Tag Archives: sofrito

Puerto Rican Rice and Beans (Arroz con habichuelas)

26 Feb

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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)

  1. 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.


Sofrito for freezing (Puerto Rican mirepoix)

30 Jun

The green and lush fragrance of culantro is one of my favorite rainy day smells. In the kitchen garden I kept at my late grandmother’s house in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, I had a vigorous crop and whenever it rained, the drops activated the fragrance, the scent pervaded the house, and I got hungry!

Without culantro (which we call recao), Puerto Rican food just isn’t as vibrant; it can’t taste quite like abuela’s. It is integral to sofrito, the starter to so many recipes, including beans, soups, stews and rice dishes. It is the equivalent of the French mirepoix, that combination of sauteed/roasted onions, carrots and celery that is the base for so many Gallic dishes.

Recao – culantro

Unfortunately, culantro is not as well known in the U.S. and doesn’t grow super-well in my planting zone, although I have had some small successes over the years (Thanks to Vic Muñoz for her growing tips). So I hit the local Latin supermarket on occasion and buy some pre-cut leaves from Costa Rica. Because once cut, recao loses its potency quickly, I use twice as much as I would if I had just gone out back and snipped some. And because it is sold by quantities much bigger than I need for a single dish, whenever I do buy it, I make enough sofrito to freeze.

The same goes for ají dulce, the non-spicy small pepper that looks like a habanero, but isn’t at all spicy. I buy a bunch at once — along with the recao — and make sofrito to freeze. You have to be careful and taste it before adding it to the sofrito, because sometimes the store makes a mistake and labels the hot ones as sweet ones, or, I’ve been told, ají dulce planted too closely to ají bravo (angry, aggressive) will take on the spiciness. I can actually smell the heat when cutting habaneros (also called scotch bonnets); the volatility  is no joke.

Ají dulce – the sweet sibling to the hottie habanero

The following recipe is for those who have access to these products. If you don’t have a Latin market nearby, investigate the Asian/Indian markets, as they too use these ingredients.

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