This is the second article covering my recent service trip to Puerto Rico. A beautiful island in the Caribbean, I found Puerto Rico a blend of cultures. As part of the United States it has all the stores and chain restaurants you would find in a typical American city. But it is also part of Latin America and has the culture and cuisine to match. My first article covered the restaurants we went to. But most of our meals were eaten at home, cooked by our hosts. This article covers the highlights those home cooked meals.
Most of the time, breakfast was a typical American affair: pancakes or French toast, or even something as simple as an egg. But sometimes we had something a little different. Like hash browns with slices of cheese on top.
My favorite breakfast food was the oatmeal. Very thin and slightly sweet, I did not even realize that it was oatmeal at first. Regardless, it was delicious.
Salads and Side Dishes
All of our dinners came with a salad or side dish. The salad could be a simple green leaf salad with tomatoes. The greens were quite fresh and the dish simply sparkled. Other times, the salad was a mixture of salad and fruit. Good fruit brightens up and salad.
The other sides we were given showcased typical Puerto Rican food. The most interesting to me, and therefore the one I liked the most, was the sorullos de maize. These are fried cylinders of corn bread. A fantastic way to have corn. Another typical Puerto Rican side is tostones. These are griddle cakes made by frying flattened plantains. By themselves, they are a bit too dry for my taste. But when eaten with the right sauce, they are a nice side to any meal.
Plantains were a common ingredient in many side dishes. With no surprise, one was fried plantains. They are very common in Latin American cuisine and can be readily found in the continental United States. The dish has long been a favorite of mine and I was happy to have them in Puerto Rico. The final way we had them was like none I have had before. Green (unripe) plantains are cut and cooked, making for a starchy side somewhat like a potato. It’s a nice change of pace, but this did come as a bit of a surprise as I was expecting sweet plantains.
One of the advantages of being in the Caribbean is the wide variety of fresh fruit that abounds. We were often had some, picked from trees right in the neighbourhood. You can’t get fresher fruit than that.
We were served many different main courses throughout our trip. All were quite good. Here are the standouts.
On the first day, we were served what looked for all the world to me like a tamale, a filled cake made from corn floor, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. But these wrappings were actually banana leaves, while the flour was made from plantains. These were not tamales. They were Pasteles, a classic Puerto Rican dish. They were too die for,
Another dish that we were served many times and which I became quite endeared to was Fricase de Pollo. Marinated and stewed chicken, sometimes along with some vegetables. Simple and delicious. It is something I plan on adding to my repertoire at home.
While we experienced mild weather while in Puerto Rico, it did rain every day. Sometimes a little. sometimes a lot. On one of those days, we were served some home made chicken soup. Unlike chicken soup from a can, this was rich and hearty and just brimming full of flavor. A perfect meal on a rainy day.
Finally, I’ve saved the best for last. As I mentioned in my first article, I had developed a love for the plantain based bread Mofongo. I’ve had it as a side and I have had it stuffed with meat. But nothing tops Mofongo wrapped in bacon. Fantastic.
Most of the time, fruit was the dessert that accompanied our meals. But sometimes, other desserts were served. We had sorbet a couple of times, which tasted so fresh I thought it was made that day.
But the dessert that made the biggest impression on me was a frozen fruit dessert. (I don’t now if it has a name. ) It looks like a posiscle or a frozen slushie, but don’t that is deceiving. Whereas most slushies are a lot of ice and a little bit of fruit, these were mostly fruit with a little bit of ice. The flavors were intense! The gave us a variety of different kinds of fruits to choose, including strawberry, passion fruit, or guava. You could not go wrong with any of them.
The final after dinner treat I want to mention is not a dessert, but a drink. Following the main part of the trip, my Puerto Rican friend hosted us at his house. After dinner one evening, he served us some home made Puerto Rican moonshine. Rum fermented for months in a bottle with copious amounts of fruit. There was just enough for everybody to have one shot. The moonshine was delectable! And quite strong! But stronger still were the cherries left in the bottle. Ust one was enough to knock me out. Good stuff.
As in many parts of Latin America, Panaderias can be found everywhere in Puerto Rico. Theses are more than just bakeries. They carry an assortment of items making them more like a small convenience store. But I went to there for the baked goods. I bought a bag full of Puerto Rico’s most popular pastry, questitos (“little cheese”). Baked pastries filled with slightly sweetened cream cheese, I heartily recommend searching for and having one.
On our last day, the owner of the house we were working on treated us all to a meal. It was quite unexpected and we were very grateful. And she did this right after a trip to the emergency room the day before. Our hostess gave us a feast! Plenty of Fricase de Pollo, cabbage salad, and rice and beans to go around. Plus freshly squeezed fruit juice! Such generosity.
Puerto Rico’s Books
On trips to new places I like to pick up a cook book and cultural or history book. I did not get a cultural book for Puerto Rico, as I already had a good one: Puerto Rico Strong. Written and drawn by Puerto Rican artists, it gives a great overview of it history and culture. And its for a good cause! Everyone should read it.
And while I did eventually get a cookbook (Cocina Criolla, by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli), I actually found at a tourist shop the main set of recipes I want to make. On a pair of oven mitts were the two recipes I loved: Mofongo and Fricase de Pollo. Only problem, I’m can’t really use them as oven mitts. (I am in desperate need of a new pair.)