Monday, May 24, 2010

Honoring Puerto Rico

My father-in-law recently passed away.  The loml (love of my life) flew to the family home in Puerto Rico while I remained in the Pacific Northwest rain dreaming of the Caribbean warm weather and sumptuous  food and missing all our wonderfully loving relatives.

I love Puerto Rican food.  It is different from Mexican cuisine (which I also love) in that it is generally not hot-spicy. And Caribbean native plants and history have cultivated a different set of typical dishes.  However, spicy-hot plays a big role in our kitchen because the loml spent a number of his formative years in Mexico and liberally applies hot sauce to almost every dish set before him at a noon or evening meal (I have yet so see him pour habanero maple syrup on his waffles but I will not be surprised if he does so!)

My father-in-law always loved a party.  And Puerto Rican parties always involve yummy food.  Over the years I have learned that there are basically four types of parties:  1) Very casual with just finger foods or appetizers - cocktail parties except that there is usually just beer and wine for drinks and maybe some rum;  2) Casual dinner parties which usually included barbecued meats (Puerto Rican weather is perfect for year-round BBQ) and some side dishes of beans (no re-fried beans) and rice and a green salad;  3) A catered meal of typical Puerto Rican dishes at a home or a rented location, the number of guests starting at 15 and upward towards 100.  Arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), Asopao de Pollo (chicken and rice), or pasteles (vaguely resembling a tamale) are always main-stays with flan or tembleque (a coconut and cornstarch pudding) for dessert;  4) Roast Pig (big gathering because you have a whole pig to consume) for which the host family men (cousins, uncles, and older sons) go off to some location to cook the whole pig which takes a whole day.  I know that much beer is consumed while the pig rotates over a heat source.  But other than that the cooking essentially remains a mystery.  The results are always mouth watering, tender, juicy, fully flavored pulled pork.

At one memorable family gathering, cocktail-style, when I was still dating the loml and didn't know a whole lot of Spanish (still don't) nor a lot about PR dishes (I'm getting better), I was offered "gandinga"  I asked my loml's cousin (who was passing the dish) what was in it.  She couldn't translate the main ingredients which looked like mystery meat to me.  No one around could tell me what the meat was.  It didn't encourage me that my future sister-in-law said that she didn't eat it.  I declined.  Turns out that gandinga is made from pig liver, kidneys and heart.  From that time forward, if there is no translation or my sister-in-law won't eat it I generally won't eat it - just in case.

It has taken a number of years to be able to replicate some of the loml's and my favorite PR dishes.  This is partially because not all of the ingredients have been available to us.  It didn't help that the first Puerto Rican cookbook, given to me by my mother-in-law, was in Spanish.  The first recipe I tried to translate, from what is a classic PR cookbook, called for 2 tablespoons of maiden hair fern...  I discovered that Spanish is not the same from country to country - much like American English and English English - and dictionaries reflect the country in which the are written.  But back to trying to recreate the loml's favorite dishes - Latin American stores in the Pacific Northwest stock more Mexican and South American ingredients than common foods found on Caribbean islands. However, we recently found a Cuban grocery in a large fairly near-by city that stocks a lot of ingredients used in Caribbean cooking.  Yahoo!

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