I didn’t mean to make arroz con habichuelas last week, but when I dashed into a Latin supermarket for something else, I was stopped dead by the presence of something that looked pretty close to Puerto Rican pumpkin (or calabaza, as we call it). The Fates intervened with my dinner plans.
Native to the Americas, pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) has been an integral part of diets in this part of the world for thousands of years. The flesh and the seeds are used for many purposes. (in Mexico the crushed seeds are used to coat meats as you might use breadcrumbs). It is also one-third of the famed Three Sisters agricultural practice. Corn stalks make a trellis for beans, while pumpkin enjoys the shade underneath. Each plant supplies a nutrient to the soil that the other one needs, so the soil stays naturally healthy and fertile, while the produce provides invaluable nutrition to people. It just makes sense.
I have published this recipe before, but this time I include more substitutions if you don’t have a nearby source for Latin style ingredients. Check your “International foods” aisle for prepared sofrito – Goya has a wide reach and its sofrito is used by Caribbean Latin cooks all over, so you are in good company with this shortcut.
The new substitution of cooked ham steak for the salt pork reflects what I’ve been doing since I can’t find the kind of cooking pork I like. It is neat and tidy, fairly cheap, adds good flavor, and the extra can be frozen for another day (the cooked ham steaks are super-easy to chop fine or mince when frozen).
If you don’t find calabaza (and in fact the one that made me whip up this pot of beans was a Jamaican style and not quite what I like, but perfectly serviceable), acorn squash is my favorite substitute.
Note: With the leftovers I make quesadillas or nachos…yum. Also goes great with rotisserie chicken!
Don’t be put off by the number of ingredients; once you do the prep, you are almost done.
- 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 (4 oz cooked ham is a worthy substitute)
(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)
3 cloves garlic, minced
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 but Latin supermarkets often have them), 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 Latin style tomato sauce/salsa de tomate (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 or brown rice.