From her home in Cayey, Puerto Rico, chef Natalia Vallejo speaks with measured sadness about shutting down Cocina al Fondo, her intimate farm-to-table restaurant in San Juan. But the closing amid this particular crisis feels different than if there had been a storm.
After a hurricane, people typically gather, forming a rebulú — a spontaneous, noisy all-nighter that spills out into the streets, with a big pot of sancocho stew simmering on the stove. Imagine Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s video for the song “Despacito,” but without electricity, and with the swirling smell of plantains.
“Family and friends would come together, each one contributing what they could,” Vallejo said. “We shared, we laughed, we cried. Almost every day I cooked and ate with friends or family — we would light the grill and listen to music.”
Instead, she has remained at home, separated from her family.
To live and eat in Puerto Rico means being prepared for disruption, particularly between June and November — hurricane season, which now appears to be worsening as a result of climate change.
In major storms, residents may lose electricity and phone service, effectively cutting off communication from the outside world, as well as access to drinking water and fresh food. The earliest storm on record was Hurricane San Roque in 1508, but dozens have swept the island since. It’s not a question of whether the hurricane will come, but when.
A pandemic is different. Many on the island have said that COVID-19 is worse than even Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, because the virus has exposed long-standing inequities and prevented the kind of in-person community response that follows a storm.
Puerto Rico, which has the highest poverty rate in the nation, has been hit hard by the coronavirus. As of Oct. 23, there have been 60,984 COVID-19 cases and 791 resulting deaths. Travel restrictions have complicated life on an island that relies heavily on tourism. Unemployment has skyrocketed, and so has food insecurity as demand for assistance falls short of available government funds.
But even amid food insecurity, and with limited ingredients, Puerto Ricans cook in ways that are soul-nourishing and emphasize flavor. Making magic out of food scraps is the way they’ve always cooked — an expression of ancestry, adaptability and fortitude.
Take mofongo. Plantains, which were brought to the Caribbean from Africa to feed enslaved workers, are deep-fried, blended with Spanish ingredients like garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings, then mashed in a large wooden pilón, a mortar and pestle with Indigenous Taíno roots. Plantains grow in abundance across Puerto Rico, and can be harvested from the ground after a storm. Mofongo is intensely flavorful and satisfying, and remains one of the most popular dishes on the island.
Then there’s arroz con pollo: rice and chicken, the island’s ultimate comfort food. A dish that does a lot with very little, it starts with chicken sautéed in sofrito, a blend of garlic, onions, peppers and recao or culantro, an earthy cousin of cilantro that thrives on the island. The chicken is then cooked in stock with rice — also brought to the island by the Spanish and cultivated by enslaved African and Indigenous workers — along with whatever other ingredients are on hand. This is one of many one-pot, slow-cooked rice dishes that develop incredible flavor from layering ingredients.
Arroz con pollo is also one of the dishes that Spanish chef José Andrés served in Hurricane Maria’s wake. The chef, who famously served nearly 4 million meals on the island alongside thousands of volunteers, leaned on locals to inform what foods were prepared.
The decision to serve arroz con pollo was practical, Andrés said: It’s a local dish, and the ingredients were available. It was also a comfort to those eating it. Flavor can’t fix a crisis, but good food can nourish the body for whatever lies ahead.
“To me, a meal served after a disaster is not just about the calories or the nutrients, or where the ingredients come from,” he said. “It is about giving a sense of dignity and hope for the future.”
Those meals are also about ingenuity and resourcefulness. After Maria, the Nuyorican chef César Pérez, who’s traveled back and forth to the island since childhood, called his friend Kelly Pirro, the chef at Mai Pen Rai, a Thai restaurant in San Juan, to see what they could do.
“She didn’t have that much. Some chicken, some coconut milk,” said Pérez. “And she’s like, ‘OK, I’ll make a chicken coconut curry.’ She had black beans, and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll make an arroz guisado’ ” — stewed, seasoned rice.
“There wasn’t much, but it was delicious,” he said. “And we just packed up the calderos” — the pots — “in the back of her van, and we drove to Loíza. We stopped on the side of the road, and we just opened the trunk. And there was a point that there was a line of people.”
Over the next seven months, Pirro and some collaborators distributed home-cooked meals across the island, ultimately forming a nonprofit group called Serve PR. When the coronavirus arrived, they fed hospitality workers, who have been particularly hard hit as the roller coaster of shifting restrictions — including a law that prohibited alcohol sales after 7 p.m. — has forced many bars and restaurants to close.
Pirro grew up in the Midwest and is of Korean descent; while Mai Pen Rai’s Thai cuisine has its own bold flavors, her cooking has become more Boricua.
“I do a lot of stewing, a lot of guisos,” she said, using the local term for a braising sauce. “And I really love sofrito. Onions and peppers and aromatics like cilantro — it’s amazing how you can use basic humble ingredients to make food that just really shines.”
For decades, hurricane recovery has led Puerto Rican cooks to rely on imported nonperishable goods even more than they already do — a legacy of U.S. policy. Local crops lost to storms only intensify the problem.
Despite the island’s biodiversity, an estimated 85% of the food in Puerto Rico is imported. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, stipulates that all imported goods must be delivered on ships owned and operated by the United States, which limits the island’s trade capacity and drives up food prices. In 1947, Operation Bootstrap industrialized the island, leading to an abrupt shift from agricultural production to manufacturing.
But as much as those policies have had a negative impact on Puerto Rican agriculture, a few of the canned foods associated with them, like canned corned beef, vienna sausages and Spam, are beloved by many on the island and have been absorbed by the cuisine.
Crispy fried Spam has a hamlike smokiness and a pleasing texture. Islanders have long incorporated this ingredient into everyday dishes: Spam with eggs, Spam sandwiches, Spam with rice or Spam guisado with tomatoes, olives and potatoes. Following Maria, Spam macaroni and cheese emerged as a popular favorite — both instant ingredients were included in some food-assistance boxes — as did Spam-stuffed mofongo.
Still, Tara Rodríguez Besosa, one of the founders of El Departamento de la Comida, wants to support alternatives. The organization, which is dedicated to Puerto Rican food sovereignty, plans to work with local farmers to make sauces, pickles and other shelf staples, using ingredients from the farms. “You know, the opposite of Goya,” Rodríguez Besosa said.
Soon after COVID-19 struck, the organization also distributed free local heirloom seeds across the island and started loaning out farm equipment, like plows and wood chippers.
It’s a different kind of resourcefulness and resilience, a forward-looking approach that supports local farms while feeding the community.
“We actually want to preserve things, like breadfruit, in a way that they can become our Spam,” Rodríguez Besosa said. “It’ll last a hurricane.”
Recipe: Spam Macaroni and Cheese
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 30 to 45 minutes
- 1 (12-ounce) can Spam, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound dried macaroni
- 3 cups whole milk
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 1/2 to 5 cups shredded cheese (about 20 to 24 ounces), preferably a combination of Monterey Jack and sharp yellow cheddar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil over high heat in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven.
2. Meanwhile, heat a large nonstick skillet or wok over medium-high, then add Spam and fry for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until the meat is evenly browned and crispy. (Feel free to taste along the way until the Spam reaches your desired crispness.) Remove from heat until ready to use.
3. Once water has come to a rolling boil, add a fistful of salt, then stir in the macaroni. Cook according to package instructions, stirring several times, until al dente, about 7 to 9 minutes. Drain the noodles in a large colander, then rinse the noodles and the pot with lukewarm water.
4. Return pot to stovetop over medium heat and add 2 cups milk. While the milk is warming, combine remaining 1 cup milk and the flour in a medium bowl and whisk together until there are no lumps. Once the milk starts to steam, whisk in the milk-and-flour mixture, and continue to whisk gently until a béchamel forms as thick as plain yogurt, about 12 minutes.
5. Once the sauce is thickened, reduce heat to low and slowly whisk in 4 cups shredded cheese until fully melted. Add white and black pepper, then season to taste with salt.
6. Off heat, add Spam and cooked macaroni, and fold a dozen or so times until thoroughly mixed.
7. Serve immediately, passing the extra cheese at the table, or transfer the macaroni to a casserole, sprinkle with the remaining cheese, and bake under low broil until toasted on top, about 5 to 10 minutes.
Recipe: Arroz con Pollo
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 2 hours, plus marinating
For the adobo:
- 3 large garlic cloves, finely minced
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 teaspoons white vinegar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
For the chicken and rice:
- 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 3 cups medium-grain white rice
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 cups low-sodium chicken broth (or water)
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups fresh sofrito (see recipe below)
- 3 dried bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon ground annatto or sweet paprika
- 1 cup tomato sauce (basic canned tomato sauce is fine)
- 3/4 cup medium pimento-stuffed olives, drained (optional)
- 2 teaspoons drained capers (optional)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 cups frozen peas, thawed
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- Salted, sliced avocado and tomato, for serving
For the sofrito:
- 1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and cut into quarters
- 3 ají dulce or amarillo peppers (or mini bell peppers), seeded and coarsely chopped
- 6 large garlic cloves
- 1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 6 fresh culantro leaves and tender stems, coarsely chopped (see Note)
- 6 fresh cilantro stems, coarsely chopped
1. Prepare the adobo by whisking the ingredients together in a bowl, or blending in a small food processor, pilón or mortar and pestle.
2. Pat the chicken dry, then place in a large bowl or zip-top bag. Pour prepared adobo over chicken. Toss well to combine, then cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap, or seal the bag, and let the chicken rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. If you have the time, marinate for several hours or overnight to make the chicken extra tender and flavorful.
3. Prepare the sofrito: In a large food processor or blender, blend the peppers and garlic until smooth. Add the onion and blend until smooth, then add the culantro and cilantro and blend until smooth. (The preparation may produce more sofrito than needed for this recipe, but you can store additional sofrito in the fridge for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.)
4. Add the rice to a medium bowl, then rinse with several rounds of cool water, pouring through a fine-mesh strainer until water runs out clear.
5. Once chicken is marinated, heat olive oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-high. When the oil is simmering, working in batches if necessary, add chicken in one layer and brown for 7 to 10 minutes per batch, turning several times to evenly brown.
6. Meanwhile, bring chicken broth (or water) to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce to a simmer until ready to use.
7. Add sofrito, bay leaves and annatto or paprika to pot with chicken and stir well. Reduce heat to medium, and sauté until liquid is mostly evaporated and sofrito thickens to a paste, about 7 to 10 minutes.
8. Add tomato sauce and cook for 3 to 5 minutes longer, until the sauce darkens. Add the rinsed rice, olives and capers (if using), and salt and pepper, and fold in to ensure that the rice is fully coated and the chicken is evenly distributed.
9. Pour in hot stock, then simmer, uncovered, over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring only 2 to 3 times and shaking the pot every few minutes to keep rice level. (The liquid surrounding the rice will lower by about 1 inch.) Watch the rice very closely: The window between just right and overcooked is small, and difficult to predict, but you’ll become an expert at this over time.
10. Once you start to spot lots of little bubbles on the surface but see no more pronounced liquid on top, top with the lid, reduce heat to low and cook until the rice is al dente, about 15 to 20 minutes, shaking pot a few times. Once liquid is almost entirely evaporated, sprinkle thawed peas on top.
11. Working directly in the pot, using 2 forks, pull apart chicken thighs until shredded. Gently fluff the rice, bringing grains from the bottom to the top. Return the lid and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
12. Garnish with lime wedges, and serve with salted avocado and tomato slices (or a simple green salad). The dish keeps well in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.
Tips: Culantro, also called sawtooth herb or wild coriander, has long leaves with jagged edges and a stronger, earthier flavor than cilantro. You can find it in the produce section of most Latino markets, as well as many Asian markets.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
For the guiso (optional):
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons fresh sofrito (see Arroz con Pollo recipe for instructions)
- 1 cup tomato sauce (basic canned tomato sauce is fine)
For the mofongo:
- 4 to 6 cups vegetable oil
- 3 to 5 large garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, plus more to taste
- 3 green plantains (see Note)
- 1 1/2 cups chicharrón or pork cracklings, plus more for garnish (optional)
- Lime wedges and cilantro, for garnish (optional)
1. Prepare the guiso, if using: Heat olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes, until simmering. Add sofrito, reduce heat to medium-low and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes until liquid is evaporated.
2. Pour in tomato sauce, partially cover with a lid, and simmer over low for 7 to 10 minutes. Sauce will thicken and darken in color.
3. While sauce simmers, prepare the mofongo: Pour vegetable oil into a medium saucepan until it reaches a 3-inch depth, then heat over medium-high.
4. Meanwhile, crush garlic and 1 teaspoon salt in a pilón or large mortar and pestle until a wet paste forms.
5. In a separate, small saucepan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium until just simmering, about 5 minutes. Slowly pour this hot oil on top of the garlic, carefully stirring to incorporate. It’ll sizzle, and the garlic may turn light green. Add lime juice to complete the mojo.
6. Peel plantains by cutting off both ends, then make three lengthwise slices through the skin. Carefully pull up the peel and remove it, starting at one of the corners with the edge of your fingernail or the tip of your knife if tough, then cut the plantains into 1 1/2-inch rounds. (Be careful: Plantain skins will stain your hands and clothing.)
7. Once the vegetable oil is simmering somewhere between 350 and 375 degrees — you can test by adding a small piece of plantain; it will sizzle when the oil is hot enough — add plantains in 2 or 3 batches, taking care not to crown the pot. Fry each batch for 6 to 9 minutes, stirring lightly a few times, until the plantains begin to brown. Be careful not to let them get too dark, or they’ll be hard and dry. Use a slotted spoon or mesh strainer to transfer plantains to a towel-lined bowl.
8. If you have a large enough pilón, add fried plantains and chicharrón, if using, until pilón is three-quarters full. Mash together, alternating pounding and grinding. Once mixture has condensed to about half its original size, add 1 heaping tablespoon of the prepared mojo (or to taste), and continue grinding and mashing until fully combined. The mixture will look like stuffing.
9. If you don’t have a pilón, combine plantains, chicharrón and mojo in a large wooden bowl. Using the bottom of a slender jar, such as an olive jar, mash together to incorporate, rotating the bowl after each mash. Pound, grind and mash until mofongo is blended.
10. Form the mashed mixture into 4 individual mofongos, each roughly the size of a baseball, or press into the bottom of a small rice bowl, then turn each onto a plate or into a larger bowl.
11. Serve immediately, garnished with extra chicharrón, lime wedges and cilantro, if you like. Spoon over guiso as desired.
Tips: Choose plantains that are as green as possible. Yellow plantains will taste and behave dramatically differently. If you’re adventurous, try a sweet and savory mofongo by combining the two.
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