Is it coffee–or is it Puerto Rican coffee?!

By Larry Fleisher – Puerto Rico

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends, Issue #86, Summer 2008)

As in much of the world, in Puerto Rico, we start our day with a cup of coffee, but it’s not the usual cup of coffee. We drink extremely strong coffee, brewed from beans grown in our mountain towns, and roasted locally. Each mountain town bean has a slightly different taste with a vociferous following. Some prefer their coffee with hot milk, café con leche, similar to café au lait but with a distinctly more coffee taste than its French counterpart. Locally-grown coffee has a world-wide following. It is said that our coffee is the favorite in the Vatican.

When Alain Chapel, the deceased owner/chef of the eponymous three-star restaurant in Mionnay, 20 kilometers north of Lyon, realized that I was from Puerto Rico, he anticipated receiving four pounds of our mutual local favorite from the mountain town of Utuado. I, in turn, anticipated a special menu including his signature dish, poulette de Bresse en vessie. We both preferred a pocillo, a demi-tasse size, concentrated coffee serving. The next time that you are in San Juan and would like to enjoy a very good cup of Puerto Rican coffee, try the Bombonera Cafeteria on San Francisco Street. Have it with a mallorca, a sweet roll, named after the island where it originated. You are sure to enjoy it, but that’s another story.

Before we can eat, or prepare food, we have to have the ingredients at hand. In practically all the towns and cities on the island, there are open-air markets, plazas de mercados in the local jargon. There a large variety of fruits, vegetables, fish and meats are available.

You might want to start with another cup of coffee and a portion of bread and butter, not an unusual breakfast for many. Locally baked bread is made fresh daily, early in the morning. The warm loaves are thicker than baguettes and about the same length. There are two varieties: pan de agua, which is lighter, and pan de obrero, which is more substantial. In Spanish, pan means bread, agua is water and obrero is laborer. The taste of our bread is unique. It’s not as salty as Roman bread but not as bland as bread from Florence. Sliced about 11/2 inches thick, then lightly buttered on both sides and toasted, it’s a special treat. You’ll probably be back for seconds and we’re just getting started.

Now we’re ready to look around the market. Since rice and beans are a constant in almost all local meals, we can start with them. White rice, usually long grain and polished, although not the healthiest, is the favorite by far. It’s made by cooking in a large pot, locally called a caldero, after adding water, salt, usually pumpkin and various forms of lard.

Now it’s time to choose the beans. Any variety has probably been used before. The most commonly used are large red beans. Oddly enough, the most popular brand has been known as Marca Diablo. That’s correct if you’re catching up with your high school Spanish. Its literal meaning is “The Devil’s Brand!” There are several other brands that have become popular in recent years.

Salt codfish is a local favorite prepared in many ways. My preferred method is known as Serenata, when prepared with a variety of viandas, which are tubers with unusual names, such as malanga, ñame, patata and yuca. Friday is the day it is most commonly made. For centuries the fish was salted to preserve it before refrigeration was available. It was a humble food which has now become more of a delicacy as scarcity has made it more desirable and expensive.

Plantains are another local staple. They look like oversized green bananas but don’t taste like bananas. They are usually prepared by slicing, flattening the slices and then frying, and are called tostones. They may also be served in small cup-like shapes filled with meats, fish or seafood. One variety of plantains is sweet, served fried and called, of all things, Amarillo, which in English means yellow.

Soups are commonly served in Puerto Rico, too. They were formerly used as an entire evening meal when lunch was the main meal, eaten rather leisurely, followed by a siesta, prior to the advent of air-conditioning. Asopaos are analogous to stews, and named as they are because they are soup-like. They are typically made with chicken or shrimp and are especially good on a rare overcast or rainy day.

Chicken, being very popular in it’s many forms, may also be prepared with rice, arroz con pollo. Every cook or chef has his favorite recipe, but all seem to call for coloring the rice with achiote, the orange-colored universally used food dye.

Desserts have a very local flavor. Of course we have pies, cakes and ice cream and sherbet. What we do have that makes them unique are the tropical fruits: mangos, pineapples and papayas are examples. The citrus fruits, oranges and grapefruit, though unpainted as in Florida and California, are usually much sweeter and have a more citrus taste. And then there are coconuts which are a really versatile nut. The milk is an excellent thirst quencher and the meat is made into cakes, sherbet and ice cream.

I’ve worked up an appetite preparing these notes, so it’s time for me to eat. Obviously, I have a more than adequate number of choices, I think I’ll have a serenata, some mango sherbet and finish with a pocillo of black coffee.