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Published: Tuesday, 10/19/2004

The flavors of Puerto Rico

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Discovered by Columbus and adopted by Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico is an island paradise that offers a cuisine of sophisticated tastes, country cooking, and food vendors on the streets and beaches.

It's a culinary tapestry of varied foods from red snapper baked in banana leaves to red beans and rice to arroz con pollo, all of which I find delicious. I hope to adapt it to my kitchen via sofrito, plantains, and guava paste.

Armed with the 1975 cookbook Puerto Rican Cookery by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli (Pelican, $24) and a contemporary booklet from chefs at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan of recipes that were served during the Association of Food Journalists' annual meeting here in October, I discovered that the first step is finding the right ingredients. The next step is combining the basics of Puerto Rican cooking from these two cooking tomes that were developed 30 years apart.

About 600 Puerto Ricans live in Lucas County, Ohio, one of whom is Maria Gonzalez, owner of Azteca Travel. "There is the noble cuisine and creole cooking called cocina crijolla," says Ms. Gonzalez, who has become a local resource for me as I prepare several Puerto Rican recipes at home.

Sofrito and adobo are the linchpins of the cuisine - common denominators between home cooking on the island and the nuevo Puerto Rican cooking that trendy chefs showcase at island restaurants and resorts.

Sofrito is a combination of green peppers, sweet chili peppers (called aji dulce), onions, garlic, sometimes tomato paste, oregano, and cilantro, once cooked in lard and now in vegetable oil and used as a seasoning. Adobo is a blend of ingredients (peppercorn, whole oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil, vinegar, or fresh lime juice) rubbed into meat or poultry to impart unique seasoning.

"But the base of all of our cooking is sofrito," Ms. Gonzalez says. "I make a batch and freeze it. It will last two weeks to a month. Some people freeze it in cubes. I cut [pieces off] with a knife."

Frozen sofrito is sold at Broadway Market in Toledo.

To make sofrito, Ms. Gonzalez uses a caldero, a pot used on the island. "It's about six inches high and the metal is very thick. It is similar to cast iron," she says. "It's perfect to control the quality of rice. The rice should be tender and loose."

Both sofrito and adobo have many versions. "Everybody will give you their personal touch," she says. And indeed I find a recipe for sofrito in Puerto Rican Cookery, which is a sauteed mixture; in the chefs' booklet the sofrito is mixed and pureed - there is no cooking.

"Sofrito [in this case] is an embellishment," says Alain Gruber, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan, in a phone interview. The sofrito is used to marinate pinchos de pollo (chicken kabobs) for 24 hours before grilling. "It is used as a marinade. You can use sofrito in a rice dish or grill plantains with sofrito. It's versatile."

I use half of my sofrito for chicken and rice; the other half is used for the chef's delicious Red Beans and Rice recipe.

Chef Gruber identifies this contemporary cuisine as Nueva Boricua. "Boricua is the traditional name of Puerto Rico," he says. "We took Puerto Rican food and used European cooking techniques or those from the mainland," says the chef. "It's a fusion of American flavors."

Fritters are a favorite finger food of the island. They are sold at fritter stands and incorporated into the daily menus in most homes, and Chef Gruber includes them as continental breakfast items and appetizers.

Tostones are fried green plantains used as a side dish with rice and beans, onion steak, or fried pork chops. (Upscale menus feature fried tostones with creme fraiche and caviar as an appetizer.)

Other fritters include empanadillas, small deep-fried flour turnovers filled with cheddar or swiss cheese, ground meat, or shredded chicken. Bacalaitos are flour fritters made from salt codfish. Rellenos de papa are mashed potato balls stuffed with ground beef and deep-fried to a crispy texture.

To accompany entrees, side dishes include arroz blanco (white rice), yellow rice colored with achoite paste, beans stewed in sofrito, or mofongo, fried green plantains mashed with garlic, salt, and fried pork rinds and rolled into a ball. The latter may be served with fish, poultry, or meat. Mofongo is filling and starchy. At the Parrot Club restaurant in Old San Juan, Chef Roberto Trevino serves Caesar Salad with Mofongo Croutons.

At home using a recipe from Puerto Rican Cookery, I make Candied Plantains. The next time, I vow to fry the plantains or make plantain chips.

Puerto Rican main dishes are rich in beef and pork. Roast pig is a national dish, often prepared for holidays. Steak and onions are an everyday dish. Marinated and grilled skirt steak called churrasco is an Argentine spiced dish that is served at restaurants and resorts on the island.

Seafood dishes are prepared in a sofrito-based sauce; red snapper or grouper may be wrapped in banana or plantain leaves and grilled, and shrimp, langostinos (saltwater crayfish), mussels, and spiny lobster are characteristic of the Caribbean.

Poultry dishes are important with turkey seasoned with adobo (a dry marinade) and arroz con pollo and versions of paella are common.

While the national dessert of Puerto Rico is flan, a condensed milk and vanilla custard with variations of cream cheese, coconut milk, mashed pumpkin, or breadfruit, the abundance of tropical fruit lends itself to desserts and baked goods.

At the Ritz-Carlton San Juan, Chef Gruber orchestrates an assortment of puff pastry, filled yeast bread, and mini banana bread for a continental breakfast. But my favorite is the fascinating little recipe called Queso de Hoja and Guava Popovers. Served directly from the oven, this muffinlike appearance is almost like a souffle.

The ingredients are simple but challenging to find in Toledo. The guava paste is sold in a circular tin at stores such as Giant Eagle and Meijer (in the international section) or at Broadway Market both in a tin and package. The cheese is another story: Queso de Hoja is hard to find. Ms. Gonzalez says she sometimes has to travel for ingredients to Lorain or Cleveland, Detroit or Pontiac.

Alternative cheeses are Queso del Pais or Mexican Queso Fresco; the latter, easily available in Toledo, works well in this recipe. When I prepare the recipe in my muffin tin, the popovers rise beautifuly as they bake in only 15 minutes; they lift out of the pan easily but fall the longer they are out of the pan. Even so, I store the leftovers in my refrigerator and the next morning, microwave a couple; they still have a good flavor.

There is so much variety in the foods from Puerto Rico, thanks to the threads of Spanish cuisine, tropical ingredients, African influences, and Taino Indian customs.

From home cooking to the gourmet interpretations of trendy chefs, you'll be seeing and hearing more of Puerto Rican food on television cooking shows and in the food world. Watch for Chef Trevino of the Parrot Club as he cooks with Bobby Flay on the Food Channel's Iron Chef in January.

Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.

Contact her at food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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