We eat a lot of rice and beans around here and you should too. At less than a dollar a can (one day I will soak my own, but for the moment, the canned will do fine) and just minutes in the making, they solve many an issue in this household. And with all the protein and roughage they pack, well, they give a lot of nutritional bang for the buck.
Having said that, I don’t actually do classic Puerto Rican rice and beans often. It’s a lot about ingredients and disappointment. Nothing ever tastes as good as you remember it. No one (except certain Dominican kitchen geniuses) can do it quite the way Abuelita (or Titi) used to. And some ingredients don’t grow here or travel well. So, recognizing that my expectations far outway any realistic possiblities of fulfillling them, I opt out. And daydream.
But…if you can’t be with the ingredients you love, honey, love the ones you’re with.
Love the ones you’re with.
So in celebration of Valentine’s Day, I will stop the silly nostalgia for meals never again to be equaled, the yearning for ingredients elusive, the disdain for what is offered right in front of me. I will share a recipe for Puerto Rican rice and beans that embraces, not fantasy, but reality. It is not what could be, but what actually is. It may not be exactly what I dream of, but it provides exactly what I need, and my heart swells in gratitude.
And that, my dear readers, is true romance, true love, true bliss.
Born on the Moon Beans
Puerto Rican independentista and poet Juan Corretjer once penned “Yo sería borincano si naciera en la luna” or loosely translated: “I would be Puerto Rican even if I had been born on the moon.”
It is the heartsong of millions on the island and in the diaspora, including me, as it happens! So….Beans Born on the Moon, seems an appropriate name for this dish. It is ingredient-heavy, but easy to assemble once everything is chopped.
- 1lb calabaza caribeña (Caribbean pumpkin) OR 1 lb. acorn squash, washed, cut in half, seeds removed and cut into big chunks (you can cut the rind off before boiling or peel it off after). It should be boiled for 15 minutes, or until tender. Set aside and reserve ½ cup cooking liquid.
- ½ lb salt pork, diced (don’t discard the hard rind, just score the fat as best you can). You can also use ham steak – readily available in the supermarket
(sofrito is the roux, the mirepoix, the basic saute seasoning of Puerto Rican cooking and is very difficult to reconstruct in the mainland U.S., which is why Goya makes a fortune selling it in jars. So if you can get most of the ingredients for sofrito at the local bodega/supermarket, then do this! –actually, quadruple or quintuple it and freeze it in ice cube trays for use later. Otherwise, buy commercial sofrito and use a couple of heaping tablespoons)
½ onion, minced (about ¾ Cup)
1 cubanelle (long green Italian cooking) pepper, seeded and diced
Five or six ajíes (non-spicy green peppers that look exactly like scotch bonnets/habaneros, but are not at all spicy! Taste them! They are hard to find), seeded and diced. Use another cubanelle – the redder the better — if you can’t get these.
Five or six hojas de recao – culantro leaves- chopped. Not to be confused with cilantro, these look like dandelion leaves without the curvy sides. They are hard to get, usually come from Costa Rica and their potency disappears quickly after cutting. I actually grow my own in the summer, which takes forever and yields very little in my part of the world. If you find them, use them as soon as you get them home! If you can’t find them, buy the sofrito WITH culantro
3 Tbs tomato paste or pureed tomatoes (optional)
1 Tbs dried oregano (2 Tbs fresh)
2 Tbs chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
- two 15-oz cans pink beans (habichuelas rosadas), rinsed and drained
While you are boiling the calabaza, heat the pork in a heavy pot. Cook it through and remove the scored rind. Leave the diced meat. Add a bit of olive oil, if necessary, then sauté the sofrito ingredients until tender, adding optional tomato at the end. Add beans. Add cooked calabaza and the reserved liquid. Cook for 15 minutes and serve on white rice.