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.

Plantains stuffed w/Black bean salad

Image

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Plantains stuffed w/black bean salad. Posting soon! =D

Festive Pico de Gallo

Pico de gallo. I won’t go into the literal translation of it, but it really is a refreshingly vibrant addition to any savory something. Cool, acidic, slightly sweet, and picante at the same time. Pico de gallo is traditionally found at most taquerías and other Mexican-influenced restaurants, but in Puerto Rico, you can find it just about anywhere criollo. In fact, there’s a chain of food restaurants called Pollo Tropical that offers a variety of signature Caribbean dishes and, just because it is so good with everything, they offer unlimited pico de gallo with your food. Did I mention Pollo Tropical is Cuban-owned? Talk about mixing cultures – yum.

As with sofrito, the recipe for pico de gallo varies greatly. Typically, it is slightly picante (or hot) from hot peppers, acidic and refreshingly sweet from tomatoes, onions and lime.  Some pico de gallo varieties are chunky, while others are runny. I made this recipe for pico de gallo adding a couple of twists and turns in terms of flavor, color and texture. A trio of peppers, garlic-infused oil, cilantro for freshness, and Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce® to add depth to the hot jalapeños. The last item can be found in the Asian section most supermarkets in the US, but in Puerto Rico I’ve seen it in health food stores, as well as an Asian supermarket located in Condado County.

The forecast was cloudy with a “chance of rain.” Naturally, it poured, since early in the morning. How depressing. It’s nice to know that some pico de gallo is here to brighten my breakfast though.

Yields: 4 cups of pico de gallo

Tools and Equipment

Mixing bowl

Knife

Cutting board

Small saucepan (optional)

Stove (optional)

Ingredients

3 Cloves of garlic, chopped or sliced

3 Equally-sized bell peppers (red, green, and yellow)

3 Tomatoes

1/2 Vidalia onion

1/2 Green jalapeño

1 Tbsp Extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C Lemon juice, about two lemons

1/4 C Finely chopped fresh cilantro

2 Tsps Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce®

Black pepper or pepper medley to taste

  1. In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil on medium-low, and add the garlic. Heat until the oil starts to bubble, in effect frying the garlic. Transfer the garlic and the infused oil onto a large mixing bowl and let it cool until necessary.
  2. Chop the peppers, tomatoes and the onion. For a runnier salsa, leave the pulp of the tomato. I like mine on the dryer side, so I removed it. You can puré the tomato pulp and add it to your next soup or sauce, like I did ;-).
  3. Cut the jalapeño in half and remove the stem and chop finely, be careful with all the flesh adjacent to the seeds, as it is the primary source of the heat. You can use gloves to be extra safe. Just make sure not let anything or anyone get near them once you’ve finished.
  4. Combine all the chopped goods with the garlic and oil in the mixing bowl from step #1.
  5. Add the lemon juice and the chilli sauce, mix again.
  6. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour. The longer, the better though, as it will allow flavors from the fresh veggies and fruits to mix together in both acidic and oily phases (read: It will taste 10x better).

Something is a’making, while the oven preps for baking!

Something is a'making, while the oven preps for baking!

¡Piñón! Perhaps the most common dish made from ripe plantains in the Caribbean, after amarillitos, fried cuts of mature plantains served as a sweet side dish. Piñón is like lasagna, but with layers of ripe plantains, and no tomato sauce. Usually the plantains are fried prior to layering, but I don’t want anything clogged-up, except my mouth with delicious food. =)

Not Rightfully Tembleque de Coco

Childhood memories kick-in every now and then. The other day, my family celebrated my grandmother’s 76th birthday and even though I was not able to attend, I did talk to her over the phone for a very long while. The chief subject: a recount of comical memories since her childhood. One of the things we both agreed on: She got me into loving coconut, in every way. She wasn’t the only one though. My grandfather would climb, don’t ask me how, the palm trees in their backyard to fetch fresh, water-filled coconuts every single time we visited over the summer. He would skillfully chop the top layers and poke a hole in the center, from which deliciously sweet water poured. Inside the green coconut, one could scoop out delicate, yet tasty flesh. Delicious.

Any who, it was my grandmother that got me into coconut sweets. Among them, tembleque de coco, was the easiest to find, as well as to eat. Not surprising, since this coconut pudding of sorts, is embedded to the very culture of Puerto Rico. I don’t think there’s a bakery in the island that does not offer a variant of this dish lightly dusted with ground cinnamon. The variants I refer to mostly differ in the rigidity of the pudding. The word tembleque actually alludes to the jiggling motion (yes, that is an actual word) that the pudding has as you poke or move it along its sides. Some people prefer this rigid version, as opposed to a softer one. The first time I remember trying tembleque de coco, I asked my grandmother if it was coconut Jello®. Indeed, it looked like white gelatin. Not that I did not like it, but a few months later I tried another variant, a more pudding or mousse-like tembleque; and I loved it. Of course, my grandmother enjoyed it too. ;-)

In light of the recent occasion, it seems right to make this mousse(y) tembleque de coco. In fact, I’ll be making some again as a gift for my super grandmother this weekend. Hopefully, we won’t eat all of it before the rest of the family arrives. Then again, it will be her gift. No reason to share, right?

This recipe yields enough pudding for 6 – 8 people. To make the gelatin-like tembleque de coco see the notes at the end of the recipe.

Tools and Equipment

Mixing bowl

Whisk

Stove

Pot or medium saucepan

Electric mixer (optional)

Ingredients

2 1/2 C Coconut milk, divided (Not coconut cream!)

1/4 C Coconut cream *See notes below.

1/4 C Granulated sugar

1/4 C Cornstarch

1/4 Tsp Salt

1/2 Tsp Vanilla extract

1/4 Tsp Almond extract (optional)

Toasted coconut flakes and/or cinnamon, for garnish.

  1. Combine half the coconut milk with the cornstarch in a separate bowl and whisk until smooth, though small clumps may set in the bottom. Not to worry.
  2. In a saucepan, pour the rest of the coconut milk and set to medium heat. When it starts to boil, add the sugar, salt, and coconut cream. Let it reach a boil once more.
  3. Add in the cornstarch slurry in a slow, steady stream, while vigorously whisking the heated mixture until it starts to thicken. Add the extracts.
  4. When it starts thickening, lower the heat to medium-low, and let it sit for 20 seconds, without whisking. Then whisk again for 10 seconds. Repeat this two times. It should thicken significantly.
  5. Transfer to serving recipient and refrigerate for at least three hours.

– OR –

For a more fluffy, delicate coconut pudding, transfer the mixture to a cold metal bowl and chill for at least three hours. Before serving, whip it using an electric mixer and serve.

Notes: * An alternative I prefer to use, instead of coconut cream, is to chill a can of coconut milk over night and remove the cream from its almost-solidified state at the top of the can. I use the rest in making sauces and soups. This makes for not-ridiculously sweet cream.

To make the gelatin-like tembleque, double the amount of corn starch, let it sit on low heat for 2 extra minutes after thickening to your desired consistency and refrigerate in a shallow bowl or serve ware.

Sofrito: The base of Puerto Rican cuisine.

If you ever ask a Puerto Rican what is the staple food over here, the reply will most likely be “Rice, beans, and _______.” The last of which will be filled with the name of some animal protein that can vary immensely. Rice and beans, however, are always constant.

When we say rice, we mean white rice, unless we specify otherwise. When we say beans, we mean beans cooked in tomato sauce; but this sauce is special not because it requires rare ingredients or complex techniques, but because it has an extraordinarily flavorful and simple base: sofrito.

I guess most cultures have their own bases. The French came up with mirepoix and I’ve heard that people in the south of the US call their base creole. Every base is comprised by different ingredients that, I suppose, are not only easy to find, but also cheap in each region. In fact, I believe that the recipe for sofrito will most likely differ from family to family, or maybe from town to town. Whatever the case, sofrito is the foundation of most Puerto Rican, and perhaps even Caribbean, dishes. We use it to flavor virtually everything and anything savory. This base is so fundamental to Puerto Rican cuisine, my grandmother makes spaghetti sauce with it – and it is delicious.

This recipe was given to me by my grandfather, and though it is extremely simple, it is packed with flavor. It is something of a miracle, really, that this recipe of just three ingredients elevates “OK” beans to “YUM! What did you put in this?” beans.

Abuelo Ismael’s Quick Sofrito

This recipe yields about about 4-1/2 cups of sofrito, but it will vary with the size of the processed goods.

Tools and Equipment

Sharp knife

Cutting board

Clean towel

Clean jar or container

Strainer – optional

Ingredients

1 lb. Garlic heads = 5 – 8 garlic heads

2 lbs. Spanish onions = about 3 – 5 onions

1/4 lb. Cilantro (or cilantrillo) = about a handful

  1. Peel, separate, and cut the stem ends off the garlic, exposing the cloves. Peel the onions and cut off the root ends. Cut the cilantro stems near the root. Discard all the inedible ends.
  2. Wash all the ingredients thoroughly, but make sure to pat them dry, at least until all the excess water is removed. I like to leave them about an hour or two over a clean towel, just to make sure they’re dry and clean.
  3. Cut the cilantro into 3-inch long segments and place in a food processor. Layer the garlic cloves evenly over the cilantro in the food processor. Cut the onions into an appropriate size to fit the food processor and layer over the garlic. You might have to do this by batches. I was lucky enough to borrow my mom’s huge food processor, but my grandfather makes this by batch and it works just fine. Even better, because he does it ;-). If you do make it by batches, though, make sure to split the ingredients, such as to have approximately equal amounts per batch. You don’t want to stir this much after it’s done.
  4. Pulse in the food processor until the desired garlic and onion size is reached. The cilantro should be processed thoroughly, though.
  5. Transfer sofrito to the clean container and seal as tight as possible. This can hold up for two weeks. Though the flavor changes slightly as time progresses, this is not a bad change. You can certainly freeze it, but that will mellow the flavors down considerably. I like to keep mine in the fridge for two weeks maximum. The rest, I give out as a gift. Really.

Note: If there is a lot of liquid when you process the ingredients, get a fine-mesh strainer, like those used to sift flour, for example, to remove as much of the liquid as possible. Runny sofrito goes bad faster and does not cook as well as mildly-chunky-and-not-as-wet sofrito.

How to use it. With a little amount of oil, sauté as much sofrito as you believe necessary until the onions and garlic turn golden and the smell is irresistibly delicious. Proceed with your intended recipe as usual, but this time, you have a base layer of flavors to build on. =)

Any questions? Feel free to ask.