In Puerto Rico, finger licking cuisine helps to boost agriculture

As Peter Jordens warns, “Another article that may cause homesickness.” Yes, indeed! Laura Dowrich-Phillips (Loop News) describes the cuisine of Puerto Rico and interesting spots in San Juan to try the island’s culinary delights, as well as farm-to-table programs and companies, such as Flavor Food Tours, that offer culinary walking tours.

Sofrito. That was the first thing part of our group was instructed to make in the private dining room of Cocina Abierta in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Laid out before the group of mainly US journalists were mortars, pestles and an assortment of finely chopped ingredients. We were there to make or at least assist in making, our own dinner, part of the culinary experience Discover Puerto Rico and Mesa Redonda PR had in store for us.

Sofrito, explained Chef Stephanie Haddock, is the basis of all dishes on the island. She explained the ingredients before us, brandishing cilantro, onions, an assortment of peppers, and garlic from a bowl.

Sofrito, it turns out, is what some of us in the Caribbean refer to simply as green seasoning, which is used to season meats, stews and most dishes.

Though a US territory, Puerto Rico is undoubtedly a Caribbean island and shares a similar history to the rest of the region.

Originally inhabited by the Taino Indians, who called the island Borinquén, and referred to themselves as Boricua, Puerto Rico went under Spanish rule after Christopher Columbus landed on its shores in 1493. Under Spanish rule, slaves from Africa were brought to the island to work on sugar cane plantations. As a result of its history and mix of cultures, the ingredients used in Puerto Rican cuisine resemble much of that in the region. Plantains, avocados, cassava, guava, passion fruit and papaya can be found in so many dishes from entrees to snacks.

Our meal at Cocina Abierta started with a simple tasty salad of tomatoes, onions and the most visually appealing Avocados I have seen in a long time.

The appetizer was Alcapurria, a fritter made with ground beef, sofrito wrapped in a dough made of grated cassava and yam. This reminded me of the beef pies back home in Trinidad and Tobago, which are made of seasoned ground beef wrapped in flour dough and fried.

The main course turned out to be a traditional Christmas meal for Puerto Ricans, rice cooked with pigeon peas, local pork sausages and plantain accompanied with slices of tender roasted pork.

Dessert was a Tembleque, a sort of flan made with coconut, cinnamon and oranges.

At Cocina Abierta, and practically every eating establishment we visited such as Marcella Restaurant, there is a huge emphasis on the use of locally grown produce. Chef Jose Sanchez at Marcella told us they try to push the envelope with new dishes using local produce but some are hard to come by when they are not in season. Martin Louzao, the executive chef and owner of Cocina Abierta, is helping to boost the agriculture sector through an app he co-developed called Producé, which connects local farmers to restaurants and households through deliveries straight to your door.

Louzao, together with other chefs on the island, is also spearheading a multi-disciplinary project called Oriundo to preserve and develop the island’s biodiversity and recover indigenous ingredients that have been lost.

Cocina Abierta also supports Puerto Rican artisans such as Lau Pottery whose plates and bowls were in prominent use. [. . .]

Here are some foods you should try when visiting Puerto Rico.

Quesito:  A popular puff pastry stuffed with cheese

Testones: fried plantains

Mofongo: mashed plantains

Tembleque: a pudding made with coconut, cinnamon and oranges

Alcapurria: a fried fritter containing seasoned minced beef wrapped in a dough made with cassava

Pork Rinds: sold in packages as a popular snack

Panatela: a cookie-like cake bar filled with guava and topped with coconut

Pilones: described as the Puerto Rican lollipop made with sesame seeds and candy.

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