I cannot leave my tropical tales without including a reminder of a quite unusual experience – one which always leaves me with mixed emotion each time I recall it. Yes – I think I’ll end our little mental journey by sharing this experience – I think it worthy of that.
We left our hotel one morning soon after coming uptown, and found ourselves wandering the streets when we came on a bus station – one thing led to another, and before we had time to even think much about our actions, we found ourselves on a bus to Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city. I think we did this because Puerto Rico is not an especially large island country, and the bus was scheduled to return later that evening to San Juan – and because they was a well publicized Easter parade scheduled in Ponce that afternoon. Being young and spontaneous, we of course thought nothing of such a decision.
Puerto Rico’s interior is somewhat mountainous – not severe, but steep enough to warrant concern for two innocents taking their first Latin American bus ride. It was a good introduction to the Latin culture of wild bus rides – what I remember most was the driver’s habit of taking the sharp curves by simply moving into the oncoming lane while at the same time, leaning on his horn, as if this would prevent any potential disaster. When I myself would later drive in Mexico, I identified this driving philosophy as “courteous aggression”, a distinct Latin driving invention.
Ponce is a nice enough place – quite unlike San Juan – much more reflective of the Spanish influence of the country. Our trip over was the first time I remember seeing the, now familiar, Latin American town plaza, with huge Cuban Laurel trees, and the quintessential cathedral on its edge. The parade was entirely a religious event, with only one float, carrying what I’d guess was the local cathedral’s statue of the Virgin Mary, and several nearly nude young guys lugging huge crosses. Even though it looked like everyone was invited to join in, the parade was over almost before it began! Not exactly a New York City style Easter parade, but interesting just the same – and I swear there must have been 1000s involved and watching.
It was about 5 PM, and the bus was scheduled to leave for San Juan at about 6, so we strolled around the city square for a bit, and made our way to the bus stop. Six o’clock came and went, as did seven. We began to worry a little – and then I remembered! These were the days before we carried credit cards, and we had left ALL of our traveler’s checks in the hotel security safe (this is what you did in those old days!). All we had now was about $15, maybe enough to eat, but certainly not enough for anything else. OK, now we can start really worrying!
As we stood there in apparent shock, a woman nearby came over and said in English, “I think you may not know what all the people here are saying, they’re saying that the bus will not be coming this evening – the next time it will come is tomorrow morning.” Sure enough, everyone who had been waiting with us was now leaving. We must have looked in complete shock, for the woman said, “Can I help you with anything?” We then explained to her how dumb we were to come here on the bus without any of our traveler’s checks, and how we didn’t have enough to get a hotel for the night.
“Oh please, don’t worry about that – you can come to my house for tonight – I will be more than happy to have you stay with me. No, don’t worry about that.”
We didn’t know what to say! It’s one of those times when the kindness of others leaves you speechless. I think I finally said something like, “But why would you do that?”
“Because we would all help each other, and you are our guest here. Why not?
Our benefactor told us her name was Maria, and she took us over to meet the rest of her family who had been waiting for the bus with her – her sister, Belina, and her daughter, Isabella. The five of us squeezed into their Volkswagen bug, the car of choice in P.R., and left for Maria’s house.
On the way, Maria told us that her husband had long ago joined the U.S. Merchant Marines, and that they had lived in NYC for many years – only recently had they returned to their homeland. Maria’s daughter, Isabella, had just completed her high school education in NYC, which she accomplished while living with relatives up there. Maria explained that due to the unique relationship of Puerto Rico and the U.S., citizens of Puerto Rico could receive a free high school education in the U.S., as long as they could afford the travel and living expenses to do so.
We soon arrived at Maria’s house, a very simple little wooden place in a small community of similar homes, but very neat and clean as a pin. As Belina and Isabella got busy in the kitchen making something for dinner, Maria proudly showed us her house. “And this is my bedroom”, she said, “This is where you’ll stay tonight.” Of course, we argued that there was no need to do that, but Maria would have none of that. “No! This is your bedroom while you’re my guests – this is my guest bedroom!”
We soon found ourselves in the kitchen, where Belina gave us a lesson in Puerto Rican cuisine. “Come, I’ll show you how to make Puerto Rican Red Beans”, and our lesson began – and I’ll share it with you too.
Puerto Rican Red Beans
(or Black Beans, or any kind of beans!)
Belina began by telling us that no beans are cooked in Puerto Rico unless they contain sofrito. And after giving us very specific instructions on how to make sofrito, she looked at us and said, “Everybody’s sofrito is different – and they’ll all tell you that their’s is the best!” If I wrote Belina’s recipe, I’ve long since lost it – so here is my version, and I will not tell you it’s the best – but it’s pretty damn good!
The Sofrito: There really are no rules for sofrito – it just has to give your dish a flavor blast – so make it as aggressive as you wish. It should have plenty of:
Green Pepper, diced
A goodly dose of Cilantro, chopped
And all P.R. Sofrito will have something called Culantro, aka, Recao, a relative of Cilantro, but different enough to make a taste difference if absent! If you can’t find any, your beans will still taste great!
A bit of Hot Pepper, if you wish, but it’s not necessary.
Tomato Sauce, Paste, or a fresh Tomato, chopped (optional).
Enough Olive Oil to bathe all the above at a medium simmer for 10-15 minutes, until all is soft and aromatic.
(I make no apologies for not including suggested amounts above – we learn to cook by instinct – all good cooks learn that way, and that’s the way you’ll feel good about your creations!)
The Beans: You could use canned beans, as Belina did that night – especially if you’re pressed for time. But cooking red beans from scratch will give you the most flavor in this dish. I’ll give you directions for the dried beans – but if you use canned, just cut the water to about 1/2 cup or so, and reduce your cooking time.
Put 2 Tbs Olive Oil in a large, heavy pot – a dutch oven is perfect
Add a ¼ cup or a ½ cup of your sofrito (your choice!)
Add 1 tsp of ground cumin and 1 tsp crushed dried oregano
Add 2 bay leaves
Add a small can (about 8 oz) tomato sauce
Add12 ozs of washed and sorted dried red beans (or 1 large, or 2 reg sized cans of cooked beans)
Add 3 cups water (only if using dried beans)
Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer while covered for 2 hours.
Remove 2 cups of cooked beans, with some juice, into a large heavy bowl and with a large, heavy spoon, mash the beans against the sides of the bowl.
Return the mashed beans to the large pot of cooked beans, and continue cooking until they are nice and soft, and the juice has thickened into a sauce – maybe a 1/2 hour, maybe a bit more.
Taste the beans – if they don’t have enough flavor for you, add some more sofrito!
Serve this over rice, and with a nice salad. That’s all that Maria and Belina did, and it makes a superb dinner – and a perfect introduction to Puerto Rican cuisine.