Let’s Make Puerto Rican Food Tonight
A cook shares her classic, super-tasty sofrito seasoning, Shrimp in Creole Sauce, and Rice and Pigeon Peas
Article and recipes by Reina Gascon-Lopez. Photos by Brittany Conerly
Sofrito represents my roots, my homeland, and my culture. It represents my people. Sofrito, a seasoning blend made of finely chopped bell peppers, onion, garlic, fresh herbs, and tomatoes, is the foundation of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine.
The smell of sofrito hitting a little bit of hot oil instantly brings back countless childhood memories from spending time in Puerto Rico. It reminds me of being with my mom and abuela in the kitchen making amazing meals for the family. It reminds me of picking green plantains and shucking pigeon peas on a hill outside of my abuelo's mountainside home. It reminds me that the hard work and satisfaction of cooking a meal for someone you love is its own reward.
These days, living in Charleston, South Carolina, I keep a batch of sofrito on hand in the freezer at all times to remind me of home, and so I'm ready to cook up homestyle Puerto Rican recipes even on a weeknight. Cubes made in an ice cube tray are my go-to. I'd like to share my recipe for sofrito with you, as well as two of my favorite ways to use it, Shrimp in Creole Sauce (Camarones a la Criolla) and Rice and Pigeon Peas (Arroz con Gandules). But first, let's talk a little more about Puerto Rican cooking.
Jump ahead to:
Puerto Rican cuisine and sofrito
Puerto Rican cuisine, affectionately known as comida criolla on the island, is influenced by three different cultures: the indigenous Taíno, the Spanish, and enslaved Africans who were brought to work sugar cane plantations. With its blended roots, Puerto Rican cuisine showcases its vast variety while staying true to its culinary foundations.
Just about every dish starts with sofrito. The seasoning blend has the ability to turn a truly humble dish like rice and peas into something magical by coaxing tremendous flavor out of our food. This simplicity/complexity is what I love most about Puerto Rican food and why I love sharing it with others.
While similar seasoning blends can be found in cuisines from all over the world (they may go by different names, like French mirepoix or New Orleans’ holy trinity), the freshness and herbaceousness of sofrito make it special. With all these blends, though, the overall use as a foundation has the same end result: flavor.
Ingredients for authentic Puerto Rican cooking
For these recipes, you’ll find most ingredients at a regular supermarket, but for a few (the ones shown here), you may need to look in your store’s Latin section, go to a specialty Latin market, or shop online.
Fresh culantro. My sofrito uses both fresh cilantro and culantro. Culantro (at left in the photo above) is similar to cilantro but with a stronger flavor. It can often be found in Latin and Asian food stores and goes by other names such as recao, shadow benni, or sawtooth herb. If you can’t find culantro, you can easily substitute more cilantro.
Sazón seasoning. Sazón is an annatto-based spice mixture often used in Puerto Rican cuisine. It imparts a yellow or orange color to many of our dishes. I especially like the all-natural sazón made by Loisa, sold only online, but you can also get the more-available version made by Goya.
Ají dulce peppers. These small, sweet fresh peppers (shown above) resemble Scotch bonnet peppers in size, shape, and color but are not spicy. They’re sweeter and smokier in flavor. I can never find them fresh in the U.S., so I actually grow my own! You probably won’t find them, so they’re totally optional in the sofrito recipe. But if you come across them, add a handful.
Canned pigeon peas. Also called gandules, these are a small dried bean that are essential for Arroz con gandules. These are easy to track down!
How to make and use sofrito
The base of all Puerto Rican cuisine, sofrito is an herby, aromatic sauce that will add a ton of flavor to anything that you’re cooking. Making a big batch helps get the prep out of the way and then you’ll have it at your fingertips.
In addition to Arroz con Gandules and Camarones a la Criolla, I love using sofrito when making other Latin-based dishes like fajitas, different rices, and beans. I also add sofrito to my soups and curries — pretty much any recipe where you’d use peppers and onions, you can add a cube or two of sofrito in their place. That’s why I make large batches, because I use it in almost any dish I make that has those same aromatics.
1. Gather your ingredients and give them a rough chop
Combine chopped yellow onion, green onions, green pepper, red pepper, garlic cloves, cilantro, and culantro in a large mixing bowl.
2. Blend the vegetables into a sauce
Working in batches, blend about one-third of the vegetables at a time in a food processor or blender with about ¼ cup water per batch to create a very finely chopped sauce or paste, similar to pesto or chimichurri.
3. Season the sofrito, and store
Once all of the sofrito is blended, season with salt, black pepper, sazón, and olive oil. You can store sofrito in plastic containers but my favorite way is to freeze it in ice cube trays and transfer them to a zip-top freezer bag for easy use when cooking.
4. Sauté the sofrito until fragrant and toasty
Each time you want to cook with sofrito, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven or frying pan and add a few tablespoons of sofrito. Let it cook a few minutes until it's fragrant and toasty to develop all the flavors. Now you're ready to make the rest of your dish! Ready for the recipe?
Rice and pigeon peas: comfort food at its best
Known as Puerto Rico’s national dish, Arroz con Gandules is mellow, gently seasoned stewed rice and pigeon peas (a small dried bean). Traditionally served during the holidays or for special occasions, it can easily be made during a busy work week as in this recipe, with already prepared sofrito and canned pigeon peas.
Ingredients for rice and pigeon peas. You don't need much! A can of pigeon peas, some jasmine rice, vegetable broth or water, and the seasonings: sofrito, capers, sazón, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Including some pork such as bacon is traditional, but I also enjoy a vegan version made with a little extra olive oil.
How to make arroz con gandules. You're going to start by browning the bacon and then sizzling the sofrito. Next add the pigeon peas with their liquid, sazón, and garlic powder. Let the mixture come up to a boil. Then add the rice and stir, making sure that all of the rice is coated with the pigeon pea sauce. Once the rice gets a little toasty, add the liquid, reduce the heat, and let it cook, covered, until the liquid is absorbed.
Rice and pigeon peas is great served with fried plantains and your favorite protein, or enjoyed solo!
Treat yourself to shrimp in Creole sauce
Creole sauce is a richly flavorful tomato-based sauce that was introduced to Puerto Rican cuisine by the Spanish. It’s often found in other cuisines, particularly New Orleans’s Creole food (hence, the name). It’s great for braising, and we often use it as a base for other soups and stews in Puerto Rican cuisine.
In this version, the salsa criolla (Creole sauce) comes together easily with the help of fresh sofrito and pantry staples. Add some shrimp, and you have yourself a quick and delicious weeknight meal.
Ingredients for shrimp in Creole sauce. The ingredient list might look long, but you may already have many on hand: some sofrito; vegetable broth; canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, and paste; onion; shrimp; a few seasonings: sazón, capers, bay leaf, smoked paprika, oregano, salt, and pepper; and a little cornstarch.
How to make camarones a la Criolla. As usual, you're going to start by toasting the sofrito in some olive oil to bring out its flavors. Then you'll saute the onion with capers and seasonings. Make a sauce with the broth and tomatoes and cook it down to concentrate the flavors. During the last few minutes, add the shrimp and simmer until translucent, and then thicken with the cornstarch mixed with some water.
For a fancier presentation, you could split and butterfly the shrimp before cooking, but that’s totally optional. You could also substitute bite-size chunks of firm fish such as cod or snapper for the shrimp. Traditionally, Creole sauce is served on top of mofongo, a garlicky fried mashed green plantain dish. But my favorite way to enjoy salsa criolla is with white rice and fried ripe plantains.
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