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

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.