Cold winter days are the perfect time to stay home, get cozy, and cook some traditional dishes. Craving your abuela’s Sofrito? Mayra Rodríguez, author of About.com en Español’s Guía de Cocina latina y caribeña (Guide to Latino and Caribbean Cooking) has honed her Puerto Rican family’s recipes to perfection.

Born and raised on the north side of the Caribbean island, Rodríguez is currently based in Los Angeles, where her husband is doing graduate work at UCLA. In addition to writing, Rodríguez also home-schools her two young sons. A love of collecting recipes from her country and surrounding regions led to her column for About.com. She is very passionate about her homeland and its food, saying, “I learned to cook from for my mama and my grandma. I want to show my kids my culture and keep our food traditions alive.”

Mayra Rodríguez says, “Food gives us much more than nutrition. It conveys history, feelings, and memories of the familiar and known. It gives us the pleasure to interact pleasantly with our loved ones and our community. It gives us identity and defines us.”

Even if you didn’t grow up on traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, we’re sure Rodríguez’s recipes will warm your belly and your soul.

RECIPES:
My Grandmother’s Sancocho
“Sancocho is a traditional and rustic soup derived from the Spanish cuisine,” explains Rodríguez. “It consists of large chunks of meat and vegetables served in a broth. I discovered that in Latin America, especially in the Caribbean, this dish was acquired from the Canary Island immigrants,” says Rodríguez. “In the case of Puerto Rico, the Sancocho’s ingredients reflect the mix of our cultural heritage: Taíno, Spanish, and African.”

“This traditional soup is very basic and exotic at the same time,” says Rodríguez. “It’s very easy to make, as it’s a one-dish meal, and it’s also very nutritious. My favorite part of this traditional dish is the memories that it brings about visiting my Abuela Lan,” explains Rodríguez.

“Since the weather in Puerto Rico is hot and humid most of the year, when the ‘winter’ temperatures—almost never below 70 degrees—arrive, our bodies crave a hot and rich Sancocho.”

“The Puerto Rican version of this soup includes sofrito, plantain and tubers,” says Rodríguez. “We also make different meat versions: Sancocho de pollo (chicken), Sancocho (beef), Sancocho with patitas de cerdos and garbanzos (pork feet with chickpeas).”

Ingredients:
1 lb. beef short ribs
6 cups water
1 Tbs. salt or to taste
2 garlic cloves
1 small onion
1 ají dulce or habanero pepper, chopped
1/2 green pepper
1 tomato
2  recao leaves  (alternative: cilantro)
1-2 ears of corn (sliced into 4 to 6 parts)
1/2 lb. yautía (taro root)
1/4 lb. batatas (sweet potatoes)
1/4 lb. calabaza (pumpkins or butternut squash)
1/4 lb. potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch long pieces
1/4 lb. ñame (yam)
1 green plantain
2 ripe (yellow) plantains
1/4 cup tomato sauce

Directions:
In a big soup pot, boil the water with 1/2 Tbs. of salt. Add the garlic, onions, ají dulce, green pepper, tomato, and corn slices to the pot along with the recao leaves and the beef. Cooked uncovered and let it boil for about 15 minutes. Then add the remaining ingredients (vegetables, tomato sauce, and 1/2 Tb. salt). Mix well and cook in high until it boils. Cover and simmer in medium high for 45 minutes until the meat is tender and the vegetables are soft.

Serve with fresh pan de agua (Puerto Rican French bread).

Plantain Soup
“This Sopa de Plátano is dish highly coveted by many because it has an authentic flavor, and is rustic and pleasing to the palate,” says Rodríguez. “Many prepare it with boiled plantain, but this recipe uses fried bananas that then combine with the remaining ingredients.”

Ingredients:
3 green plantains, peeled * (see tips below)
Vegetable oil sufficient for frying the plantains
3 Tbsp. olive oil
4 Tbsp. sofrito
3 cloves of garlic (minced)
8 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1–2 Tbsps. chopped cilantro for garnish

Directions:
1. Peel the plantains, cut them into one-inch-thick pieces, and soak in salted water for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, you may prepare the soup broth (step three).
2. Drain and pat dry the plantains. In a skillet, heat oil and fry the plantains for about 12 minutes at medium-high until golden brown, making sure you turn them at about six minutes. Remove them from the oil, drain them well on paper towel, and proceed to mash them using a pilón (mortar and pestle).
3. In a deep pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Once hot, add the crushed garlic and cook until soft. Then add the sofrito and cook for two minutes. Finally, add the chicken or vegetable broth and cook until it boils.
4. Add the plantains, mix well, simmer for about three minutes and reduce the heat. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes or until thickened.
5. Add the cilantro. You can sprinkle with Parmesan cheese if desired.
6. Process half the soup in a blender** to make a purée. Return soup to pot and mix well with the rest of the soup that still contains bits of plantains.*** Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Note:  If you prefer a creamy soup without chunks of plantain, do not attempt to process the whole batch in the blender. You’ll have to do it in two parts.

Tips:
* To peel plantains follow these guidelines:
   • Cut the ends of the banana.
   • Make four cuts along the peel of each piece with the tip of a knife.
   • Soak in ice water for three to five minutes to loosen the shell.
   • Remove from the water and peel it.

** Caution: If the soup is hot, be careful when using the blender. Remove the liquid from the heat and let cool for five minutes. Fill the blender only halfway, place the lid slanted so the steam escapes, press the pulse button two or three times to let out some steam.

*** If soup is too thick, you can more broth.

Tembleque
“As its Spanish name implies, the tembleque is a dessert that trembles,” explains Rodríguez. “It is made with coconut milk and sprinkled with cinnamon to give a special flavor. Although it is firm like a jelly, it has a creamy consistency. The Puerto Ricans make it mostly for the Christmas holidays (winter), but you can enjoy it any time of year.”

“Our grandmothers made it with real coconut milk, meaning that they opened a coconut and prepared the milk by themselves,” Rodríguez explains. “Today, we have the alternative of using canned coconut milk. No matter how you choose to do it, surely you will love the smooth taste of sweetened coconut and its consistency of this special dessert.”

Ingredients:
4 cups coconut milk
1/2 cup maicena (cornstarch)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
cinnamon for garnish

Directions:
1. Add the cornstarch, salt, and 1/2 cup coconut milk in a bowl. With a whisk, mix the ingredients until smooth. Make sure there are no lumps in the mixture. The consistency should be smooth and even.
2. In a large pot that is at room temperature, pour the remaining coconut milk (3 1/2 cups). Add sugar and mix well.
3. Turn the heat to medium until the mixture boils.
4. As soon as it begins to boil, add the prepared cornstarch mixture. Turn the heat to low and stir constantly for three to five minutes until it begins to thicken. Make sure there are no lumps in the mixture—this step is very important.
5. When the mixture just begins to thicken (do not let it thicken too much), turn off the heat and remove the pot from the burner.
6. Pour the mixture in bowls, glass, bowls, or molds.
7. Sprinkle with a pinch of cinnamon and cool until it reaches room temperature.
8. Place the containers in the refrigerator covered with plastic wrap. The plastic wrap prevents the formation of a thick crust on top of the tembleque.
9. Once cool, the tembleque is ready to serve and enjoy.

Serving suggestions:
“The tembleque is a dessert that looks good and is equally appropriate for formal parties or for simple family dinners,” says Rodríguez. “It all depends on the presentation used to serve it. You may serve individual portions or in large pan that you will cut into pieces and serve.”

“For a formal party you may serve it in wine glasses, porcelain bowls or fine pottery,” Rodríguez explains. “For a cultural event, you could use rustic wooden bowls or even cups made out of coconut. Use plantain leaves and tropical flowers around the plate to add a tropical feel. If you have an informal activity with friends and family, serve it in small disposable cups in colors that match the theme of the event. Sprinkling it with cinnamon or putting two cinnamon sticks on the dessert is a fine way to adorn this simple dessert.”

Mayra Rodríguez’s personal blog is Estilo Familiar; she is also the editor, writer and co-founder of the patenting site Somos Padres Brillantes.

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