Woodfired plate by Roger Baumann. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
The preparation of many dishes that are close to my heart begin with a simple ritual: chop an onion, chop some pepper, mash two garlic cloves, set a handful of washed cilantro aside, heat a little oil in a heavy cast iron pan, add the onions, add the peppers and the garlic and then lovingly stir and watch over this mix until the onions become glossy and the aroma fills the kitchen. The simple preparation of these ingredients is the base to many Puerto Rican dishes and it is called sofrito.
I learned this ritual in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a young girl. When it was time to cook at Mima’s house I would grab hold of the pilón (mortar and pestle) to mash the garlic and help her prepare the sofrito. This ritual became second nature and when it was time for me to start cooking, these were the ingredients that I naturally stocked in my kitchen. Back then, my sofrito consisted of these ingredients: a yellow onion, one half a green bell pepper, two cloves of garlic and a handful of fresh chopped cilantro – these were the ingredients that were available in most grocery stores in Montana. This sofrito would flavor anything from arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and empanadilla filling to habichuelas guisadas (stewed pink beans).
It has always been my belief that rice and beans is the measure of a Puerto Rican cook and in my family, Mima has always won the ‘best beans award’. For over fifteen years, I have been trying to make Mima’s beans but was never quite satisfied with the results – my beans were good, but were definitely missing that Mima quality. So, last year when Angelica and I visited my grandparents, I asked Mima to please show us exactly how she made her beans. I took notes.
What I learned was that the secret to Mima’s beans is her sofrito. She uses fresh local ingredients which include: yellow onion, pimiento del pais (green cubanelle pepper), ají dulce (small sweet peppers), garlic, culantro (also known in Puerto Rico as recao) and cilantro. The flavors of the local peppers and herbs, especially that of the ají dulces and the culantro really give the sofrito that “grandma’s garden” taste that I was missing by using bell peppers.
Although sometimes hard to find, cubanelle peppers, ají dulce and culantro can be found in some latin markets. In New York City you can usually find these ingredients in any grocery store in Spanish Harlem or at the Essex Market in the Lower East Side, which has a great selection of fresh latin ingredients. Now anytime I want to make rice and beans, I make a special trip just to get these ingredients. The flavor payoff of making sofrito with the right ingredients is well worth the effort.
Puerto Rican Ají Dulces. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
Note: Ají dulces are small colorful peppers that have a strong herbal flavor, they are not spicy. However, they can be easily confused with a very spicy pepper like the habanero because they are similar in size and coloration. Be careful when selecting them or ask your grocer to make sure they are ají dulces. Learn more about the ají dulce here. Learn more about culantro and cubanelle peppers.
Cubanelle peppers in Ponce’s Plaza del Mercado market. Photo by Marta Bartolomei Edmonds.
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 green cubanelle pepper, seeded and finely diced
3 ají dulces, seeded and finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced or mashed with a mortar and pestle
3 culantro leaves, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast iron skillet over medium heat until the oil begins to ripple. Add the onions and stir to cook until they become glossy but still crisp in texture. Add the cubanelle peppers, ají dulces, garlic and cook for a few minutes longer until the ingredients begin to release their aroma and the onion becomes transparent and soft, add the culantro and half the chopped cilantro (see note).
Note: Sofrito is the base to many dishes. This basic preparation will be followed by your main ingredients and finished off with cilantro. In some cases, you will also add annatto to the sofrito. I prefer to add the final half of the fresh cilantro toward the end of the cooking process to brighten the flavor of the dish.