Location: The Caribbean (a territory of the US)
Population: 3.3 million
Capital: San Juan
Geography: A mountainous island with large areas of tropical rainforest
Language: Spanish, English
Signature flavours: Plantain, rice, beans, coconut, achiote, green olives, seafood, pork
This is the first assignment from a place we’ve actually travelled to together. Eric and I went to Puerto Rico in the summer of 2016, and one of the highlights was the fantastic local cuisine. Eric tried his hand at a number of dishes we ate on the streets of San Juan.
Mofongo: We still talk fondly about this dish to this day. A tradition linked to West African roots, mofongo is a plantain-based dish infused with achiote paste, and served with meat (Eric opted for shrimp, like the kind we enjoyed at a San Juan cafe).
Prep and cooking time: 40 min
Alcapurrias de Jueyes: A flourless fritter made from shredded green banana, taro, and achiote, filled with crabmeat and potato. We scarfed these down at a rest stop outside El Yunque rainforest, and have been dreaming about them ever since.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min (plus overnight freezing if using less than fully green plantains)
Arroz con Habichuelas Rojas: Rice served alongside kidney beans fried with green olives, bacon — the soy kind in our case — and flavoured with sofrito sauce (parsley, garlic, onion, salt, oil, and sweet peppers).
Prep and cooking time: 40 min
Piña Colada: The national cocktail of Puerto Rico, this refreshing blended drink contains pineapple juice, coconut cream, ice, and white rum, with maraschino cherries as garnish. Eric made ours with the Puerto Rican-produced Bacardi.
Prep and cooking time: 5 min
Tembleque: A chilled pudding made from corn starch, sugar, and coconut milk, topped with cinnamon.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min (plus cooling time)
The Shopping List
Eric went all over the city for this assignment: T&T for the taro and coconut cream, Hooked, Inc. for the shrimp, St Lawrence Market for the crab, Bulk Barn for the spices, and FreshCo for the plantains and everything else.
This was the first time I knew ahead what Eric’s menu would contain — at least in part. We talk nostalgically about mofongo every couple of months, so I knew Eric would definitely include it on his menu. It was the most difficult of all the dishes he made, involving multiple steps and a slew of ingredients. He had a bit of trouble getting the deep fried plantains to reach a consistency where they were crispy but still mash-able, so he left them in semi-whole pieces. The flavour was amazing. The shrimp was juicy and spicy, the plantains were cooked perfectly, and Eric had roasted red peppers and picked fresh parsley from our garden to top his masterpiece. It was a slightly different take on mofongo than the one we had in San Juan, but it’s one of those dishes for which I’m guessing every family has their own recipe.
The crab alcapurrias, by contrast, were exactly like the ones we ate on the island. The pastry gave Eric quite a bit of trouble. Shredded taro and green bananas did not make an easy-to-work-with dough. Fiddly as it was, the result was a crispy deep fried pastry filled with chunks of potato and delicious crabmeat.
The Puerto Rican rice and beans, popular throughout the Caribbean, had a twist with green olives and a sauce called sofrito, a staple in Puerto Rican cooking. The dish also included bacon, which added a great smokiness.
I loved the piña coladas we drank far too many of on our vacation (although I don’t like rum, so mine were basically juice and a whole lot of coconut) and Eric’s were fantastic. Refreshingly and rich, topped with a couple of maraschinos (okay, five), it was hard to not gulp down the whole drink in one go.
Eric found the corn starch pretty tricky to figure out. The tembleque took two attempts, since the first time, the corn starch turned into what Eric termed “a hockey puck” (he’s becoming a very good Canadian). The tembleque did not ultimately attain a completely smooth texture, but the taste was amazing, very sweet and coconut-y with a cinnamon finish.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.