastics).
  2. Drizzle with olive oil and squeeze in the lemon juice. Mix and taste. Season and mix again. If you are eating this right away, add enough salt to taste. If you are refrigerating for more than 4 hrs, add very little salt first and and a little more just before serving, this will prevent vegetables from exuding too much water. I like letting the flavors combine for at least 5 – 6 hrs, so I generally follow the latter.
  3. Seal tightly and store in the refrigerator, while making the plantain vessels.

Plantain mini cups

Fill a bowl with water and add salt as if for pasta. Stir.

  1. Cut the plantains into large 1 1/2 – 2 inch long rounds and add them into the water. Soak for 15 mins.
  2. Meanwhile, fill the frying pan/pot with sufficient oil, you want enough to cover the rounds.
  3. Place the thermometer near the middle of the distance between the surface of the oil and the bottom of the pan.
  4. Heat till the thermometer reaches about 250°F, you can test with a small piece of bread to ensure proper frying conditions. The bottom of the pan will be at a higher temperature and it should keep increasing, granted you don’t add to many pieces of plantains at a time.
  5. Pat-dry the plantain rounds and place them in the oil by batches. Fry for 6 – 8 mins. I suggest frying four at a time, but this really depends on the pan’s material, shape, and oil volume.
  6. After the first round of frying, place the rounds in a bowl lined with paper towel or some absorbent material. While the next batch is frying, use the mortar and pestle to form the semi spherical vessel. Be careful not to over-mash the plantains, to prevent them from loosing their integrity.
  7. Once the oil is free from the first round of frying the other plantains, transfer the vessels to the oil and fry for 4 mins maximum.
  8. Remove plantain mini cups from hot oil and let it dry over paper towel again.
  9. Stuff the plantains with the fresh salad, while they’re hot and crispy. Season to taste.

Piñón for Dinner!

Image

Piñón for Dinner!

Abundant throughout the year, plantains are to Puerto Rico, like oranges to Florida. Piñón is but one of the dishes prepared with our banana-sque friend. Sweet, roasted and full of savory fillings. A meal on its own, but really good with contrasting textures, such as crisp romaine lettuce and plum tomatoes. I can sleep now =)

Garlicky Grilled Tofu

Bland and weird. Definitely weird. Those were the words that came to my mind when I first tasted tofu. It reminded me of a type of white cheese from Puerto Rico aptly named “queso blanco.” Like the cheese, tofu is mostly sold in blocks suspended in water and other stabilizing agents. Tofu itself is really high in water. Think of it as a sponge of sorts. A protein, carb, and fat sponge – yum, haha. In retrospect, the very first tofu I tried was not properly or, at least lovingly, prepared in two respects: First, it was not drained from most of its water. Secondly, it was bland, very bland. Like meats, you can really tell when tofu is not marinated or seasoned with love, so: If you’re having tofu, season it!  Unless you like its “queso blanco” texture, sans the taste; I totally respect that. =)

I don’t eat tofu that much, or any high-protein meat substitute for that matter, but there are times when I just crave it. Like yesterday. Luckily, I had a some just-to-expire tofu in the fridge, so I went ahead and gave it some love before eating it today. Our relationship was woven in roasted garlic, fresh ginger, soy sauce, and pepper. Delicious as it was, we had to part, or rather the tofu did, as I grilled it this afternoon and served it with some pico de gallo. So sad, yet satisfying. Oh, and I had what was left of my amaretto ice cream. Now that was sad.

Yields: 4 servings of tofu

Tools and Equipment

Stove Or Grill

Grill pan

Tong

Plastic zipped bag, small

Ingredients

1 Pckg Tofu

3 cloves Roasted garlic

1 Tsp Minced ginger

1 Tbsp Soy sauce

Pepper to taste.

Nonstick spray or oil 

  1. To squeeze-out some of the water in tofu, remove it from the package and wrap it with either a cloth or paper towel.
  2. Place the wrapped tofu between two plates and add a weight over the top plate, until the wrapping looks damp. You can repeat this as many times as you like. I generally do it three times to remove as much of the water as possible. It takes around 45 minutes total. Don’t stand there, looking at it, of course ;-). You can set it up, and return every 15 minutes or so :-).
  3. Place the strained tofu in the bag and add the rest of the ingredients. Refrigerate over night. You can cut it into as many servings as you want and marinate it, that way you’ll increase the flavor per serving. I like to marinate the block and spike the servings individually with the same ingredients just before grilling it. This allows the sugars and other yummy components to caramelize on the surface, creating a neat crust! =D
  4. Heat the grill or grill pan and grease the surface. You can use nonstick spray. Once hot, place the tofu servings. Heat until desired char and grill marks appear. No rules here.