For my non-Spanish speakers, allow me to translate the title of today’s post: Puerto Rican Food Feast without Salt? Yes, You Can! You may remember an entry I put up a week or so ago (http://sftaoofpao.com/2010/03/03/fiesta-de-comida-recetas-puertorriquenas-sin-sal) detailing a Puerto Rican dinner challenge I was going to have with fellow food celebrator, Jessica Goldman, writer of http://sodiumgirl.wordpress.com. Our feat for the evening? Cook a multi-course Puerto Rican dinner without any added sodium and make sure not to sacrifice on the flavour front. I was a bit skeptical of the outcome. I cannot imagine anything more LTI (Less Than Impressive – learn it, love it, use it) than spending a couple hours on a large feast, only to have it…lacking. Would my taste buds end the evening satisfied? After all, I identify as a salt, meat and savory lover. In the middle of the night I do not crave donuts or ice cream. I yearn for pickles, cured bacon, chips and salsa, Salt and Pepper Kettle chips or eggs. My salt-centric nature stems from growing up in a Chinese household, where sodium was never used sparingly as an ingredient in the kitchen. Yet despite this proclivity for salt, I trusted Jessica’s expertise in the area and set forth determined. We were not just going to accomplish our goal for the evening; we were knocking it out of the park, or in this case, the kitchen.
This was definitely a team challenge. As a lover of Puerto Rican food (I’m actually heading to San Rafael gem Sol Food this week for round 2), I proposed the initial menu for the evening. Jessica reviewed it for potential salt issues and made some innovative substitutions, not to mention completely owning the ceviche portion of the night. Then we got to work for two to three hours of chopping, searing, stewing, blending and of course, eating. The final menu is listed below, along with recipes in case you want to recreate any of the dishes on your own:
1) Pork Butt Sofrito:
Sofrito is a popular Puerto Rican base that blends chopped peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, and spices. We opted to substitute pork butt for pigs feet given that pigs feet are often cured or pickled, which is code for large amounts of sodium. The pork butt is a smart substitute given the fattier nature of the cut, and if you read my other posts, you know that I’m never a girl to say no to pork fat, or any fatty meat for that matter. Not only does the fat help bring out the flavour of the meat; for sofrito, rendered pork fat is often used to sauté the achiote seeds before adding them to the base. Normally sofrito calls for a ½ cup of olives with pimientos, but given the high salt content, Jessica whipped out her creative skills and made pickled grapes (see link below) in their place.
- 1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 head of garlic (I recommend smashing the garlic before chopping to bring out the essence a bit more)
- 3 large onions (I like using one white onion and then two red onions for their acerbic quality)
- 3 red bell peppers
- 2 poblano peppers
- 2 tomatillos
- 2 jalapenos for a punch of spice
- ½ cup pickled red grapes (http://sodiumgirl.wordpress.com/2009/11/18/hello-world/)
- 2 tbsp. crushed oregano
- 1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes (an optional and more untraditional addition)
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound of pork butt
1. Put 2 bell peppers, the poblanos, and the tomatillos (washed with outer leaves removed) into an oven-safe dish and broil on low for 10 minutes. Turn the peppers, poblanos, and tomatillos when one side has charred and broil for another ten minutes. Let them cool and remove the charred skin.
2. While you are waiting for the roasted peppers to cool, prepare the pork butt by cutting it into small 1/2-inch cubes. Leave most of the fat, it will add a nice flavor to the sofrito and will cook off by the time you eat the final dish.
3. In a pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and when ready, add the pork chunks. Sear both sides, about 8-10 minutes depending on your preference. You don’t need to cook them all the way through as they will sit on a simmer in the sofrito base for an hour.
4. Prepare the rest of the ingredients (garlic, onion, bell pepper, cilantro, pickled grapes, jalapeno) by roughly chopping them.
5. In a large pot, heat the other tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat and add garlic and onion. Saute until slightly browned, about 5 minutes, and then add the chopped roasted pepper, bell pepper, tomatoes, cilantro, and pickled grapes.
6. With an immersion blender, puree the ingredients until as smooth as you desire. For consistency comparison, the sofrito will resemble a chunkier salsa.
7. Add the pork butt and allow the stew to come to a boil.
8. Once it has begun to bubble, reduce to a simmer (medium heat) and cover pot. Cook for another hour until the meat is tender. Serve over rice – we flavored our white rice with fresh cilantro and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. My friend Kat’s Latin grandmother always added a bit of Safflower oil (and salt when diet restrictions are not a concern) to her rice for that made-at-home flavor.
2) Rock Cod Ceviche
Initially we were going to try and do a traditional Octopus salad (I’m a girl who loves her tentacles), but given the high sodium content of octopus, Jessica went back to the drawing board (or in this case cutting board) and opted for a rock cod ceviche. Ceviche is made by marinating fish or seafood in citrus juices; whereby the acidity of the juices cures or “cooks” the fish without using any heat. Ceviches vary depending on the country. The more typical Peruvian ceviches use leche de tigre, a lime juice marinade to cure the fish, and then incorporate sliced red onion, chili, salt, pepper and usually a bit of aji or spice. Popular accompaniments include corn on the cob and sweet potatoes. Ecuador doctors the ceviche up a bit by adding tomato sauce or even ketchup at times. Mexican ceviches tend to employ a bit of avocado, chopped tomatoes and cilantro. For our feast’s ceviche, Jessica opted more for a Peruvian type ceviche, adding a bit of the Goldman flair with fresh fruit complements and avocado. Whoever says girls in shiny black leggings and a purple cardigan can’t cook, have not met Jess. Just check out the ingredients and recipe below. Prepare to have your socks, or in this case calcetines, knocked off with the fresh, cool taste of the sea. I promise that you won’t miss salt in this dish. Heck, you might even want to spill the salt so you have an excuse to toss the entire salt shaker over your left shoulder. A little food fighting never hurts in my eyes…Nor does spontaneous kitchen break dancing.
- Fresh rock cod (does not have to be a lot since this is just an appetizer)
- Blood orange juice (more of the Jess Goldman personal touch with this substitution for lime or lemon juice)
- 3 large onions (I like using one white onion and then two red onions for their strong flavor)
- Finely diced green onions
This is the easy part for ceviche. You literally just ensure you have very fresh fish, chop it to the size of your liking, then drop it in the citrus juices for three hours to soak up the citric acid. If you have concerns over it being undercooked, you can do quick sear or poach. Finely chop up the green onions, garlic, avocado and nectarine then toss together. This will making for an inviting and colorful start to the meal.
3) Tostones de ajo (Garlic plantains)
I still remember the first time I saw a plantain. Mrs. Drorbaugh, my Spanish 4AP teacher, brought in bushels of them to class and demonstrated the proper way to not only hold a plantain (I know what you are thinking, there is a proper way to hold it?!), she then talked to us about the different methods you could prepare it. I, like any 17 year old teenager, was delighted to hear that you could fry up this family member of the banana. I will be venturing to Sol Food tomorrow after a night hike in the Headlands. I can think of nothing better after a night hike than filling my belly with a plate of Puerto Rican food, while Pao Sipping fresh Limeade. My planned meal for the evening? I’m debating between Pollo el Horno (Roasted chicken) or Chuletas Fritas (Fried pork chops). The one dish I have no trouble deciding upon is my side dish: Fried garlic plantains, or as they are referred to in Spanish; Tostones de ajo.
Since Tostones are an obvious “No Question” whenever I’m out ordering Puerto Rican food. I thought to myself, how hard can these fried puppies really be to make? The answer? Very easy. They take about 5 minutes to prep and 10 minutes to cook and make an exceptionally good partner to rock cod ceviche. Who needs tortilla chips when you have plantain chips?
- 5 tablespoons oil for frying
- 2 plantains, peeled and broken into chunks
- 3 cups cold water
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Place the plantains in the oil and fry on both sides until soft, approximately 5 minutes per side.
2. Remove the plantains from the pan and place on paper towel-lined plates.
3. Place the bottom of a heavy pan over the plantains then press down to flatten. Jess got a bit innovative here and mashed the plantains with a fork, then molded them into small plantain patties. This would be a good time to press in the garlic to the plantain.
4. Dip the plantains in water, then return them to the hot oil and fry 1 minute on each side.
The final result of our feast was a vibrant array of Puerto Rican recipes that revived our senses, tested our creativity and still managed to be healthy, and low in sodium. Oh, and did I mention we also had a ball? It’s not every day I meet a strong, sassy, fun-loving girl like Jess and I’m pumped for the next challenge. We plan on opening up the night to two other food enthusiasts: Jillian and Christina, the writers of organic, sustainable food resource, Farm and Frying pan (http://www.farmandafryingpan.com/). Right now we are considering Moroccan for the next theme. Hold onto your butts, grab a spoon to sample some turmeric-laced tagine, and get ready for next week’s post. Till then keep Pao Chowing.