Getting to the Heart of Puerto Rican Cuisine, On a Chip

by Sean Kenniff
Will Blunt
July 2014

 

It’s where seasoning starts: mirepoix or the so called trinities—the omitted “holy” subtly reminding us just how important this mixture of chopped veggies really is. Ginger, scallions, garlic: the Chinese trilogy. Onions, carrots, celery: the three musketeers of French cooking. Green bell pepper, onion, celery: the Creole and Cajun triumvirate. The Portuguese call it refogado: onions, garlic, tomatoes.

And in Spain, onions, green peppers, and garlic comprise sofrito (often cooked in pork fat, for good measure). Some variation on Spanish sofrito is the backbone of New World cuisines, so when Chef Raúl Correa of Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel in Puerto Rico wanted to create the taste of his native Puerto Rico in just one powerful bite, he looked to Puerto Rican sofrito: yellow onion, garlic, and peppers—Cubanelle and sweet chile (ají)—plus the aromatic cilantro and culantro.

“We all love island cooking, as it has a lot of soul! The abuela’s recipes have not lost popularity,” says Correa, who caters to local residents and international tourists who come to the resort in search of authentic, inventive Puerto Rican cuisine. “That style of food is important because it serves as the starting point for creativity. It’s our link to both the past and our future. Puerto Rican cooks are experimenting with modern techniques to elevate and redefine the flavors of our cuisine. It’s bold, innovative, sometimes irreverent, but never, ever disrespectful. Our cuisine is defined by one staple ingredient: the sofrito.”

Arroz con Gandules Amuse-Bouche

Arroz con Gandules Amuse-Bouche

Chef Raúl Correa of Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

Chef Raúl Correa of Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

Arroz con Gandules Amuse-Bouche

Arroz con Gandules Amuse-Bouche

Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

Zest at the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel

 

Correa’s sofrito is the undercover agent of flavor in his arroz pegao, a rice chip that acts as the foundation for a kind of canapé. “Our goal was to create a signature amuse-bouche that would properly represent Zest and Puerto Rico. Considering popular and traditional dishes of our cuisine, we zeroed in on arroz con gandules (rice with green pigeon peas), a Puerto Rican dish that’s typically served during Christmas.” (Pigeon Peas, which are technically beans, are harvested throughout the Caribbean when they're young and green, when they most resemble peas.)    

The sofrito in Correa’s arroz con gandules is raw, having only been blended to a chunky salsa. It’s combined with annatto seed and water and simmered for 10 minutes. At this point the sofrito has performed its duty and is strained out along with the annatto seed. (By the way, in case you were wondering, the culantro in the sofrito has a “flavor and aroma twice as strong as cilantro,” says Correa. “Also known as recao in Puerto Rico, culantro is one of several staple ingredients of island cuisine. Used mostly in sofrito, culantro is a bold, peppery herb that brings the tropics to the table.”) The rice is cooked in this infused water, rolled flat between silicone mats, dried in an 150ºF-oven, cut into chips, and deep fried in 390ºF-canola in small batches until puffy and crisp. “The rice has to be perfectly dehydrated, so when we fry it, it reaches a light, fluffy texture,” says Correa. The chip, which is his play on pegao (the crunchy bits of rice stuck to the bottom of the pot), is topped with pigeon pea hummus, pigeon pea ceviche, and cilantro before it’s sent out to the dining room.

Sometimes the major challenge of cooking on an island is acquiring all the necessary ingredients. But because of the authentic foundation of Correa’s cuisine, sourcing isn’t much of a problem. “We have a farmers market nearby called La Placita. It’s in the Santurce neighborhood where local farmers sell their own products,” he says. “Some of the farmers even deliver their produce directly to the restaurant.”

At Zest, Correa has also modernized other traditional Puerto Rican dishes. “Arroz con pollo: Instead of using rice we decided to use Israeli couscous and give the dish a new spin. We confit the chicken in duck fat and serve it with tostones. For Bacalo con viandas (salted codfish with root vegetables), we decided to swap the codfish for a miso-glazed sea bass and serve it with eggplant foam, confit root vegetables, and dulce papaya (papaya compote).”

As for his take on arroz con gandules, Correa says, “We don’t like to limit ourselves with labels, but it’s very Puerto Rican in flavor with different textures and a unique presentation. Even though we use contemporary techniques, we also like to keep some dishes as they are, classic. The flavor is quite traditional, but the texture represents the new direction of our gastronomy.”

Correa’s love for Puerto Rican cuisine goes well beyond his own restaurant’s walls. “We like to recommend that our guests try more traditional restaurants,” he says. “Not only to compare, but also to have a more diverse perspective of what the island has to offer.” We recommend you start with Correa’s arroz con gandules.   

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